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Big Muddy projects challenged

Thursday, October 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:22 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A cease and desist order has halted construction on two Missouri River habitat restoration projects.

The order, issued by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Clean Water Commission to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month, was met with a brief acknowledgment of receipt but no promise to comply.

The Clean Water Commission said the corps's construction methods on restoration projects have allowed sediment to enter the Missouri River.

The corps said it has complied with all applicable permits.

As part of habitat restoration efforts, the corps has designed 14 shallow-water projects that the Clean Water Commission has taken issue with - eight of which have already been completed, two of which are under construction and four of which are in the design and planning stages.

For a river nicknamed the Big Muddy, a bit more dirt in the water may not seem like a big issue, but under state and federal law, all sediment - including dirt - qualifies as a pollutant.

Whether dirt is moved manually by equipment or naturally through wind and water, the commission finds the corps culpable.

The commission ordered that soil moved as part of any habitat restoration project "will not enter the waters of Missouri now or in the future."

The corps projects take soil erosion into account as part of the design and depend on it to widen new side channels and help create shallow-water habitats.

The corps has stopped construction on both of the active sites, Jameson Island near Arrow Rock and Rush Bottom Bend in Holt County. But the agency has made no guarantee that it will meet the commission's demands.

"We do not identify any issues that would preclude us from continuing work," Col. Roger Wilson, District Commander for the corps' Kansas City District, said in a September letter to the commission.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the land being used for several of the restoration projects, including three corps-constructed side channels in the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Excess dirt in the river doesn't raise any biological red flags for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The Missouri River has always carried a significant sediment load," said Wedge Watkins, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Columbia. But over the past 100 years, he said, the sediment level has dropped substantially.

"Plants and animals have evolved and adapted to those high sediment levels," Watkins said.

The corp s' actions came to the attention of the Clean Water Commission after Howard County residents saw truckloads of dirt being pushed into the river this spring at Jameson Island.

"We feel that it's grossly unfair that the government is allowed to (put dirt in the river) when the rest of us are not," said Kristin Perry, an attorney and Clean Water commissioner.

In April of this year, the corps requested that its Jameson Island contractors stop pushing dirt directly into the river and instead pile it alongside the 1.8-mile excavated side channel.

But neither the Clean Water Commission nor the Fish and Wildlife Service views the piling of dirt along the side channels as satisfactory.

The goal of a shallow-water side channel like Jameson Island is to allow the river to freely expand back into parts of its floodplain, Watkins explained, and piling the dirt in berms "will inhibit that."

For now, the earthen berm of excavated soil and yellow machinery remain stationary at the $2.3 million Jameson Island site.

"We're looking to resume (construction)," said Mike George, corps program manager for Missouri River Recovery. "But we will not resume before (the situation) is resolved."

Attorneys for the corps are evaluating the commission's order, George said. A detailed response was promised to the commission during the week of Sept. 24, but it has yet to materialize. As of Wednesday, corps attorneys and the Missouri Attorney General's officials were looking to schedule a meeting to discuss the standoff.


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