A sketch of the Missouri River channel in the late 1800s shows a striking familiarity with a current three-mile long shallow-water habitat chute cutting through the Jameson Island unit of the Big Muddy Wildlife Refuge located below Arrow Rock.
At a packed public hearing on June 11 in Jefferson City, approximately 40 speakers, mostly favoring agricultural interests, gave the Missouri Clean Water Commission (MCWC) an earful regarding a proposed one-mile extension of an existing shallow-water habitat on the 1,871-acre public area located below Arrow Rock on the Missouri River.
At issue is not the chute itself but what to do with the soil, which would be removed during the construction. Farmers propose the Corps find a place within the refuge to put the soil, while Corps officials want to place the material into the river.
In 2008, the Clean Water Commission ordered the Corps to stop dumping soil into the river, while they constructed the original Jameson Island chute. The commission expressed concern nutrients, such as phosphorus, would exacerbate nutrient and sediment pollution within the river and in the Gulf of Mexico.
During the tour, Corps engineers countered the argument, stating additional soil in the river would help Gulf hypoxia by re-establishing coastal wetlands lost when the river was channelized. The wetlands would catch the soil and use the phosphorus for growing marshes, which would act as a biological filter.
"We've lost 90 percent of our wetlands in the country, so we've disconnected them from the farm fields. We've disconnected the large river from the flood plains, and then we've disconnected the coastal wetlands," explained Steve Fischer, USACE senior program engineer of the Missouri River Recovery Program. "Until you address all three of those, it doesn't matter what you are doing anywhere else, you are never going to solve Gulf hypoxia."
"If I was farmer, I think I would support what we are doing out there cause we are helping to address that issue," Fischer said. "If I was a levee district, I think I'd support us because we are trying to put that material back in the river knowing that helps with this whole degradation issue. That ultimately can even affect what they are trying to do."
Now operated as part of the 16,000-acre Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife refuge, Jameson Island is one of nine sites between Kansas City and Arrow Rock where the river is being allowed to roam, taking soil from one bank, and placing on another, as it once did before the river was channelized in the 1940s and 1950s in the Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project (BSNP). In the 1980s, Congress authorized establishment of sites, such as Jameson Island, to mitigate habitat losses caused by the BSNP. Among the concerns are three endangered species, the pallid sturgeon, the least tern and the piping plover.
"The refuge was established for the benefit of fish and wildlife and basically to reconnect the floodplain to the river and reestablish natural processes and native plant communities," said Wedge Watkins, refuge wildlife biologist, during a hike about 50 feet into the refuge.
Since 1997, the area has been managed to include bottom land forest, riparian areas and wetlands. According to figures from the Corps, in 2009 approximately 8,000 people visited the area to hunt, fish, hike or look for mushrooms. They also host about three school groups a year.
"The forest you see around you is dominated by native cottonwoods along with silver maples, box elder and willow and there ar a few other scattered trees in here," Watkins said. "When you get out to this point, you've walked a mile and a half. And most days you are going to be by yourself."
At the June 11 hearing, farmers overwhelmingly supported the chute extension, which they said will help an erosion problem across the river. However, they supported the Corps alternative number three, but preferred the soil was dispersed in a larger area. In the plan, Corps' third alternative specifies the dirt would be placed in two 15-foot piles along the chute, which would resemble levees.
That would defeat the purpose of the chute, which is to mimic the historic flow of the river and aid habitat recovery.
"We don't want to build another mini-Missouri River canal," White said. "Shallow-water habitat is a process of eroding, of deposition and shallow water and deeper areas."
Alternative three is also more expensive, costing about $8.7 million as opposed to $3.5 million for the Corps preferred alternative four. Alternative two would cost about $4.4 million, but would also put the soil into the river meander belt, eventually to be taken downstream. The first alternative avoids changing the existing chute.
Corps officials argue soil put in the floodplain would affect the established forests and wetlands and native species. They said high unnatural piles become a place where invasive species become a maintenance and treatment problem. In order to use alternative three without the berms could impact up to 300 acres of wetlands and still leave unnatural piles.
Other alternatives, such as trucking the dirt out of the area or sending it down on a barge, would be too costly, according the the Corps.
The farmers' preference, to place the soil over a larger area in the floodplain would cause too much damage to established areas as well.
In order to build alternative three without the berms could impact up to 300 acres of wetlands and still leave unnatural piles.
"As we evaluate projects, one thing we really try to get to is what we call the least environmentally damaging practical alternative," said David Hoover, USACE biologist. "It can't just be the lower cost, it has to have the least impact on the environment. That's how we've gotten to alternative four."
"Number four is the least environmentally damaging practical alternative, and it is the low cost," White added.
After several years of high water, the river completed the original chute by natural river processes. This year, biologists said they have found several species of larval fish using the chute, including sturgeon. However, further DNA testing will be needed to determine if these were the endangered pallid sturgeon or the more common, but also native, shovelnose sturgeon.
"You hear a lot about how these chutes don't provide benefit for the pallid sturgeon," said Todd Gemeinhardt, a water quality program manager. "What people need to keep in mind is that the pallid sturgeon is a very long-lived fish. The males don't reproduce until they are seven to eight years old and the females might be as old as 15-years before they become reproductively mature."
Since 1994, hatchery-raised pallid sturgeons have been stocked into the river as one-year-olds in the hope they will start breeding naturally. Shallow-water habitats provide the larval fish with a chance to get out of the fast-moving channel.
In 2010, approximately 50,000 one-year-old sturgeons were put into the river.
"The reason I highlighted the age of the fish is because, people say, 'You havent found pallids in there.' Well there have been very, very few reproductively mature pallids in the lower Missouri system to actually produce young fish," he said.
Other species benefit from the habitats, including two endangered birds, the least tern and the piping plover, as well as the scarce sickle fin, sturgeon chub and blue sucker.
At the hearing farmers said the Corps shouldn't be allowed to put soil into the river, when other entities were fined for doing the same thing.
One farmer testified he wasn't allowed to shovel dirt off of his dock back into the Missouri River.
Corps officials said putting dirt into the river is not illegal, as long as a permit is issued, which is the same thing they are seeking. They said no permits have been denied since 1993.
"Those farmers with the shovel can push it into the river, but they have to get a permit," White said.
Sites such as Jameson Island also help farmers and river-bottom towns during flooding, acting as sponges to take up excess water.
"That reduces water surface elevation during flood flow, that's good for farmers, that's good for levee districts," White said.
During the tour, Corps officials emphasized the need to manage the river for all of the authorized purposes.
"The Missouri River is a huge system. You can't touch just one thing. We have to look at the entire river collectively, and we take that responsiblitly very seriously when it comes to navigation, flood control, water supply, irrigation," White said. "All these things work together as a system, and we have experts that focus on navigation and flood control. This component of offsetting the negative impact of the bank stabilization and navigation project -- this is important too, for the river system as a whole."
The clean water commission took a similar tour of Jameson Island after the public hearing. They are expected to rule on the issue at their July 11 meeting.
The MCWC and the Corps will accept written comments until June 30. Those can be sent to the Missouri Clean Water Commission, Missouri Department of Natural Resources,
P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO., 65102 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Kansas City District, 700 Federal Building, 601 East 12th Street, Kansas City,MO. 64106.
On the web:
Project public notice: http://bit.ly/J9VAQH Draft report: http://bit.ly/J9VF6H Appendices A-F: http://bit.ly/I4skFl Appendices: G-H: http://bit.ly/JgD5Io