KANSAS CITY — A 6-year-old holdup in a national effort to create thousands of acres of shallow-water Missouri River habitat to help an endangered fish species has been resolved.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced this month that it awarded a $3.5 million contract for construction of a shallow-water project at Jameson Island near the village of Arrow Rock in mid-Missouri. A debate over what to do with the dirt excavated to create the new habitat had stalled that project and other ones like it in the state, putting a national effort to provide a refuge for young pallid sturgeon and other native species far behind schedule.
At issue is the corps' effort to recreate about 20,000 acres of slow-moving shallow-water habitat — about 20 percent of the approximately 100,000 acres of shallow-water habitat that disappeared when the river was dammed and straightened and its channel narrowed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the corps to undertake the habitat effort because, while changes to the river aided navigation and improved flood protection, the pallid sturgeon population has dwindled. That puts at risk the future of a dinosaur-era relic that can live more than 50 years and weigh up to 80 pounds.
Controversy arose because the corps wants to put much of the excavated dirt into the river, noting that before the upstream dams and reservoirs were built the Missouri River was about five times muddier than it is today. Farm groups feared that putting the fertilizer-laden soil into the river would contribute to a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Experts blame the low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions primarily on farm fertilizer runoff brought by the Mississippi River, into which the Missouri empties. The nutrients cause oxygen depleting algae blooms, and farmers often get the blame.
However, proponents, including the corps and environmental groups, say researchers have determined the soil dumping won't cause trouble and note the pallid sturgeon evolved to live in large silt-filled rivers.
Nearly 60 percent of the new shallow-water habitat — or 12,000 acres — is supposed to be built in Missouri, where the 2,341-mile river cuts a 543-mile path. But as a result of the debate, only about 3,500 acres of shallow-water habitat have been constructed so far. Much of it has been built in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, where there haven't been objections.
Only a handful of Missouri projects were completed before concerns were raised in 2007 about what the corps was doing with the dirt it was excavating to create a side channel at Jameson Island.
While state officials debated the project, floodwaters washed out the final stretch of dirt needed to reconnect the side channel to the river. However, farmers complain water exiting the side channel re-enters the river in such a way that it erodes a levee that protects farmland. Although the corps says the levee concerns are overstated, it offered to extend the side channel and change the way the water re-enters the rivers.
But permit discussions and the wait for an environmental study had stalled fixes to Jameson Island and construction of other side channel shallow-water habitat projects planned for Missouri. Ultimately, the National Academy of Sciences found in 2010 that the corps' plans to place more soil into the river wouldn't significantly affect the dead zone in the gulf.
With those results in hand, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was on the verge of issuing a water quality certification for the Jameson Island project in January when the agency abruptly withdrew it, announcing it would take no action. Ultimately, the corps classified the state's inaction as a waiver, allowing the project to move forward. Still, to address concerns, the contractor won't discharge the first 18 to 36 inches of topsoil into the river. That's the layer some feared would contain the most fertilizer.
"What I do know is it doesn't have any adverse impacts," said Zach White, the corps' project manager for Jameson Island, noting that water quality isn't affected. "The National Academy of Sciences study found it had a minimal, undetectable effect."
Now that Jameson Island is resolved, the corps is considering starting work next year on one or two other similar projects in Missouri, White said. Sites that are being considered include Cora Island near St. Louis, Cranberry Bend near the Saline County town of Grand Pass and Wolf Creek Bend near the Holt County town of Oregon.
Farmers, however, aren't assured, noting that environmentalists already want more done to reduce fertilizer runoff and animal waste making it into waterways.
"It's ridiculous. They don't have to do that," said Tom Waters chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, of dumping excavated dirt back into the river. "They can dig those chutes and put the soil right on the banks and spread it and seed it down and everyone would be happy."
White said he hopes that as the corps is able to provide data showing that the projects aren't harmful, resistance will weaken.
"We are very excited to get back to work," White said. "This is a very important project for us. It allows us to continue operating the river the way we do."