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Congress and the Corps: Budget cuts may slow levee rebuilding

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug 18, 2011 - "Rebuild our levee," demanded a protester's sign at the New Madrid river dock, "so we can rebuild our lives."

Members of the Mississippi River Commission heard a similar message from about two dozen local residents this week during a public hearing aboard a riverboat that had helped carry explosives to blast holes in the Birds Point levees in May. They stopped in New Madrid as part of their annual inspection trip along the river.

Work already has started on repairing the three levee segments that were breached to send part of the roaring Mississippi into the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway in southeastern Missouri that diverted roiling river waters away from Cairo, Ill. But two "catches" have floodway farmers and others up in arms:

  • First, the Army Corps of Engineers is now building "temporary" levees that are more than 10 feet lower than the levee segments that were blasted in May;
  • Second, further repairs may be suspended if the more than $1 billion in extra funds the Corps needs to fully "reset" this year's flood-damaged levees and related structures along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers gets hung up in congressional budget cutting.

"It has not been easy to get to this point, and I have a bad feeling that it will be even more difficult to move forward from where we are today unless everyone -- this commission, the [Corps] and local stakeholders included -- will work together to aggressively implement a plan to move us forward," said U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau.
Emerson told commission members aboard the M.V. Mississippi that she has been "working in Congress to secure the funds to pay for needed repair work up and down the river." But she argued that the Corps already has enough spare funds that can be "repurposed" to repair fully the Birds Point levees and other crucial parts of the Mississippi River and Tributaries flood control system on the lower part of the river.

As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Emerson played a role in House action to divert $1 billion of unspent high-speed rail funds to the Corps to help pay for levee and related repairs. But that controversial change in the House Energy and Water appropriations bill might not make it into the Senate's version, which has not even emerged from a committee.

The budget trick of shifting rail money to rebuild levees may prove to be contentious. It was assailed by several House Democrats from northeastern rail routes and criticized by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which said "rescinding [rail] funds now would significantly disrupt states' planning and construction efforts, which count on their committed amounts." The OMB said "these projects will create jobs and make needed improvements to the intercity passenger rail network."

That extra flood-repair funding aims to make up for suggested overall cuts in the Corps' budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 -- cuts that may go even deeper in future years as Congress implements the reductions called for in the debt-ceiling and deficit reduction legislation that was signed into law earlier this month.

But as the Corps takes stock of this year's extensive flood damage up and down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries, the bills add up to billions of dollars -- and priorities will have to be set. "We can definitely use any [extra] assistance Congress can provide to reset and repair the system," said Robert T. Anderson, the chief spokesman for the Mississippi River Commission.

The same applies to the flood damages along the Missouri River, officials say. Finding enough money for major Corps project "is a huge problem right now," said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth. He and Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, added amendments to the House water appropriations bill that would divert funds for Missouri River ecosystem restoration to use for levee repairs.

'Temporary' Birds Point Levees to Be 10 Feet Lower

The Birds Point levee breaks are a special case, Emerson and floodway property owners contend because they were breached intentionally by the Corps to divert floodwaters away from Cairo and other towns near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi.

Col. Vernie Reichling, commander of the Corps' Memphis District, has said that just restoring the three damaged segments of the Birds Point-New Madrid levees to the 51-foot level will cost about $15 million. And about $20 million more would be needed to completely restore the levees to their pre-blast height of 61.5 feet. And his district is facing possible budget cuts of more than that next year.

On top of the cost considerations, the Corps is reluctant to move ahead with a full-blown rebuilding of the levees until an interagency group completes its task of assessing damage, examining lessons learned from this spring's flood and suggesting which parts of the lower Mississippi river management system -- such as Birds Point -- should be rebuilt or modified.

Emerson argues that the Corps can re-purpose money from other accounts to restore the Bootheel levees fully. She told the commission that "if the [Corps] lacks the sufficient motivation to provide flood protection along an admittedly weakened MR&T (Mississippi River and Tributaries) System in the short term with the resources already at its disposal, then the ability of congressional advocates to provide funding over the long term will be severely diminished."

Taking note of the wave of budget-cutting in Congress, Emerson added: "In a challenging fiscal environment for our nation, no one will listen to requests for taxpayer dollars for an agency to build levees if that agency will not build levees with the money it already has."

According to a Birds Point update from the Corps, the temporary 51-foot repairs on the three "crevasses" (man-made breaches) in the levees between Birds Point and New Madrid should be completed by late fall. However, an environmental assessment of the impact of the center crevasse -- an 800-foot-long segment near the Seven Island Conservation Area -- may delay work there until late September.

A total of nearly 15,000 feet of damaged levees, as well as scour holes and other water-related damage to surrounding acreages are being repaired by the Corps. That includes about 9,000 feet of levee at the northernmost location - repairing four levee segments, filling five major scour holes and realigning one part of a levee -- and about 4,700 feet of levee at the southernmost location, near the Donaldson Point Conservation Area.

In her testimony, Emerson said she and floodway farmers and landowners are frustrated by "the lack of a commitment to fully rebuild the Birds Point levee. Much is being made of studies to substantiate the project ... but this levee is a vital part of the system and the only one, so far as I can tell, which was blown up on purpose" by the Corps.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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