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Common sense needed in river management situation

Posted Tuesday, May 1, 2012, at 11:57 AM

It defies common sense.

The Army Corps of Engineers (with help from a 2010 Academy of Science study they commissioned) has found the Missouri River is no longer muddy enough for the pallid sturgeon.

Today, it carries just 20 percent of the sediment load which helped give the river it's muddy nickname.

I would think that is a good thing, but the corps doesn't think so.

In fact, they will be asking the Missouri Clean Water Commission on June 11 for permission to dump about 30 acres of prime Missouri soil into the river. The dumping will occur as they dig a 200-foot, mile-long chute in the Jameson Island Unit of the Fish and Wildlife Services Big Muddy Wildlife Refuge.

In 2008, after the corps built the first chute at Jameson Island and dumped the soil into the river, the commission ordered them to stop, not the chutes, but the dumping. After all, a citizen would be fined heavily for doing the same thing.

Here in Missouri, soil conservation is important -- in fact, we lead the nation in soil conservation efforts. Since 1984, all of us have been paying a soil and water conservation tax totaling more than $40 million a year. With that tax and in cooperation with the Soil Water Conservation districts, more than 148 million tons of soil have been saved.

But this and the 20,000 acres of shallow water habitat the corps plans to build would put a whopping 822 million tons of soil into the river.

At a public meeting on April 17, Wayne McReynolds, longtime Saline County soil conservationist summed it up best.

"I've been working for 38 years trying to save the soil and they dump more dirt in the river in one year than we've saved in 38 years," he said.

Soil conservation is something farmers and soil conservationists like McReynolds take seriously.

Despite that, over and over we hear news reports blaming "modern farming" for over applying fertilizers and causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The truth is we don't over apply fertilizers. They are expensive. We even use GPS technology to put precisely the amount of fertilizers needed for each field. And we know our soil is precious, everything we have is wrapped up in ensuring it is still there for the next generation and the next and the next...

Missouri River bottom soil is naturally high in fertilizer, especially phosphate and potash. Most bottomland farmers don't have to add much fertilizer to grow high-yielding crops.

According to Kristin Perry, who was chairman of the Clean Water Commission in 2008, the soil the corps wants to dump into the river with their proposed chute projects has the phosphorus nutrient ability to grow food for 20 million people for a year.

The fear the phosphorus and potash will add to Gulf hypoxia (and we will be blamed for it) is why most farmers are adamant that this dumping should not be allowed. After all, phosphorus is one of the limiting factors when applying hog manure to fields. Farmers are fined heavily if it gets into nearby waterways.

The corps does have other options. They can still dig the chute, which is needed to stop erosion on the adjacent bank. They can side cast the soil onto the adjacent wetlands and riparian areas on Jameson Island. However, they say that would damage wildlife there.

What about the wildlife on down the river?

What about the wildlife losing habitat as acre after acre of river banks -- and longstanding trees -- are washed down the river because of notched dikes.

Perry's figures don't account for those lost acres of fertile soil along the river. Over and over, farmers have asked the corps to fix the notches they placed in the dikes in another apparent effort to aid habitat restoration for the pallid sturgeon.

The dikes were originally built to keep the channel self-cleaning, which worked successfully for more than 40 years. But after Congress passed the Missouri River Recovery Program the corps began changing the way it maintained the river, no longer dredging or rocking the channels.

The corps then went along and cut notches in the dikes, allowing water to get trapped and swirl away at the bank, cutting holes up to 100 feet deep next the bank, taking acre after acre of land and trees along the river.

I've seen it for myself, and a quick look at Google Earth shows the notches and the damage. However, at every meeting I've been to, corps officials act like they have never heard the complaint before. Perhaps it's because the truth is, they don't think the Missouri River is muddy enough.

Although it is easy to blame the corps, the truth is they are doing what Congress has mandated them to do, to develop 166,000 acres of Missouri River bottomland for habitat recovery for the pallid sturgeon, piping plover and least tern.

They are also following the money. In an ever-widening discrepancy, the latest budget alloted $90 million for habitat restoration and just $7.6 million for river maintenance.

All of this basically comes down to throwing good money after bad. After spending billions of dollars to build the Missouri River system beginning in the 1940s, they are now systematically tearing that system down.

Since 1990, more than $612 million has been spent on buying up some of the country's most productive farmland and trying to turn it into "natural habitat," or its pre-Lewis and Clark state. At the same time, "nickels and dimes" have been spent on river operation and maintenance.

As a result, the river floods more frequently, which means damage to levees, farmland and homes. The Flood of 2011 alone is expected to cost taxpayers $1 billion.

In the meantime, the Department of Conservation has been very successful in raising pallid sturgeon in hatcheries here in Saline County. But for some reason, that doesn't seem to be good enough. The corps wants them to spawn "naturally."

We have a trillion-dollar deficit in our country. We no longer have the luxury of throwing good money and soil down the river.

We have a population growing daily and expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050.

I don't think "naturally bred" pallid sturgeons are going to solve that problem -- unless we plan on eating them.

But a good levee system allowing the world's most fertile ground to produce to full capacity, a river that can transport crops down the river easily and economically just might help.

As of right now, the corps has agreed to extend the comment period on Jameson Island to June 30. They have also agreed to a public hearing, although the date is not yet set.

Let's ask Congress and the corps to use a little common sense. After all, that's what built this country, not longing for a time long past.

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Thank you salinemg and Smart Dog for your comments.

Both sides of the debate testified before the Missouri Clean Water Commission today. You can watch the testimony at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MinBPEVm_...

-- Posted by Marcia Gorrell on Wed, May 2, 2012, at 10:41 PM

Amen, saline mg.

As I have said before, we are lucky to have Marcia to keep sheding light on this issue.

Personally, I believe her stories regarding the Corps and their budgeting and decision making ought to be getting some kind of national attention by now.

Wait, less than 2% of voters are farmers. I reckon unless we throw money around, there will be no attention.

Anyway, that budget imbalance between habitat and maintenance makes no sense what-so-ever. I'm all for a little habitat creation, but from my chair it looks like those two numbers should be swapped.

This is especially true when private land owners and levee districts must spend money to repair damage done by the Corps irresponsible practices when attempting to do what? Battle mother nature? Good one. Any farmer can tell you that when you get in a fight with her, you lose.

How about you guys at the Corps adopt a "First Do No Harm" policy regarding your activities? Is that too much to ask for? I think not.

I would think consideration of the overall impact on society would be a little wiser choice than the blind following of a course of action regardless of outcome.

With government agencies operating in this manner it is no wonder most of us don't trust them any more.

-- Posted by Smart Dog on Wed, May 2, 2012, at 9:57 AM

I think that the corp and congress (both parties)for that matter have forgotten about the long term goal of food production for the world. Spending this type of money to rescue a fish that is being spawned at Blind Pony and not considering how we are going to feed the worlds population in the future. It is all fine and good to save the sturgon but is the sturgon more important than starving people in the third world? How about the children here in Saline County. Lets spend some of that restoration money on preserving soil to grow crops that can be sold to feed the children in this county that are food insecure. My gosh folks this is a no brainer. The corp is MORALLY bankrupt in these decisions. The money needs to go to help feed people. If not in the third world how about kids in this county. Too many people who live in ivory towers have there you know what up you know where! That is how I see it! DO I HEAR AN AMEN!

-- Posted by salinemg on Tue, May 1, 2012, at 11:30 PM

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