SE Missouri drainage project delayed by bat survey

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) — Federal funding has been approved to restore nearly 81 miles of flood-damaged drainage channels in southeast Missouri, but the project is on hold for a bat habitat survey.

Officials with the Little River Drainage District say they’re worried money for the project could disappear before environmental requirements are met, the Southeast Missourian reported (http://bit.ly/10fNwRz).

“Without flood control and drainage, nothing else matters in southeast Missouri, or in the whole Mississippi Delta,” said W. Dustin Boatwright, the district’s assistant chief engineer.

The drainage channels were badly damaged in severe flooding in 2011. Drainage is vital in the swampy area of the Mississippi River Delta in southeast Missouri. The Little River Drainage District includes 1,000 miles of open channels that drain more than 1.2 million acres, extending from near Cape Girardeau, Mo., to the Arkansas border and including seven counties.

The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintenance of 250 miles of the district’s channels, through which all the remaining channels drain. Boatwright said the 450 miles of channels the district is responsible for have been dredged to pre-flood conditions.

But the corps, he said, “hasn’t dredged their first mile.” As a result, he said, the system doesn’t operate properly. Boatwright said water from current flooding is backing up due to blockages.

The holdup is because the corps must first determine the presence of Indiana bats. The surveys can be completed only between May 15 and Aug. 15. Boatwright worries that a construction season could be lost before work is allowed to move forward.

The corps plans to place acoustic sampling devices in the project area after May 15 to detect the presence of bats. If found, plans call for the bats to be captured, tagged with a radio device and tracked to their roosts.

“One of the primary missions of the corps is environmental stewardship,” corps spokesman Jim Pogue said. “The Indiana bat is a known endangered species, and if they are in the project area, we are prepared to work with state and federal environmental agencies to protect their survival.”

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Shauna Marquardt said the corps is being “very proactive” in considering the possible habitat effects of the channel project.

The Indiana bat has been protected since 1967. Its habitat stretches across most of the eastern United States. The bat population was estimated at 387,000 in 2009, less than half the population when it went on the endangered list, according to the wildlife service.

An analysis published in Science magazine in 2011 showed that bats provide agricultural pest control valued at up to $53 billion. The authors wrote that a single bat the size of an adult thumb can eat 4 to 8 grams of insects each night — roughly the weight of one or two grapes.

Contracts for restoration of the channels are scheduled to be awarded in September, Pogue said.

Boatwright has appealed to U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill for help.

“The longer that our system goes without maintenance, the worse flooding it’s going to see,” Boatwright said.

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