Farmers question corps officials on river dike management practices

Tuesday, April 24, 2012
An online map shows erosion along a Missouri River dike in the area. Farmers at a recent meeting in Arrow Rock challenged Corps of Engineers practices they say are contributing to erosion and threatening cropland. (Contributed image)

A Congressional request, more time for written comments, a change of date for the Missouri Clean Water Commission hearing and a letter detailing just a few of the erosion problems from notched dikes along the Missouri River are just some of the developments taking place after the Army Corps of Engineers held an open public meeting on Tuesday, April 17, at Arrow Rock State Historic Site Visitors' Center.

At the meeting, corps officials answered questions regarding a proposed one-mile expansion of shallow water habitat on the Jameson Island Unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge located in the Arrow Rock bottoms.

The new project would extend an existing chute down the river in order to alleviate erosion to an adjacent levee in Howard County.

Although not directly related to the Jameson project, several farmers asked whether the corps would be fixing erosion notches placed in dikes along the river.

The dikes were originally built to keep the channel open and self-cleaning. However, several years ago they were notched as part of the river mitigation project in an effort to maintain habitat for the pallid sturgeon. The result has caused multiple erosion problems along the river banks, levees and farmer's field, according to area farmers.

One farmer said it took from 1992 to 2005 to get a notched dike fixed near his land. In the meantime, the water got behind the dike and took out "30 acres of land in the process."

"It got over 100 feet deep (next to the bank). They kind of fixed it, but maybe you can understand our lack of confidence in that what you say will happen," he said. "There are a lot of dike notches out there that are cutting the bank. The dikes themselves are not as high as they used to be, and the grade has been lowered, because the corps has lowered the desired height."

Corps officials said the bank stabilization and navigation projects along the river come out of the operating and maintenance budget, which is "underfunded."

"We ask for those dollars every year," said Steve Fischer, USACE senior program manager of the Missouri River Recovery Program.

He said they were also limited because of lack of contractors working on the river.

"What is important to remember is the Kansas City district has 5,000 dikes to maintain," he added. "We get a certain amount of money to repair those dikes."

Mendell Elson, who farms in the Miami bottoms, spoke about the costs to fix the dikes compared to the costs to repair levees and land.

His levee district has lost more than 100 feet of bank behind a notch due to the trappe water swirling into the bank. The levee is still intact, but another year like 2011 and it won't be, he said.

"Then not only do we have the expense that needed to be fixed to start with but now the levee's gone, and no telling how big of a cut and hole that's going to make and what kind of damage it's going to do to cropland involved," he said. "I do understand that costs money, but you're talking about peanuts to fix this stuff before the problem actually happens."

He went on to express his frustration about a letter he received during the 2011 flood.

"Trying to let these levees blow out and then sending me letters you want to buy my ground, I guess I have a little question about the priorities about fixing the levees, because once the ground is damaged and once we're unable to have income from our crops you kind of get us softened up and get us in a financial situation where maybe we're thinking we might want to sell ground that has been in our families for five generations," he said.

After several other comments about the notches, Fischer asked the farmers and landowners to provide him with a list of areas damaged by notched dikes.

One farmer drew applause when he responded to Fischer.

"If I provide the list, I expect some action," he said. "If I show a hole that's behind a dike, I want somebody there filling that hole up because it is private land and it wasn't supposed to happen."

On April 19, Tom Waters, president of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, sent a letter to Fischer detailing a few of the areas, along with pictures and a Google Earth map.

In the letter, Waters noted that during the Missouri Governor's Conference on Agriculture earlier this year, the corps Brigadier General John McMahon indicated "he did not know of any places where the mitigation program was causing harm to adjacent landowners."

However, Waters and numerous other farmers have complained that notched dikes have caused large areas of land to erode into the river.

"I have easily identified 12 locations where the notching has impacted the adjacent private landowners along the river," Waters wrote. "This location should be easy for you to find as it is directly across from the Kansas City Corps of Engineers' Napoleon Office."

He went on to note the 12 locations are just a small portion of "a very big problem along the entire length of the River in the KC District from Rulo to the Mouth.

"The Corps should already have records of the erosion locations, because nearly every dike notched by the Corps now has erosion caused by the swirling water created by the notches.

"The lack of river maintenance over the past decades has caused a great deal of frustration and created an atmosphere of distrust between the Corps of Engineers and the people living and working along the river. Consequently, projects like the Jameson Island Shallow Water Habitat gain little to no support from the local public."

Although the approximately 50 people present at the April 17 meeting were able to comment and question the corps officials, the Missouri Congressional delegation has requested a formal public hearing on the Jameson project. If that meeting is granted, all oral comments will be part of the public record.

Much of the discussion during the meeting was centered around the the corps' preferred plan for the excavated soil. According to the corps' public notice, the 420,000 cubic yards of "dredged earthen material" would be pumped as a slurry mixture of water and sediment. Through time, another "547,000 cubic yards of additional earthen material and an undetermined amount of woody debris" would eventually wind up in the Missouri River. However, in 2008, the Missouri Clean Water Commission ordered the corps to stop dumping soil into the river.

The commission exp-ressed concern that nutrients, such as phosphorus, would exacerbate nutrient and sediment pollution within the river and in the Gulf of Mexico. The corps halted its chute projects in Missouri and commissioned a National Academy of Science study to look into the affects of dumping soil into the river.

The study found the Missouri River carries only 20 percent of the sediment load it once did, causing loss of habitat for native fish and bird species, including the pallid sturgeon and least tern.

The study found the dumping did not have a significant impact on oxygen deficiency in the gulf waters.

A Public Hearing on the corps' request for a permit is set for 9 a.m. Monday, June 11, at the Department of Natural Resources' Lewis and Clark State Office Building at 1101 Riverside Dr. in Jefferson City.

Contact Marcia Gorrell at

Related story:
Corps' Jameson Island chute plan stirs controversy

Project public notice:
Draft report:
Appendices A-F:
Appendices: G-H:

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  • I went to Yahoo maps and checked a piece of the river. A very small piece. I don't know nothin' about river dikes and such, but my untrained eye spotted many notches along the river.

    It appears there is a long-term plan to force the bottom land farmer to sell out cheap after his land is flooded. Is there collusion between the Conservation people and the Corps people to ruin the levees? This would result in a whole bunch more acres devoted to wetlands for the poor birds and other critters. I don't know what it will do for the fish. What in the world is a pallid sturgeon? Why should I care? What is a least tern? Should I care about a bird more than I care about the food product being raised by the farmer?

    It looks to me like all the farmer is getting is lip service from the Corps. I wonder what the power structure is of the Corps. I wise man once told me you don't kill a snake by cutting off the tail. Should we think of the Corps as "Sneaky Snake"? Who is the head of the Corps? Who does he answer to? Why doesn't our Governor take a more active role in getting things fixed? Is "fixed" the right word? "Fix" has a bad connotation and we don't want to think bad about politicians do we?

    I don't wish to think there is any kind of collusion going on between the Corps and Conversation, only coincidence. I actually do not think there is any "fix" concerning politicians. I think lethargy might be a more apt word than fix. Does anyone besides the farmer really care?

    All you bottom land farmers better start making a lot of noise with those that matter. There are those that say the river owns everything bluff to bluff. There are those that wouldn't mind if the river took back it's own. You better stop squealing and start squawking until you get some grease.

    -- Posted by red dog on Tue, Apr 24, 2012, at 6:02 PM
  • I used the map to check the Mississippi. Same problem only more so. The banks of the Mississippi where I looked resemble the teeth of a bucksaw.

    I looked at the Ohio river. The banks there are pretty slick. Are there no dikes on the Ohio? What is the difference?

    It looks to me like the Mississippi River guys and the Missouri River guys better get together and start squawking.

    -- Posted by red dog on Tue, Apr 24, 2012, at 7:02 PM
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