Nixon urges corps to put Mo. River project on hold

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Gov. Jay Nixon is urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop work on a Missouri River project that’s designed to help an endangered fish species.

In a letter to Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy, Nixon said the corps needs to obtain independent findings that shallow-water habit projects will help the pallid sturgeon and won’t cause harm. Until that happens, Nixon said last week, the corps should discontinue work at Jameson Island near the village of Arrow Rock and not begin work on similar projects.

The corps only recently awarded a $3.5 million contract for the Jameson Island project after a six-year holdup. Concerns and delays stem from the corps’ plans to put much of the dirt excavated to create the new habitat into the river. The corps and environmental groups say researchers have determined the soil dumping won’t cause trouble and note the pallid sturgeon evolved to live in large, silt-filled rivers.

But farm groups fear that putting the fertilizer-laden soil into the river would contribute to a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Experts blame the low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions primarily on farm fertilizer runoff brought by the Mississippi River, into which the Missouri River empties. The nutrients cause oxygen-depleting algae blooms.

In August, one month after the corps awarded a contract, the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association and eight other groups asked Nixon to oppose the project. The letter to Nixon noted the issue is important because “policies enacted for the Jameson Island chute will set a precedent for future projects in Missouri.”

The Jameson Island project is part of the corps’ effort to recreate about 20 percent of the approximately 100,000 acres of shallow-water habitat that disappeared when the river was dammed and straightened and its channel narrowed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the corps to undertake the habitat effort because, while changes to the river aided navigation and improved flood protection, the pallid sturgeon population has dwindled.

But while nearly 60 percent of the new shallow-water habitat is supposed to be built in Missouri, only a handful of projects were completed in the state before concerns were raised in 2007 about what the corps was doing with the dirt it was excavating to create a side channel at Jameson Island.

Permit discussions and the wait for an environmental study had stalled work on Jameson Island and construction of other side channel shallow-water habitat projects planned for Missouri. Ultimately, the National Academy of Sciences found in 2010 that the corps’ plans to place more soil into the river wouldn’t significantly affect the dead zone in the gulf.

With those results in hand, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was on the verge of issuing a water quality certification for the Jameson Island project in January when the agency abruptly withdrew it. Ultimately, the corps moved forward on Jameson Island and is considering starting work next year on one or two similar projects in Missouri.

Nixon said taxpayer money is being used to help landowners prevent or minimize sediment entering waterways. He said it is “counter to our State’s long standing soil stewardship ethic that the Corps continues to proceed with these projects while unnecessarily disposing of Missouri’s soil resources.”

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