ONAWA, Iowa — A dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that robs marine life of needed oxygen has a Missouri River habitat recovery project treading water.
Iowa farmers raised concerns Friday that they would be blamed if Army Corps of Engineers dredging near Little Sioux, Iowa, unleashed farmland nutrients into the river and sent them downstream to further pollute the Gulf.
About 90 people — many of them farmers — turned out for a public meeting called by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa. The meeting was about a corps request for a water quality permit to create a new wetlands at Little Sioux Bend, about 50 miles upriver from Omaha.
David Sieck, a corn grower from Glenwood, Iowa, said farmers don't oppose the corps' Missouri River habitat projects but said new statewide strategies designed to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus present in runoff will increasingly limit what he can do on his farm.
“Your bucket of silt is OK to be in the river, and my bucket of silt nobody wants?” he said to corps officials. “You can't distinguish the (different) silt when it hits the Gulf. We're the ones paying the price.”
Ted Streckfuss, the corps' deputy district engineer in Omaha, said Sieck's comparison was flawed. He said the dredging projects are a one-time event to create wetlands buffer zones that capture nutrients running off farm fields and prevent them from reaching the Gulf.
“You, as a farmer, apply nitrogren and phosphorus to maximize production. We don't,” Streckfuss said. “We're digging a ditch, and we're putting dirt in the river.”
The Little Sioux Bend project is on corps-owned land in Harrison County, Iowa, but on the Nebraska side of the river. It's about one mile south of the mouth of the Little Sioux River.
The project consists of excavating about 400,000 cubic yards of silty sand to create a 7,300-foot-long flow-through chute that will run parallel to the main channel of the Missouri. The project has the potential to create up to 33 acres of shallow water habitat.
After construction, the site would be managed by the Iowa Natural Resources Department and be open to the public. Tekamah is the nearest Nebraska town to the site, but there is no public land access to the area. It can be reached only by boat.
That and other dredging projects are part of a long-running federal requirement for the corps to restore 20 percent of the shallow water habitat that existed before the river was channelized in the mid-20th century.
Loss of habitat has contributed to the decline of the endangered least tern and pallid sturgeon as well as to the threatened piping plover.
New wetlands, sloughs, chutes and backwater areas are part of the restoration program to develop fish and wildlife habitat. Wetlands are a natural water filter that can remove 70 percent to 90 percent of nitrogen entering the water.
The corps requested a state permit for Little Sioux Bend nearly two months ago. The corps needs the permit before it can advertise the project for construction. The corps will also soon seek permits for two similar mitigation projects near DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge at Missouri Valley, Iowa.
Iowa recently drafted a strategy to reduce nutrients from farmland, urban areas, industrial facilities and wastewater treatment plants. It was developed in response to a call for the 12 states along the Mississippi River to reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The nutrients deplete the oxygen required to support most marine life and have created a hypoxic zone along the Lousiana and Texas coasts.
Streckfuss and other corps officials said at the meeting that studies show only minimal increases in nutrients carried by the river during project construction. They also anticipate no significant sediment deposition from the Little Sioux Bend project as a result of dredge discharge.
Julie Vande Hoef, a Branstad policy adviser, said Friday that Branstad has talked with governors of South Dakota and Missouri about the issue.
Wes Sheets of Lincoln, a national director of the Izaak Walton League of America, said such habitat projects provide more economic benefits than a river with a uniform, rock-lined channel.
“Recreation, including boating, is an economic engine waiting to be turned on along the Missouri River in Iowa and Nebraska,” he said in a written statement.
Sheets said denial of water quality permits now could mean that when marina and boat ramps on the river silt in, more expensive disposal methods will have to be funded rather than allowing hydraulic dredging.
Marian Maas of Bellevue, a Nebraska Wildlife Federation board member, said Missouri River tributaries are loaded with nutrients from farmland runoff. She urged approval of the permit.
Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa National Resources Department, said the public comment period would remain open for 10 more days. He said he had no timetable on making a decision on the permit.