By Olivia Dorothy
Regional Conservation Coordinator, Upper Mississippi River Initiative, Izaak Walton League of America
Just above Lock and Dam 2 at Hastings, Minn., the navigation channel in the Mississippi River makes a tight turn, almost 90 degrees. According to the navigation industry, 54 groundings have occurred at the site since 1990 and tows cannot move through the turn with a full load of 15 barges.
So, the Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to cut a new channel to circumvent the bend through what was known before the dam was built as Boulanger Slough. What are the implications of this new channel?
The new channel cut will increase sedimentation downstream, which is concerning, since the area is significantly contaminated by past industrial activities.
Indeed, the Corps sediment samples show elevated levels of contaminates, including nickel, PAHs, PCBs, and other heavy metals. Also, the area is home to the federally endangered Higgins eye mussel, which was last collected in the area in 2010. Although, the Corps claims that the Boulanger Channel Realignment avoids the area where the Higgins eye mussel was found.
The Corps plans to complete a National Environmental Policy Act review when the project authorization is straightened out (get it?!). There is some confusion about what authority the Corps has to move the navigation channel. The Chief of Engineers “has but limited discretion with respect to modification of completed navigation projects without new authorization … the location of a completed channel may be altered during the course of the periodic maintenance program if the maintenance can thereby be more economically accomplished… .” (ER 1165-2-119). It’s a bit confusing, but the Corps is interpreting this to mean that, if the Corps can prove that maintenance will be cheaper when the channel is realigned and the Chief of Engineers approves the project, the channel can be realigned. However, even with the authorization, the Corps will still need a specific appropriation in the construction budget to move forward, and that will be difficult given the ban on new starts.
I’m a little worried about the NEPA review and the cost-benefit analysis. The cost of the project is estimated to be $14 million and, as I said above, the project will increase sedimentation downstream. At the River Resources Forum, the Corps stated that this funding would not be spent on mitigation and that no mitigation funds will be included in the budget, which is very troubling. If NEPA is done properly, I don’t see how the Corps could find no significant impact since they have already identified the sedimentation problem, and that should require mitigation. Also at that meeting, the Corps stated that they will include the costs to navigation that include the disassembly of barges and extra trips through this reach. I’m not sure where those costs will be incorporated, but they can’t be used to justify authority, since it is not a maintenance cost.
I warn the Corps to be careful developing the cost-benefit analysis to ensure they are not over-selling their preferred alternative and they take NEPA seriously and include a mitigation plan. Public hearings will be held this summer on the project, so I encourage everyone to watch for that notice.