Confusion delays water projects

The county must get approval to do work.
Sunday, November 23, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:03 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Confusion between Boone County government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has delayed about 20 county maintenance projects in the past year alone.

It’s a situation that has county officials frustrated and grappling for a solution.

Before the county can do any maintenance work on a body of water, they must determine that the body of water does not fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The lack of an explicit definition of the corps’ jurisdiction, however, has county officials sending in applications for all projects, which costs more money and time.

“I don’t know if the public understands that requirement, and so they say, ‘Why don’t you get this done?’” said David Nichols, manager of design and construction for Boone County Public Works. “And well, it’s like, ‘We’re waiting on approval.’”

In the past, county officials relied on a blue line on geological maps to determine whether a stream fell under the corps’ jurisdiction. If the stream was not designated by a blue line, they assumed it would fall under an existing nationwide permit and carried on with the project without applying for special corps permission.

In June 2002, for example, the county began modifying a stream channel in Georgetown subdivision off Scott Boulevard, assuming the project would not fall under corps jurisdiction. The project called for a stormwater pipe to be extended and buried and for a tributary of Gooden Branch to be widened to accommodate a larger culvert.

The corps, however, unexpectedly claimed jurisdiction over the project, saying it failed to meet conditions of the nationwide permit because it involved destroying the natural condition of a ditch and altering the banks of the tributary.

The project barely met its deadline and almost lost grant money from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

“After Georgetown, since that experience occurred, we thought surely if they’re going to take that one, they’ll take this one. We’re not taking the chance,” Nichols said.

“Not only does it affect our contract work but our in-house work as well,” Nichols added. “For some of our in-house projects, I’ve had to say no because I have to make sure I’m covered under a permit.”

Corps officials said blue lines on maps are not enough anymore to determine whether the county needs a special permit to do work that affects a stream.

“They are a very rough rule of thumb of what might be a water of the U.S. We can’t use them to justify jurisdiction. The corps has to physically look for the high water mark, which signifies the depth of the water,” said Joe Hughes, chief of the regulatory branch for the Kansas City District of the Corps of Engineers.

Although counties can do research to determine whether a project falls under a nationwide permit, Hughes said it’s easier to simply submit applications for individual projects. Even when Boone County does that, however, Nichols said the corps is slow to act.

It took the corps three months to determine that a county bridge project qualified for a nationwide permit. Now that project — a Maupin Lane bridge over Cedar Creek off Route Z and about four miles north of Interstate 70 — remains on hold while the DNR reviews it for compliance with water-quality standards.

Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said a lack of collaboration between the corps and other jurisdictions such as DNR compounds the problem. The county would be ready to begin work on the Maupin Lane bridge if the corps and the DNR had reviewed the project at the same time, Miller said.

“Ideally, I would just like to see it happen to where the jurisdictions in charge could work together so we could move those projects along faster,” Miller said.

Projects that qualify for the corps’ nationwide permit still must be certified by the DNR, Hughes said, and the corps can only waive certification if the DNR’s review takes too long.

While the DNR in the past granted blanket certifications for projects that fell under nationwide permits, its habit of tacking on requirements after the fact caused the corps to end that policy in 2002, Hughes said. The corps is reviewing a revised DNR policy. “We’re in the last stages but can’t really predict when it will happen,” Hughes said.

Hughes said other factors can hinder the corps’ ability to do quick reviews. One is caseload: The Kansas District handles about 2,400 applications per year. The availability of staff and resources, as well as incomplete applications, are also problems.

“We don’t start the clock till we have a complete application,” he said. “We don’t count from the day we get it, so we may have had it for 90 days but it may not have been complete.”

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