Corps Asks Court To Dismiss Lawsuit Over Middle Mississippi River Management

The Corps of Engineers is asking the Southern Illinois District Court to dismiss a request for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed by several environmentalist groups. The groups claim that Corps practices in promoting navigation in a 195-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill., contribute to flooding and environmental damage.

The groups want the Corps to undertake extended environmental reviews of its use of river training structures to maintain the navigation channel. They cite a number of studies that claim training structures make flooding worse and want a moratorium on revetments, chevrons, and other structures that channel river water until the studies are completed. 

The groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers, Prairie Rivers Network, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, originally filed suit in March 2020 and asked for summary judgment in March of this year.

In May of last year, Melissa Samet, senior water resources counsel for the NWF, said, “The Army Corps has opted to continue to recklessly follow a century-old plan that increases the risk of catastrophic floods while destroying vital wildlife habitat. It is unfortunate that we had to go to court to urge the agency to assess all the risks and evaluate modern approaches. However, [the 2019] flooding shows how critical it is that the Army Corps get this right.”

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

The Corps is filing a cross-motion for a summary dismissal. Summary judgments—court rulings without a trial—are possible in civil cases only when the contending parties agree on the underlying facts of a case. 

The groups claim the Corps’ policy of using river training structures to scour and maintain the navigation channel in place of dredging violates the Flood Control Act of 1934 and other directives of Congress, increases flood risk and causes “harm” to the environment by preventing wetlands adjacent to the river from absorbing floodwaters.

They claim Congress authorized a 2,000- to 2,500-foot-wide navigation channel to be maintained through dredging only and allege the Corps has reduced its width to 1,800 feet or 1,500 feet in some places.

The Corps says that its use of weirs, chevrons and similar structures fulfills its mission to maintain navigation and flood control and is a more cost-effective method than repeated dredging. On the Corps’ website, Eddie Brauer, river engineer at the Corps’ Applied River Engineering Center in St. Louis, says, “It takes a combination of structures, revetments and dredging to keep sediment moving through the system and maintain the 9-foot navigation channel on the Mississippi.” 

The Corps also claims that its use of structures reduces impacts to fish and wildlife. “Dredging is expensive; there’s no way we could dredge the entire channel all the time,” according to Brauer on the website. “It’s also very intrusive to fish habitat when we dredge up material from the bottom, not to mention the placement of dredged material.”

The Corps doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

The Mississippi River watershed drains about 1.2 million square miles, including all or parts of 32 states, and is a major export corridor for grain.