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Farmers, landowners meet with Corps, Fish and Wildlife officials

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Kelly Thorp, right, shows an area in the Baker's Bend mitigation site, where he hoped the levee could be set back away from the Missouri River. Thorp and about 30 farmers and landowners met with approximately eight U.S. Army Corps of Engineer and Fish and Wildlife service officials on Thursday, Nov. 10. It is the first in several meetings to discuss plans for the site in the Grand Pass bottoms, which was purchased by the Corps in 2008.
Even though it was a cold blustery day, a group of about 30 farmers, landowners and legislators met with representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services at Baker's Bend mitigation site in the Grand Pass bottoms.

Corps official David Hoover explained this was the first meeting and step in a longer process of developing a plan to "replace some of the fish and wildlife habitat that was lost" during the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project.

"We need to be working with our adjacent levee districts, get their input and make sure we're not adversely affecting their flood risk management measures," he said.

In 2008, the Corps of Engineers purchased 237 acres at Baker's Bend, which is adjacent to the Cranberry Bend Unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The hearing was to gain "public input and provide information on potential environmental restoration measures."

The site is part of almost 167,000 acres purchased by the government for habitat restoration. It is authorized by Congress under the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 and 1999.

Flood fighting and levee erosion issues from this year's unprecedented 120 plus days of flooding was on the minds of many of those in attendance.

Kelly Thorp specifically asked the officials if they had plans to move the private levee which runs through the property. Thorp is president of the that levee district, which maintains 11 miles of levee along the river. He showed them using their map where "erosion notches" in the dike are causing the river to cut at the levee on the Corps ground.

"The dike deterioration is causing this, it never used to shoot through there," Thorp said. The spot he was talking about was one of several where erosion threatened to cut through the levee this summer, even as river waters receded.

Corps officials indicated that setting back the levee on their land might be possible.

"We are open to those discussions with the landowners here in the bottom to see if that is a possibility," said Hoover.

They also indicated they would pay for the cost of moving the levee, if it was done. Later, when asked, they said they would rebuild the levee according to the levee district's specifications.

"I would say, yes it's important that we would build that to you guy's satisfaction," said Hoover.

Other landowners were interested on whether that would affect their land.

"We are only talking about setting the levee back on the property you already own?," asked another audience member.

"Remember our program is willing sellers. We can't go on somebody's private land and do something without coordinating with them," Hoover said.

Some of the discussion centered on the pallid sturgeon, an endangered species, and one of the animals Fish and Wildlife officials say were affected when the river was channelized in the 1940s and 1950s.

"What's the goal here? Are we trying to make a place for the pallid sturgeon?," one audience member asked.

"This is basically fish and wildlife habitat for the native species we would have found on the Missouri River. The shallow water habitat work, when we can do that, does help us with compliance on our requirements we have on our biological opinion...towards the pallid sturgeon," Hoover said.

Another topic during the meeting, were the dikes, which were put in originally to stabilize the river, and provide a channel for navigation.

Thorp again said "erosion notches" put in the dikes were one of the biggest problems they had in Grand Pass, where several times huge pieces of the levee eroded into the river.

Some farmers complained the dikes were cut in order to erode farmland and force farmers to sell off to the Corps of Engineers.

"Our goal is not to erode the ground to help us buy it," said Hoover.

After Thorp asked him if he would help them with the dike problem, Hoover asked if they discussed the problem with Corps river engineers.

"Numerous times. I showed them in March and places we showed them are the places where we about lost the levee," said Thorp. "It just got worse and worse and worse."

"If the river gets 35 feet we'll deal with it, but we just don't like you doing things to make the rock dikes erode...," Thorp said. "Nobody has got anything against the pallid sturgeon, just don't run us out."

In the Grand Pass bottom, there are approximately 10,000 acres of farm ground and seven homes. About 3,000 acres are protected by the private levee and the rest are located behind a Corps levee, farther from the river.

Corps officials said they will hold another public hearing after plans for the mitigation site are developed.

The Marshall Democrat-News will be running more stories next week on some of the topics discussed during the meeting, which lasted about an hour.

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