WisBusiness: Mississippi River Commission hearing draws crowd

By Gregg Hoffmann

La Crosse – More than 80 people took an opportunity to comment on issues affecting the Mississippi River while literally being on the river Monday night.

The Mississippi River Commission came to the people on board the Army Corps of Engineers’ Motor Vessel MISSISSIPPI, a five-story structure on a huge barge, for the first of seven public meetings during the annual low-water inspection tour.

The MRC consists of three general officers from the Corps, one member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and three civilians, two of whom must be civil engineers. Members are appointed by the president. The commission makes recommendations on policy and work programs to Congress and the president and oversees project on the river.

Commissioners heard from people with varying, and at times seemingly competing, concerns about the river. Kent Pehler of Brennan Marine in La Crosse represented the Upper Mississippi Riverway Association and expressed concerns about what he sees as increasing restrictions on commercial navigation along the river.

“Eco-system projects don’t undergo the same cost effectiveness evaluations as navigation,” Pehler said. “Our association is not against environmental projects, but we do have concerns about some of the debilitating constraints against navigation projects.”

Pehler said some of the constraints are imposed by local governments which want additional parks and riverfront developments that push out commercial ventures, such as barge docks. “We feel there is a lack of federal oversight of commerce on the river,” Pehler said.

On the other end of the spectrum was Dan McGuiness, who represented the National Audubon Society. McGuiness cited a recent agreement between the Audubon Society and Corps to cooperate on environmental projects as “very encouraging.”

“We are looking forward to working together with the Corps on the Upper Mississippi and elsewhere,” McGuiness said, citing habitat restoration projects that have aided 86 birding areas along the river.

Gretchen Benjamin of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said she thought the Corps was working with the DNR and other agencies in “balancing the needs of navigation and the eco-system.”

“The Environmental Management Program has never been fully funded, but we have still made progress,” Benjamin said. She added that to date only 3 percent of habitat along the Upper Mississippi has been restored.

Locks and dams are one of the major responsibilities of the Corps. Pehler expressed concerns about the condition of Lock and Dam No. 3 near La Crosse. Eleven accidents have been recorded at that juncture because of some physical problems with the facility.

Among other things, a malfunction at that lock and dam could drain a pool, which would shut down the Excel Energy nuclear plants along the river.

Col. Mike Pfenning of the St. Paul District of the Corps said some projects at certain locks and dams already are underway along the river.

An environmental plan for the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge is in its final stages, after months of hearings and debates. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has auspices over that plan.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind and others have called for more coordination between the environmental plan and Corps activities along the river.

Coordination among various agencies and organizations working on environmental cleanup projects and other efforts has been emphasized in recent months.

Donald Bina, a La Crosse County supervisor and representative of the area Resource Conservation and Development District, told the MRC about cooperative efforts to stop runoff into the river, in part to clean up water in the Upper Mississippi, but also to keep sediment from washing down river into the Gulf of Mexico.

Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, president of the MRC, told the audience about the Corps’ overall work up and down the Mississippi, and about its efforts in cleanup after Katrina. He said while the Katrina effort was huge, the Corps will not ignore the Upper Mississippi concerns.

Crear also said the MRC commissioners had observed nearly historic low water levels during its tour of the river. Those low levels have aided some of the hurricane cleanup efforts in the southern end of the river, but are causing some other problems along the river.

The MRC is scheduled to hold another hearing in Dubuque tonight and in Alton, Ill. on Friday. Its tour on the MISSISSIPPI is scheduled to end in Houma, La. on Aug. 25.