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.

A high-volume hum rumbles and echoes throughout the cavernous, 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter in Festus-Crystal City. It's the audible motion of scanners and intercoms, and carts clashing under fluorescent lights. It's the low-frequency buzz of bargains and price checks and credit-card approvals.

It's the sound of people buying things.
Lots and lots of things. They're buying eyedrops, tackle boxes, candied yams, sugar substitute, golf balls and tea. Within this 4.5-acre, steel-framed box, there's a discount store, a pharmacy, a hair salon, a bank, a grocery store and a tire-and-lube express. Everything from fine-grained sandpaper to double-iced cinnamon buns is in the thousands of carts that pass through dozens of checkout lanes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This bargain-hunter's megalith is a virtual tax mint for the twin cities, faced with the dueling pressures of increased urban immigration and the corresponding budget shortfalls. Official projections predict St. Louis and St. Louis County will bleed some 36,000 residents during the next 20 years; Jefferson County is expected to pick up 39,000. In light of the predictions, of the need for bigger schools and wider streets, larger police forces and longer sewage tunnels, towns like Festus and Crystal City can either prepare or brace for the worst. The towns, a half-hour's drive from St. Louis, expect a 50 percent increase in population all their own.

So in 1993, the Wal-Mart Supercenter was built on a useless swamp near Plattin Creek that was providing neither tax revenue nor scenic beauty. It was constructed on the boundary of the two towns. When customers enter the south end of the building, they're greeted by a "Welcome to the Crystal City Wal-Mart" sign; those who enter from the north end see "Welcome to the Festus Wal-Mart."

Outside, surrounding the packed parking lot, stand the economic addendums to one of the best-performing Wal-Mart Supercenters in the country: Fashion Bug, Arby's, Blockbuster Video, Fast Foto, a Coastal gas station with a 24-hour drive-through pizzeria and a message to local patrons: "Good luck deer hunters. Come home safe."

In this area, where the per capita annual income is $11,000 and where pickup trucks still outnumber sport-utility vehicles 2-to-1, the construction of the Wal-Mart Supercenter added more choices, more conveniences and more jobs than anything like it before. "It's great," says Crystal City Mayor Grant Johnston. "This Wal-Mart store is in the top percentage in the country in terms of sales, and we split the property taxes and the sales taxes with Festus. It also employs an immense number of people, and there are ancillary people who supply that Wal-Mart all around."

According to Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., a Supercenter like this one normally employs about 450 people (70 percent full-time) and pays an average of $150,000 in property taxes and $2.5 million in sales taxes each and every year. "I can say that this store has exceeded our expectations," says Keith Morris, spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "It's been an excellent-performing store since it opened its doors."

That's saying a lot for one rural store that's part of a multinational company that sold $43 billion worth of stuff in the first half of this year. The overall operating profit for Wal-Mart for the first six months of this year was $3.1 billion, a 27 percent increase from the first six months of 1997.

Much of that increase was due to the popularity of the Supercenter concept, where one-stop shopping truly hits its stride.

In Missouri alone there are 109 Wal-Mart stores -- including 30 Supercenters -- which in 1997 paid $24 million in state and local taxes, collected $208 million in sales taxes and employed 27,266, or about the entire population of Kirkwood.

Needless to say, when the Festus-Crystal City store opened its doors five years ago on what had been an empty 5-acre swamp, the applause was more than perfunctory.

The Spin Cycle
If you stand in the back lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter and look south beyond the cattails, the marsh grass and the meandering Plattin Creek, you can just see the distant wooded bluffs that meet Doug Sunshine's bottom soybean field. It's tilled under now, save for a stretch of winter wheat planted seasonally for the deer.

As Sunshine stands there gazing out, the tranquility of the Jefferson County landscape pales under the shadow of the Wal-Mart and the enormity of his own unease. "This makes no sense," he says softly, turning back and forth between the Wal-Mart and the marsh area as though unsure where to direct his alarm. He settles his stare on the 5-acre marsh area to the south and stands, hands on hips, eyes on a red-winged blackbird perched on a tire in the mud. He shakes his head, then shields his eyes.

He's thinking about the levee.
In several months, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will decide how to build it -- a 500-year flood structure on the north side of Plattin Creek -- to separate the creek from Festus, Crystal City and the Wal-Mart that belongs to both. It concerns Sunshine that his property, on the south side of the levee, may take on extra water during floods. It also concerns him that the thing will cost about $10 million in local and federal money. But what bothers Sunshine most, what bothers a lot of folks living on or near the creek, is that it has to be built in the first place.

"I do understand why they have to build it now," he says.
In 1993, just months after the Wal-Mart Supercenter was constructed on a natural 5-acre wetland, the Mississippi River exploded, backed into Plattin Creek and engulfed Festus and Crystal City with 15 feet of water. The consequences were enormous. Homes were destroyed, roads became impassable and the Wal-Mart Supercenter was cut off from the rest of the world. For several weeks, the inundated local sewage treatment plant, just across Plattin Creek from Sunshine's lower field, spewed raw debris into the floodwaters that filtered through the schoolyards, the cemeteries and the parks of the twin communities.

"The thing is, they built the Wal-Mart and all those other businesses on a wetland," Sunshine says, indicating the Fashion Bug, the Arby's and half-a-dozen other stores in the immediate area. "They built it where they knew it was going to flood. Now they want us to pay for a levee to protect it. And I bet that levee's only going to make things worse."

For many in the quickly growing towns of Festus and Crystal City, the Wal-Mart Supercenter stands as a shiny, tax-generating, 5-acre concrete symbol of progress. Like hundreds of other communities in Missouri faced with increasing populations and the corresponding drain on public services, Festus and Crystal City take part in Missouri's floodplain landgrab in an attempt to shore up shaky budgets not ready to meet demand.

But allowing much-needed development on the floodplains ends up costing dearly in the end.

Less than 13 percent of Missouri's original wetlands still exist, though how many acres are eaten up every year by development is not a statistic in anybody's database. Missouri's floodplains have been so emaciated in the past several decades, only three other states can boast more of a loss.

And as development polishes off the last of the state's natural wetlands, a dangerously circular scenario plays out -- the wetlands-development spin cycle: Development destroys wetlands; because wetlands absorb floodwaters, more floods occur; because more floods occur, more damage is reported; because more damage is reported, more levees are built; because more levees are built and because levees only funnel water someplace else, more damages occur someplace else; because more damage occurs someplace else, more levees are built -- someplace else.

Those are the hard costs, but not the only ones. The flooding of Plattin Creek in 1993 and again in '97 closed down the sewage-treatment plant that stands between the Wal-Mart and the creek. In '93, the plant spilled raw sewage into the floodwaters and into the creek for six months and since then has been cited for violations by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) 105 times.

The citations mean there's a virtual building freeze in the area, because land developers are told by the DNR that they can't hook up to the sewer system until the sewer system is upgraded. But Festus and Crystal City can't upgrade the sewer system until a levee is built to protect it.

Sunshine, again, is apologetic: "I understand they have to build the levee, and I hope it works. I'd be tickled to death if it works. But where's the water supposed to go?"

60 Acres an Hour
The Mississippi River is about three miles from Festus and Crystal City by way of the 30-foot-wide Plattin Creek. On either side of the creek are bottomland hardwoods -- mainly willow, oak and cottonwood trees -- a few homes and small agricultural lots like Sunshine's.

In the winter of 1992-93, snowfall to the north was heavier than normal, and it stayed on the ground longer because of unseasonably cool temperatures. Later, when it melted under heavy spring rains, the soil along the Mississippi and its tributaries, including Plattin Creek, became dangerously saturated, and as conditions worsened, the high water in the rivers and creeks began to turn into runoff with no place to go. By the summer of '93, the Mississippi River and its tributaries saw the worst flooding of the upper Mississippi River basin in 133 years.

"Our major intersection is Highway 61-67 at Bailey Road," says Johnston, Crystal City's mayor, about the crossroads that carry more than 20,000 vehicles a day. "In 1993 it was under 12 to 14 feet of water. Now this is three miles inland from the actual river, but what happened is, Plattin Creek backs up, and Plattin Creek has four tributaries which back up, then the storm sewers back up, and then we're in a world of hurt."

At least 180 buildings were flooded, 80 local businesses were forced to close and Crystal City lost its drinking-water supply. City services were completely shut down, and traffic that would normally work its way down the main streets, including emergency vehicles, was re-routed to the area's extremities.

"I'm thinking of one little boy in particular," recalls Johnston. "He was having a choking, coughing fit and had to be rushed to Jefferson Memorial Hospital. It should have taken about three minutes for them to get there but ended up taking 45. We almost lost that little boy."

No one that year pointed to the construction of the Wal-Mart Supercenter as the cause of the millions of dollars in flood damage, but afterward, when the sludge and debris and bloated sandbags were cleared away, when the streets were cleared and the Wal-Mart parking lot was dry, questions about floodplain management surfaced like long-forgotten memos.

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.

"The benefits are primarily transportation, property and sewage-treatment-plant protection in this particular case," O'Donnell continues. "And of course there's cleanup costs, there's overtime for the police, there are a lot of things that go into the economic benefit, but I think the fact that the towns are growing is a bigger influence than the other things."

But here is where the wetland-development spin cycle reaches its climax: Communities build on their wetlands. This causes more flooding. Levees are built, so more development occurs.

Scott Faber, director of the floodplain program for American Rivers, an environmental group, contends that when the Corps conducts its cost-benefit ratio studies, it fails to take this cyclical progress into account. "There are only two kinds of levees," he says, "those that have failed and those that will fail. And no one in the Corps will deny that. But at the same time the Corps recognizes that, they don't include in their cost calculations the costs of a levee's inevitable failure.

"Levees encourage development, and because there is so much development, the costs of a levee's failure are catastrophic, like what you saw in Chesterfield," Faber continues. "It's not a matter of if the levees fail, it's a matter of when."

Before the '93 flood, there were some 7,000 miles of levees on the Mississippi River. During the summer of 1993, 1,083 of 1,576 in the flood's path were overtopped or damaged. And according to several reports, the United States' annual flood damages -- adjusted for inflation and population -- have tripled since 1951 to about $8 billion in today's dollars. In other words, the construction of the levee on Plattin Creek will inevitably encourage more development in the area that the levee will protect -- or try to protect.

There are much bigger consequences of building levees, though, than just those determined by one particular levee in Jefferson County. A report issued in 1994 by the federal Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee concluded that unless the country stops building levees as forms of flood control, there will be a marked increase not only in the number of floods but in the damage that results. The report went on to recommend that instead of relying on levees, communities should consider halting development on their floodplains and restoring wetland habitats instead. And the feds are beginning to do their part to discourage such development (see sidebar).

According to a 1997 report issued jointly by the Sierra Club and the Clean Water Network, between 1993-97, flooding in the United States took 496 people's lives and caused $33 billion in damage. The report then quotes statements by hydrologist Donald Hey in the March 1995 Restoration Ecology:

"Despite the nation's massive effort during the past 90 years to build levees throughout the upper Mississippi River Basin, mean annual flood damage has increased 140 percent during that time.... The 1993 flood verifies the need for additional wetlands: the amount of excess water that passed through St. Louis during the 1993 flood would have covered a little more than 13 million acres -- half the wetland acreage drained since 1780 in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. By strategically placing 13 million acres of wetlands on hydric soils in the Basin, we can solve the Basin's flooding problems in an ecologically sound manner."

O'Donnell, of the Corps, says that although he understands the concerns of people living on or near Plattin Creek, he doesn't believe that building a levee there will cause more damage someplace else. For one, he says, the levee is small, only designed to protect about 40 acres of land, and for another, at least 25 acres of new wetlands will be created to mitigate the 8 acres or so on which the levee will be constructed.

"People think that if you block off one area from water, the water has to go someplace else," O'Donnell says. "That's true, but we're talking about such a tiny area, when you think about the thousands and thousands of acres that are flooded by the Mississippi River, I mean, what is 40 acres?"

It is precisely this philosophy that got us into trouble in the first place, says Ken Midkiff, executive director of the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club: "Maybe one levee all by itself wouldn't cause a problem, but when you figure in all the others up and down the rivers and creeks, it is just adding to the problem in terms of impact."

As for Ed Peterein, he doesn't need federal engineers or multisyllabic committees to tell him any of that.

"I know it's not a real big levee," he says, "but it is going to back up water that belongs in the area that the river claims as its own. And where's it going to go? It's going to push it onto someone else. We've just about destroyed all the good wetlands in this state already. I don't know where it ends. I don't understand why you and I have to pay for people ignorant enough to build on a riverbank. That's what this all amounts to."

The Balancing Act
It took a long time for the idea of wetlands protection to seep into the country's environmental conscience, but starting with the Bush administration, the federal government began a series of policy changes discouraging their rabid development.

"People began to see that wetlands served a lot of good purposes," says Lowry, of Washington University. "But by then, we had gotten rid of most of them, and once you get rid of them, they're pretty hard to restore. When people started realizing that wetlands do provide more than just a breeding ground for mosquitoes, the federal policies on wetlands changed somewhat to reflect that, at least more rhetorical attention was paid to their restoration."

Lowry's point about rhetorical attention is important, because despite all the policy changes aimed at restoration, there is still wetland loss. Quite a bit of it.

Now, under the Clean Water Act, if Wal-Mart wants to build on a wetland, it must gain approval from the Corps of Engineers by showing that its store cannot be built anywhere other than on that particular wetland. If that is shown, then the developer must mitigate any damage caused, meaning the developer must either "minimize" the damage done to the wetland or actually create a new wetland as a replacement.

The developer of the Festus-Crystal City Wal-Mart, for example, dug out a 5-acre hole just south of the building, graded it, reseeded it and then let it fill up with water. This was "mitigation" for the loss of the 5 acres of wetland on which the Wal-Mart sits.

These types of permits for larger projects, called "individual permits," take about 127 days for approval, and in Missouri they make up only about 18 percent of those issued by the Corps. The remaining permits -- the vast majority called "general permits" -- take only 16 days for approval, because they destroy an "insignificant" amount of wetland acreage, usually one-third of an acre or less. They, however, usually don't require any mitigation.

According to the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., of the 1,214 individual permits and 4,989 general permits applied for in Missouri between 1988-96, the Corps approved all but 1.9 percent. Nationwide, the statistics are worse (see box).

"Our denial rate is actually seven-tenths of 1 percent. We deny very few," says Rugiel, of the Corps' Washington, D.C., office. "And that's probably not so strange. That's a last resort. We pretty much go through all sorts of alternatives to try and come up with something so we can issue a permit. An applicant makes a proposal, we suggest something else, the applicant comes back and says, 'How about this?' and it goes back and forth until it's finally realized that in less than 1 percent of the cases, there isn't going to be any meeting of the minds."

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA has veto authority over permits issued by the Corps. But according to Miller, this veto power has only been used about a dozen times since the law's inception.

The other agency with some veto authority over the Corps is the Missouri DNR, which must issue a water-quality certificate before any project can move forward. John Madras, a water-pollution-control specialist with the DNR, says that if his agency finds that a wetland-development project harms the physical, chemical or biological integrities of a water body, then it may deny the Corps its needed water-quality permit. How often does the DNR act on this authority? "Very rarely," Madras says.

Both agencies defend their rare use of veto power by saying that the Corps and the permit applicants usually find a solution suitable to all parties.

But just how effective is this process?
"That a very good question," says one EPA official who asked not to be identified. "We hear again and again at conferences from state and tribal governments, from federal agencies and from industry folks that very few people are doing any monitoring. Monitoring is never a huge chunk of any agency's budget. We rely a lot on volunteers."

Case in point: In 1995, several members of the American Fly Fishers Federation and Trout Unlimited were fishing on Mill Creek, a spring-fed cold-water trout stream in the Mark Twain National Forest. When they got to a low-water bridge that was being rebuilt by a contractor for the U.S. Forest Service, they saw a bulldozer operator in the process of trying to channelize the creek 100 feet upstream of the bridge and 975 feet downstream.

According to the permit the contractor was operating under, this was absolutely, unequivocally not allowed. The fishermen "rather unceremoniously assisted" the bulldozer operator from the site and immediately contacted Midkiff, of the Sierra Club.

"People get these permits knowing full well that nobody is monitoring or supervising," Midkiff says. "The channelization of that stream would not have been permitted under any permit, but nobody was monitoring or supervising it. Fortunately, those trout fishermen were there and just raised holy hell about it, ended up calling us, and we called the Forest Service and the Corps and ended up sort of negotiating between the two agencies to get somebody to deal with it."

Midkiff can recite dozens of similar examples, including an incident last summer in which a Sierra Club member ran across a large gravel excavation taking place next to Huzzah Creek. When the member called the Corps of Engineers in St. Louis, they learned there was no permit for the excavation. Midkiff says the member was told that an investigation couldn't be launched for another three to six months, because the Corps has only two people in the St. Louis district office conducting site investigations over a 28,000-square-mile area.

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.

The store was built in accordance with every law on the book. The deed was done not by Wal-Mart but by the Lansing Corp,, in 1983, when Lansing acquired a permit from the Corps to prepare the wetland for commercial development. Besides the Corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Missouri Clean Water Commission, among others, signed off on the permit. In addition, public notices about the proposed permit were sent to 400 individuals, agencies and groups.

"During the evaluation process, our review of direct and secondary effects resulting from the proposal disclosed no significant impairment of environmental values," the Corps' "statement of finding" explains, going on to list the factors considered: overall desires of the public; environmental impacts; and federal, state and local laws.

In the end, all agreed that if the developer created at least 5 new acres of wetland, the site could be filled in and used for commercial purposes, and that "on balance the total public interest should be best served by the issuance of a Department of Army permit for the proposed work.

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