Groups Seek Ruling in Miss. River Case

Wildlife Groups Say Middle Mississippi in Steep Ecological Decline

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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OMAHA (DTN) -- Conservation and wildlife groups asked a federal court to issue a summary judgment in their lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that alleges recent flooding in the Mississippi River basin could have been avoided had the Corps better managed a 195-mile stretch of the river from Cairo, Illinois, to St. Louis, Missouri.

The environmental groups want the federal courts to slow down Corps of Engineers projects with more detailed environmental reviews of the impact on wildlife.

The Mississippi River is the most critical export channel in the U.S. for agricultural goods, accounting for 57% of corn exports and 59% of soybean exports, according to a 2019 USDA report. That study called for more investment in locks and dams infrastructure over the next decade to maintain a competitive advantage in agricultural exports to key markets such as China. Those increased infrastructure investments, however, are tied directly to Corps of Engineer projects on the river, most of which have already been identified by the Corps.

If the lawsuit succeeds, infrastructure development on the river could slow down.

Flooding along the Mississippi River has led to disruptions in agriculture supply chains and caused damage to farm ground in several states.

The Mississippi River has experienced a series of historic floods in recent years, clogging up barge traffic, flooding towns and cities, and damaging farm ground along the river.

The federal government has until Monday to file briefs in response to the groups' motion in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois East St. Louis.

Summary judgment is a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party without a full trial. Summary judgments may be issued on the merits of an entire case, or on distinct issues in a case.

The lawsuit points to the continued construction of river-training structures as a reason for narrowing river channels in the Middle Mississippi River. River-training structures include dikes, weirs and chevrons, and placement of bank-hardening works known as "revetments."

The motion argues the Corps allegedly "failed to consider" alternative approaches that would be less costly to the environment.

The lawsuit was brought by the National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers, Prairie Rivers Network, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, https://www.dtnpf.com/….

The groups have asked the court for a review of the Corps' record of decision on its project designed to scour a navigation channel 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide in the Middle Mississippi River.

The lawsuit alleges the Corps' project does not follow the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1927 that forbids the construction of training structures that narrow the river to less than 2,000 feet, because "doing so destroys the river's natural meanders and side-channel habitat diversity, and decreases the channel's capacity to handle high flows, resulting in more frequent and severe flooding."

The groups said in their motion the project narrows the river to 1,500 feet or less, in violation of the law.

The environmental groups want an injunction ordering the Corps to prepare an environmental review of the project to include "reasonable alternatives."

The groups also ask the court to issue an injunction enjoining the Corps from approving new river training structures until full reviews are conducted.

Congress established limits on what is called the Regulating Works Project. Once the river was contracted to a width of 2,000 to 2,500 feet, the Corps is required to maintain the navigation channel "only through dredging as needed," the lawsuit contends. The Corps approved the current project in August 2017.

The groups said the contraction has "resulted in significant additional environmental harm and flood stage increases" than what was authorized by Congress.

The Mississippi River watershed drains about 1.2 million square miles, including all or parts of 32 states.

The groups said the Corps has built "hundreds of miles" of training structures. Those have increased flood heights by up to 15 feet in some locations and from 6 to 8 feet in stretches of the Middle Mississippi.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has documented 193 species of migratory birds in or around the project area. In addition, about 140 species of fish live in the section of the river, including the endangered pallid sturgeon.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley