Of Wetlands and Wal-Marts

One development at a time, Missouri has lost 87 percent of its wetlands. And that means more floods, more damage, more levees, more bucks. The story of one Supercenter and how progress comes at a price.

Back in 1981, when the Army Corps of Engineers approved a permit to fill in the 5-acre wetland parcel that Wal-Mart would eventually occupy, unchecked wetlands development in this country had reached epidemic proportions.

"I don't think people paid much attention to wetlands other than they were a nuisance," says William Lowry, associate professor of political science at Washington University. "That's why I think we got rid of a lot of them. We dredged, paved over, constructed or removed well over 50 percent of the wetlands that were here since white people settled. I think for a long time people thought nature was something that needed to be controlled, and if people did that, then we could create more land for agriculture, more land for development; we could put cities on the floodplain."

Few people back then were aware of the devastating chain reaction their collective enterprises would soon set in motion.

Up until the early 1980s, the United States lost about 60 acres of wetlands an hour, every hour, every day, for almost 200 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Missouri itself lost 87 percent, topped only by California, Iowa and Ohio in the amount of lost acreage. And losing wetlands has its price: According to Corps estimates, Missouri sustained at least $2 billion in residential, agricultural and industrial damage from the 1993 floods, more than twice the amount of any other state hit that year.

Wetland soil is nature's most effective flood-control device, acting as a sponge that retains water over a longer period of time than other types of soils, says Clay Miller, an environmental protection specialist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C. In fact, wetlands can take on and store almost 2 feet of water per acre.

"The same amount of water is being released, but over a longer period of time. If you take that out, that sponge, and just create this corridor, the water ends up at the bottom of the watershed much sooner," Miller says. "If you take a wetland out, the water course that may have passed through the wetland and gotten the water downstream gradually, 10 days later, now takes it all at one time, and you're going to end up with flooding."

Since the Clean Water Act became law in 1972, federal agencies say unmitigated wetlands development gradually decreased to the point where the net loss of wetlands acreage dropped across the country by about 60 percent. These days, they think, only about 13 acres an hour are destroyed each year.

"I know a lot of studies indicate we're losing wetlands," says Ted Rugiel, regulating program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C. "I'm not saying that there isn't a net loss of wetlands because of human activity, but we're doing a pretty decent job of it -- not only slowing the loss but offsetting the adverse effects of those losses and the losses that we do permit."

How much wetlands acreage is now lost in Missouri each year, though, is unclear. Actually, no one seems to have a clue -- not the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the DNR or any environmental organizations.

"Something's Wrong"
It was a Sunday morning in August 1993. Church was in session, local peaches were ripe, and the residents of Festus and Crystal City, their towns already under 15 feet of floodwater, were preparing for the Mississippi to envelop the twin cities with an expected crest of 52 feet.

"My wife and I had to go to church that morning in a boat," says Ed Peterein, a lifelong resident of the area who, like Doug Sunshine, lives on the south side of Plattin Creek. "When we got out of church, we went to DeSoto, to a friend's house, to get peaches, and by the time we got back, it was well past dinner, and I saw a helicopter hovering over our house.

"I told my wife, 'There's something wrong.' She asked 'Why?' and I told her, 'The driftwood is floating back toward the river. Something's wrong.'"

Sure enough, several miles to the north, the Columbia, Ill., levee had broken. What the Petereins witnessed was the floodwater withdrawing. Peterein guesses the water in Festus and Crystal City receded some 31 feet or more as a result.

Now, five years later, the two towns are preparing to build their own 500-year levee in a reactionary attempt to keep disaster at bay. "We're probably the only urban area on the river that doesn't have any levee protection," says Festus city manager Richard Turley.

The towns had considered building a levee since the 1970s, but early cost-benefit ratio studies conducted by the Corps indicated that enough economic damage wouldn't be done to justify such a hefty project.

So after the '93 flood, when the Corps compared the costs of building a levee with the economic damage the towns would sustain if it wasn't built, they factored in new considerations such as public safety and traffic disruption -- and the loss of newly developed property, including the Wal-Mart.

Pat O'Donnell, project manager for the Corps office in St. Louis, explains that the new plan was approved because things in Festus-Crystal City had changed. "The towns are growing," O'Donnell explains, "and a lot of the economic benefit (of a new levee) is preventing transportation problems that are associated with flooding as the towns grow.

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