The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hasn't always had the best image when it comes to protecting the environment. But the corps' Memphis District hopes to improve its reputation with a study called the Lower Mississippi River Resource Assessment (LMRRA). The study would help determine natural-resource and wildlife-habitat needs as well as recreational access along the river's lower half. The problem: Congress authorized the study in 2000 but has yet to allocate the funding.
The corp's primary goals are to ensure the river remains navigable and to maintain flood control. However, according to the National Wildlife Association, artificially altering waterways is one of the principal causes of the decline of aquatic ecosystems.
"We don't have the authority to do all we can for the environment, and we're kind of limited as to how much we can personally lobby Congress," says David Reece, chief of the Memphis District's Environmental Branch. "One thing they have authorized is the LMRRA. It was introduced into legislation in 2000, but we've not gotten the funds to do that study. The LMRRA would involve us looking at the river's needs with the Department of the Interior and the seven states in the lower river area."
In the LMRRA study, the corps would use existing information to determine a "snapshot status" of the lower 954 miles of the river. The corps would then prepare a report for Congress with its recommendations for restoring the river's environmental health. The key is determining what can be done for the river's ecosystem without impacting navigation or flood control. Reece says the corps would need $500,000 to get started, but there's nothing for the project in the 2004 budget.
The study, which was authorized under the Water Resources Development Act of 2000, involves Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Since the corps isn't able to lobby Congress, it's turned to outside environmental groups such as the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Commission. In late July, representatives from several conservation groups in the lower Mississippi River valley joined corps members on a boat ride down the river to discuss how the groups can help get the funds.
"From a wildlife point of view, there are so many things we could do," says Gary Myers, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "The corps is authorized to do the work. We just need to convince Congress that it would be money well spent."
If the corps had the LMRRA funding, Reece says it would be able to do much more for fishery habitats because the projects wouldn't have to be directly tied to navigation. For example, if an oxbow or side channel closes off and begins filling in with sediment, the corps would be able to dig it out and reconnect it to the river, even if the project had no effect on navigation. They'd also be able to do more for the lower river's two endangered species: the least tern and the pallid sturgeon.
In the meantime, the corps is increasingly trying to incorporate environmentally friendly measures into its navigational projects. One way is by notching rock dikes mini-dams perpendicular to the river's bank. The dikes maintain a navigation channel for barge traffic but can also be the cause of fish kills because they trap sediment from agricultural run-off.
The corps has begun creating openings in dikes to allow some water to flow through. The notches not only protect fish from trapped sediment, they also create a place for fish to thrive without being disturbed by river traffic.
"What we're trying to do is take the existing navigation work that we do and make it more fish-friendly and environmentally friendly," says Reece.
Ron Nassar, coordinator for the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee (LMRCC), wants to see the fishery habitats improved in the Mississippi, but at the same time, he'd like to see the river attract more tourists. He says a recreational river would better sustain its geographical character. As a result, the LMRCC has jumped on the bandwagon of supporters for the corps' LMRRA project.
"This is one of the last great wild places left in the Eastern U.S., and you never hear about it unless there's a flood or a navigation problem," says Nassar. "The river deserves more attention. It's an important natural resource. There's no question about that whatsoever, but it's also important to the heritage and culture of the South."