Corps Seeks Court Ruling

Court Asked to Rule in Favor of Corps of Engineers in Mississippi River Case

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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A number of conservation groups have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for how it manages the 195-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between St. Louis, Missouri, and Cairo, Illinois. (DTN Photo by Mary Kennedy)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Federal attorneys for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers argue the use of structures to maintain the navigation channel on a 195-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, to Cairo, Illinois, complies with the Rivers and Harbors Act in reply to a lawsuit alleging mismanagement of the channel.

In a cross motion for summary judgement filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern Illinois District, the Corps asked the court to reject complaints of alleged mismanagement of the channel and rule in the government's favor.

The government's motion notes the stretch of the middle Mississippi River between the confluences of the Missouri and the Ohio rivers is an area where Congress tasked the Corps with maintaining navigation primarily by building and maintaining structures that use the river's force to scour a navigation channel. "The Corps used its expertise to review numerous, highly technical elements of the project and adopted an alternative that minimizes both new structures and dredging in a manner that is consistent with Congress's directives."

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 lock and dam 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 projects on the river.

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

The Corps motion was in response to a motion for summary judgement filed by conservation and wildlife groups in March.

That lawsuit alleges recent flooding in the Mississippi River basin could have been avoided had the Corps better managed the stretch of river.

Summary judgement occurs in a civil case when one party wants to move to a court decision without a trial. Such a decision can happen only when two parties agree to the critical facts of a case.

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 lawsuit filed by the National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers, Prairie Rivers Network, Missouri Coalition for the Environment and Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, 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 groups' motion for summary judgement argues the Corps allegedly "failed to consider" alternative approaches that would be less costly to the environment.

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.

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

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.

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

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Todd Neeley