An effort to build a casino in the Mississippi River floodway north of St. Louis may significantly harm local wetlands and increase the risk of damage in the river’s floodplain, especially during floods, say critics.
St. Louis County Planning Commission recommended last fall that the St. Louis County Council approve the Riverview Casino project proposed by North County Development, LLC. Local environmental groups and community organizations have strongly opposed the project for a host of reasons, but particularly out of concern that the project will affect the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area adjacent to the north boundary of the project.
Columbia Bottom is a 4318-acre conservation area located in the floodway at the confluence of Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation. According to the MDC, the area preserves four distinct habitats—bottomland hardwood forest, shallow wetland, prairie, and cropland—in addition to the river bank habitat.
Edward J. Griesedieck III, attorney and agent for North County Development, responding to inquiries about the environmental and flood issues by saying “All construction will need to comply with all applicable governmental standards for building in FP. Applicable governmental agencies will control, supervise and review/approve.” Griesedieck last summer on StlToday.com estimated that the project would generate 5000 temporary construction jobs and 2500 permanent casino and related jobs.
Save the Confluence, a coalition of environmental and community groups that includes the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the Sierra Club of Eastern Missouri, and the St. Louis Audubon Society, says that the project will diminish the quality of wetlands that are critical habitat for residential and migratory bird populations and result in run-off from the project of chemical contaminants that include fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and parking lot residue such as motor oil.
But what will happen during the next flood? The project encompasses 377 acres in the floodway. Seventy acres, an area larger than any major shopping mall in the area, will be elevated 30 feet.
North County Development LLC has not filed an environmental impact statement or any other data that would address the effect the project, particularly the elevated portion, might have on flooding, but concerns cited by members of Save the Confluence coalition include increased flood water levels upstream, backwash and water diversion erosion in the immediately adjacent conservation area, increased erosion at and below the site due to increased water velocity, and flood related increases in pollutant levels affecting the St. Louis City Water Processing Plant located about three miles downstream.
Floodways development along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in the Saint Louis area has increased water fluctuations and reduced the floodwater storage capacity throughout the area, according to Robert Criss, professor of geology at Washington University and an opponent of the project. In addition to the habitat destruction, Criss states that the casino project, by narrowing the channel and restricting water flow, will increase the water levels and current speed during floods.
While neither the US Army Corps of Engineers nor the Federal Emergency Management Administration can specifically comment until a proposal is officially submitted and studied, Alan Dooley, Public Affairs Officer for the St. Louis District of the Corps of Engineers, said that there are numerous problems any project must address in a floodway. Among the hurdles, the project must develop new permanent wetlands to replace any wetlands lost due to construction, and the new wetlands, because they are not the mature habitats of existing wetlands, will have to cover a larger area. He also said that hydrological studies must indicate that the introduction of any fill material that elevates any part of the project will not increase flood levels beyond regulated tolerances—one foot for Missouri, but one-tenth of a foot for Illinois.
Paul Osman of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said that any Missouri project that would exceed the one-tenth foot regulation could result in the state of Illinois filing a lawsuit against the project in order to protect the environment, human life, and property in affected areas of Illinois, where all levies in the area are in involved in a lengthy process to address deficiencies.
“All of the concrete they are putting in there will increase flooding, will cause higher flood levels [upstream],” and result in “runoff going directly to the…water processing plant,” according to Gloria Broderick, speaking for the Save the Confluence coalition and the local Sierra Club.