Joining forces to study and protect the upper Mississippi River. Conservationists and Army Corps engineers work to improve river

A federal program to protect the Mississippi River is forging a partnership between environmentalists and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Recently signed into law by President Reagan, the program authorizes federal money for environmental management and rehabilitation on the upper Mississippi River and its tributaries. In an unusual partnership, the US Army Corps of Engineers has teamed with state conservation departments and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to improve wildlife habitat along the river system.

``This program could dominate federal and state river conservation activities for at least the next ten years,'' says Dr. Ken Lubinski, aquatic biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

A political tussle in the late 1970s to build a new Lock and Dam 26 in Alton, Ill., resulted in a congressional mandate with two directives, which environmentalists charged were in conflict with each other. Congress wanted the area managed as a navigation system carrying more barges, while at the same time protecting it as a nationally significant ecosystem. Recommendations to resolve conflicts between barge interests and environmentalists were drawn up in 1982 as a part of the Upper Mississippi River Master Plan. From that plan, an Environmental Management Program was produced by the Corps in January 1986.

The Corps manages nearly 1,300 miles of river for barge traffic on the upper Mississippi and its large tributaries. This transportation network, between Cairo, Ill., and Minneapolis, plays a key role in the economic well-being of the upper Midwest. Grain, coal, chemicals, and petroleum products constitute 75 percent of the waterborne cargo.

Environmentalists have a different perspective. To them, the river is a major migratory flyway for birds and a major boating and fishing resource.

The federal government has already recognized the importance of the river to wildlife by establishing two national wildlife refuges, covering 238,000 acres, along the upper Mississippi. An additional 100,000 acres of conservation lands along the rivers are managed by the five states of the system.

The Environmental Management Plan includes several major objectives. Most of the federal money will be spent on habitat rehabilitation and long-term resource monitoring. Recreation improvements, recreation economic studies, and barge-traffic monitoring will also be performed.

An unusual feature is that federal money for the program is appropriated through the Army Corps of Engineers, rather than the US Fish and Wildlife Service. One million dollars were received in fiscal 1986. The Water Resources Development Act of 1986, signed by President Reagan on Nov. 17, authorizes federal expenditures of $192 million over the next 10 years.

One of the environmentalists' major concerns is the threat of increased barge traffic along the river.

``Increased silt levels can change fish communities,'' according to the Illinois Natural History Survey's Dr. Lubinski. ``Sports fish, such as crappie or bass, decline as silt increases. Rough fish, like carp or buffalo, are favored. More silt prevents light from reaching aquatic plants and barge wave action uproots them. When aquatic plants are reduced, there is less food for fish and waterfowl.

``Silt has also been filling river backwaters, sloughs, and marshes. These areas are absolutely essential to the river's biological productivity, because they are spawning grounds for fish and feeding areas for waterfowl.'' Lubinski says that barge-suspended silt has increased the rate of filling.

Al Behm, project coordinator for the Corps of Engineers, says he feels that the major source of backwater filling is soil erosion from farmland. ``In some areas, habitat rehabilitation may include levees around marshes to protect them from farmland silt runoff.''

Most of these habitat rehabilitation projects will manipulate backwaters to increase fish and wildlife. Dredging, levees, channels, and pumping could produce proper water levels and flows.

Dr. Gerry Lowry coordinates the program for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. ``One of the major findings of the master planning process was the great lack of biological information. The rivers are so large and complex that we don't know what the environmental effects of new locks and dams will be. Long-term biological studies are essential.'' Resource monitoring will also tell which habitat rehabilitation methods work.

Each state's conservation department is planning habitat rehabilitation in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Criticism has surfaced that the program is too experimental and should be balanced with proven techniques. The Corps has acted as a mediator between state and federal biologists when other disagreements have arisen. Conservationists hope the major effect of this project will be the Corps' new role as environmental mediator and rehabilitator.

Dr. Girard is assistant professor of biology at Principia College, and president of the Illinois Audubon Society.

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