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.

The job of monitoring wetlands mitigation falls on the shoulders of the Corps. It issues the permits, so it's responsible for ensuring that whatever wetlands are destroyed are replaced somewhere else. But as the EPA employee notes, "There just aren't enough of them."

As mentioned above, developers must prove to the Corps that there's no alternative location for building other than on that particular wetland. If they succeed, Rugiel, of the U.S. Corps, explains that because there's no way to replace a forested wetland with 30-year-old trees, for example, a developer who wants to build there would have to mitigate by re-creating twice as much wetland with saplings somewhere else.

The Corps then suggests to the developer that an environmental consultant be hired to design the new wetland area. "But if a developer wanted to try and work it out himself, most of our districts will bend over backwards to help them," Rugiel says. "We might not be able to design an exact mitigation project for them, but we can give him some pretty good ideas of the kinds of things he needs to do."

The Corps often enlists the help of other agencies, including Missouri's DNR. "Oftentimes we'll see the mitigation plans and offer comments to the Corps," says DNR's Madras. "I wish we had a long-term monitoring program, but we don't. We pretty much rely on the good design and the reviews of the different agencies to make sure that what is actually proposed is followed through on."So although the Corps and other agencies take a good stab at ensuring mitigation is done when it's supposed to be done, it's virtually impossible to monitor every site two or three years down the road to make sure it's a working, healthy wetland, doing what wetlands are supposed to do.

"It's a balancing act between the amount of people it takes to satisfy one constituency by getting the permit applications processed quickly and the amount of people it would take to go back a year later to see that it's functioning," the EPA employee says. "It's one thing to say you're going to compensate at a 2-to-1 ratio and hopefully have twice as much acreage; it's another to say you're going to have a functional replacement so that the floodwater-retention capability or the water quality or the wildlife habitat provides that function. That's not only tough to scientifically measure in any quantitative or qualitative way, it also takes a lot of time."

The complex nature of wetlands makes them virtually impossible to duplicate. For one thing, some wetlands are fed by groundwater, some feed into them, some do both. And supported by that water is an infinitely intricate coalition of plants, animals and microorganisms living out life cycles too entangled to re-create.

Filling in one wetland area and digging another out elsewhere, says Grady McCallie, a congressional lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation, just can't match nature's original intentions. "And in terms of flood control, it's very location-specific," McCallie says. "If you destroy a wetland in one place, and that wetland has been holding back the water that would otherwise be flooding a community downstream, it doesn't really matter if you restore or build a wetland someplace else. You're not likely to save the community downstream from flooding."

Final Rinse
As he stands on the bottom field, just across the creek from the sewage-treatment plant, a lot of warring issues mingle in Doug Sunshine's mind. On the one hand he understands the needs of the community -- the tax revenue, the shopping conveniences, the jobs. Because his bottom field is the first to be hit by flooding, he's also a big booster for protecting and improving the sewage plant. He's even read in the papers recently that the American Canoe Association is suing the plant for dumping ammonia in Plattin Creek.

He claims he's not an environmentalist. "I don't know what ammonia does, but I read that it's killing things down in the Gulf of Mexico," he says. "If it's killing things down there, what's it doing to my crops? I don't have any idea what's been dumped on this field."

He then points to a pipe emerging from the creek's bank, coming directly from the treatment plant. "People fish in this creek all the time," he says.

On the other hand, Sunshine knows that his field will take on an inch of additional water during spring flooding once the levee is built -- just about enough, he thinks, to kill any seedlings planted there. He also knows, in a vague sort of way, that the levee's construction is just one more manmade development playing havoc on the Mississippi floodplain.

"I understand that they need a levee now," he says, "especially since they built the Wal-Mart and all those other businesses. I also understand that I'm farming on a floodplain and that I will have flooding. What I don't understand is why they built the Wal-Mart there in the first place." The answer to that question may have to wait for another day. For now, suffice it to say that they built that Wal-Mart where they did because they could.

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