KANSAS CITY — Federal officials are barred from spending money on a Missouri River environmental study for a third straight year under a $1.1 trillion government-wide spending bill.
Missouri Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer introduced the amendment that would prohibit funding for the Missouri River Ecosystem Restoration Plan, a study that conservationists say is needed but farming and levee groups strongly dislike. President Barack Obama signed the spending bill Friday.
The plan "was initially created to prevent habitat loss and recover endangered species but has turned into little more than a federally funded and sanctioned platform for environmental activists who have no regard for our river communities," Luetkemeyer said in a written statement.
The study was authorized in 2007 and was intended to culminate in a plan that would guide restoration and recovery efforts along the river for the next 30 to 50 years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which conducted the study in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spent $16.6 million on the research before funding was yanked after extensive flooding in 2011 led to a backlash against environmental projects.
The flooding began after the corps began releasing massive amounts of water from reservoirs in Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas that had been inundated with melting snow and heavy rains. Many levees in downstream states such as Iowa and Missouri were no match for weeks of sustained pressure and gave way. Homes and farms were damaged or ruined.
Amid the flooding, many farmers claimed that the wildlife restoration efforts had diverted the focus away from flood control — something the corps denies.
Jennifer Switzer, chief of planning for the corps' Kansas City office, said the ongoing defunding of the study limits the agency's ability to take a long-term look at environmental issues.
"Without a long-range study like this, you have a more short-term view of the world and kind of operate on a project-to-project basis or a year-to-year basis," she said.
Goals of the study included looking for ways to restore some of the same functions to the Missouri River as existed before the waterway was dammed and straightened, making it more than 200 miles shorter than the river at the time of Lewis and Clark. Workers also narrowed the channel so the water would flow deeper and faster, helping boat operators and making it self-scouring, which removed the need to dredge it.
But several species have suffered as tens of thousands of acres of shallow-water habitat disappeared. Wild populations of pallid sturgeon, a dinosaur-era relic that can live more than 50 years and weigh up to 80 pounds, are expected to disappear from the Missouri River by 2018. That will leave only hatchery-reared pallid sturgeon in the river.
Tom Ball of the Sierra Club said it's wrong to think that environmental projects come at the expense of flood protection. He said that excavating shallow areas along the main channel for the pallid sturgeon and other wildlife also could make the river less flood-prone, because that new habitat provides more capacity for the waterway in high-flow years.
"A lot of the work that needed to be done has been put on hold," said Ball, who serves on the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, which advises the corps and other federal agencies on river recovery efforts, including the study before it was defunded. The committee's members include eight states, several American Indian tribes and people representing interests such as navigation, irrigation and recreation.
"This," he said of defunding the study, "is not the way to avoid jeopardy."