A court will hear arguments in an ongoing lawsuit filed by environmental groups alleging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mismanaged a 195-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, to Cairo, Illinois.
On Thursday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Southern Illinois announced it would consider motions for summary judgment in the case during a hearing set for Aug. 24.
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The National Wildlife Federation filed a motion for summary judgment in the case, asking the court to require the Corps to conduct more thorough environmental reviews on the channel. The Corps filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the use of structures to maintain the navigation channel complies with the Rivers and Harbors Act.
The Mississippi River is the most critical export channel in the U.S. for agricultural goods, accounting for 57% of corn exports and 59% of soybean exports, according to a 2019 USDA report. That study called for more investment in lock and dam infrastructure during the next decade to maintain a competitive advantage in agricultural exports to key markets such as China. Those increased infrastructure investments, however, are tied directly to Corps projects on the river.
If the lawsuit succeeds, infrastructure development on the river could slow down.
The government’s motion notes the stretch of the middle Mississippi River between the confluences of the Missouri and the Ohio rivers is an area where Congress tasked the Corps with maintaining navigation primarily by building and maintaining structures that use the river’s force to scour a navigation channel.
That lawsuit alleges recent flooding in the Mississippi River basin could have been avoided had the Corps better managed the stretch of river.
Flooding along the Mississippi River has led to disruptions in agriculture supply chains and caused damage to farm ground in several states.
The Mississippi River has experienced a series of historic floods in recent years, clogging up barge traffic, flooding towns and cities, and damaging farm ground along the river.
The lawsuit points to the continued construction of river-training structures as a reason for narrowing river channels in the Middle Mississippi River.
River-training structures include dikes, weirs and chevrons, and placement of bank-hardening works known as “revetments.”
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The groups’ motion for summary judgment argues the Corps allegedly “failed to consider” alternative approaches that would be less costly to the environment.
The groups have asked the court for a review of the Corps’ record of decision on its project designed to scour a navigation channel 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide in the Middle Mississippi River.
The lawsuit alleges the Corps’ project does not follow the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1927 that forbids the construction of training structures that narrow the river to less than 2,000 feet. The groups said in their motion the project narrows the river to 1,500 feet or less, in violation of the law.
Congress established limits on what is called the Regulating Works Project. Once the river was contracted to a width of 2,000 to 2,500 feet, the Corps is required to maintain the navigation channel “only through dredging as needed,” the lawsuit contends. The Corps approved the current project in August 2017.
The U.S. Department of the Interior has documented 193 species of migratory birds in or around the project area. In addition, about 140 species of fish live in the section of the river, including the endangered pallid sturgeon.
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