Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Tug of War

Environmentalists and the U.S. Corps of Engineers are at odds over the Mississippi River.

By Andrew Wilkins

JULY 24, 2000:  The Mississippi River is the country's most threatened waterway, says a national river conservation organization. Dammed, dyked, ditched, and drained, the United States Army Corps of Engineers has changed the Mississippi River from a natural body of water teeming with wildlife into a lifeless concrete barge canal -- and more construction is being considered. So says American Rivers (www.americanrivers.org) spokesperson Peter Kelley.

The work is necessary, the Corps contends, to keep barge traffic moving up and down the river and to protect millions of people who live along the Mississippi from floods. The Corps will decide this year whether to channelize east Arkansas' White River, a Mississippi tributary; construct flood control measures along the lower Mississippi; and to widen five locks on the upper portion of the river.

Kelley says he supports the Corps of Engineers efforts to control flooding and maintain a navigable channel, but the environmental impact is not worth the benefit to the economy and many of the projects simply aren't needed.

The Mississippi River Valley is home to over 100 varieties of mammal, reptile and fish species and half of North America's birds use the river as their pathway during migration. When a river is leveed, says Trey Giuntini, curator of the Mud Island River Park and Museum, its runoff is halted. This causes the wetlands, where migrating birds nest and animals live, to dry up.

Corps spokesperson, Bob Anderson, says environmentalists point to projects done in the 1930s as proof of the Corps environmental damage, but now mitigating environment impact is part of every construction project. And as with the highly controversial White River project, Anderson says adding underwater dykes to keep the channel clear will have a net environmental benefit because the river will need less dredging, which disturbs wildlife like muscles and fish.

Corps projects also benefit the economy, Anderson says. The White River project would make it cheaper for one of the nation's most economically depressed regions to transport their agricultural goods. He also points out Corps projects protect 20 million Americans from floods and allows for barge traffic, which is one-sixth cheaper than moving goods by truck.

But the Corps' credibility in assessing their projects' need was shattered earlier this year by allegations that their economic studies are falsified to support construction. A Corps economist was removed from a study to determine the economic necessity of a project when he wouldn't manipulate numbers to indicate it was needed, according to the Environmental Defense web site. After his story came to light, other Corps economists said they were similarly pressured by Army leadership. A Congressional inquiry is underway, but no formal charges have been brought.

"The Corps is trying to keep itself in business, by cooking the books to make it look like there is more demand for projects than is really there," Kelley says.

Giuntini says the Corps has a difficult job trying to make one of the nation's greatest natural resources benefit all citizens. Farmers want irrigation, citizens want flood control and recreation, ecologists and hunters want the wildlife protected, and shippers want a clear channel, he says.

"There are so many special-interest groups that see the river's use only from one angle. The Corps does a good job of seeing the big picture and bringing everybody's interests into harmony," Giuntini says.

Another threat to the Mississippi are the tons of agricultural chemicals and sewage that make their way into the river each year. Draining 41 percent of the U.S., the nation's pollution builds up in the Mississippi causing south Louisiana's "cancer alley" and a 6,000 square mile dead zone where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This despite the Mississippi River Initiative of 1997, that added strength to the Clean Water Act of 1972 which mandated the nation's rivers and lakes swimmable by 1985.

"It's 30 years later and we are still dumping 57 million tons into the river annually," Giuntini says. "And 40 percent of the nation's bodies of water are still unswimmable."

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