26 July 2010

Pending Demise of La Platte Bottoms

A major highway will, within a few seasons, slice through the best wetlands at the La Platte Bottoms. The last, best shallow water habitat in the region will have this construct imposed on the setting, and drastically reduce the value of the place for so many birds, and birders.

There will be no changes made in the current project design or mitigation despite a last-minute attempt to conserve the setting.

At a meeting on Friday afternoon, July 23rd, with regulatory staff of the Army Corps of Engineers and two officials of the Nebraska Department of Roads, the all indicated in various ways that there was nothing that would be changed at this point. The project had already gone through the proper steps of agency consultation, public hearings, public notice and other items necessary for a project of this sort.

Documentation provided to the agency personnel included a "Brief Summary of the Birdlife of the La Platte Bottoms," a "Testimonial on the Importance of the Wetlands at the La Platte Bottoms," a half-dozen pictures taken of wetland conditions in May, June and July at the site. Also useful during the discussion were figures from the project documents, available online and from a Freedom of Information Act request to the Army Corps of Engineers, which were provided on a digital disc.


It was readily obvious that the Section 404 decision was based on incomplete consideration of information pertinent for a thorough evaluation.

Early on during an investigation into this project, an agency representative(s) was asked why some particular topic was not addressed, the common reply was that "no one told us." At the Friday meeting, the common refrain was that there were plenty of opportunities for public meetings, including document comment periods, public meetings, etc. So the final verdict, was that anything said at the meeting would be considered in the future, but could not pertain to the current situation.

Several particular points were not addressed by the project environmental impact statement, nor the Section 404 evaluation. These subject were strongly expressed at the meeting, but to no avail in regards to the La Platte bottoms.

The subjects were:

1) Impact on a cultural impact: the agency staff were not aware that the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers is a preeminent landmark for Nebraska, and the naming of the Platte River in 1739, may be the first ever place-name for the state. This iconic site will soon be dominated by a highway and bridge.

2) Occurrence of Least Tern (six records) and Piping Plover (one record): use of the La Platte Bottoms by an endangered and threatened species was completely ignored in the project documents reviewed, though any NEPA review is required, by law to address potential impacts on listed species. This is just being ignored!

2a) Extensive use of the La Platte Bottoms by migratory shore and waterbirds: notes kept by several area birders, and sighting reports on NEBirds were used to develop and prepare a record base, with the extensive use during 2010 expressly stated at the meeting. Also indicated was the uniqueness of the site for the region. A Department of Roads representative questioned that the shallow water was really unique, based upon him seeing flooded fields during a drive to Kansas City.

They agency were basically indifferent to this situation. They questioned whether there were comparative surveys done at other places during the past months, and how any surveys were done in a standard manner. The explanation provided was that the information was based upon volunteer efforts, and that only the information gathered in this manner is available. Thus they deflected giving this situation any traction.

3) Extent of Wetlands

A primary point of contention was the extent of wetlands. The Corps' 404 permit decision was that NDOR had to only mitigate for 4.97 acres of wetlands. This is based upon an evaluation of what wetlands would be present in "normal circumstances" and which is based, according to the Corps, upon three factors, vegetation, soil and hydrology.

The current situation, based on a personal visual observation, is that there are more than 300 acres derived from a site visit and "rough estimate" of the inundated ground - did not matter. The criteria of wetlands in mid-July 2010 was based upon the occurrence of standing water, thriving wetland vegetation, and occurrence of water-dependent species of birds.

Approximate extent of standing water in mid-July, 2010
at the La Platte Bottoms.

Corps personnel explained 2010 is not a "normal year." Then one of them asked what scientific method was used to determine the extent. There was none, and was another tactic to negate any observations. One Corps official even expressed his view that my approximate map had to be wrong because there could not be that much water at the site.

The Clean Water Act of 1977 states: "Those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency or duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions."

It is section 404 of the Clean Water Act which the Corps of Engineers regulates.

It was very obvious that these readily apparent features were not enough to indicate a wetland that would be recognized under the strictures of Section 404, the regulatory framework. Pictures showing the situation did not matter, either, though they did make copies for some reason.

The situation indicates a major failure in how the Corps of Engineers classifies wetlands, especially ephemeral, occasionally cropped wetlands such as those at the La Platte Bottoms. Also, is the wide-spread occurrence of water in 2010 the normal condition, and the dry years not normal.

It was all a matter of semantics, and legal jurisdiction and since the agency enforcing the rules, made the rules, nothing could contend with their findings.

It should be noted that the NDOR is required to mitigate at a 2:1 ratio, where very acre filled, needs to be replaced by two acres of "replacement" wetland.

4) Mitigation Site

The site being used to mitigate for filling wetland acres at the La Platte Bottoms, rather than being adjacent to the project, will be done at a place called Oreapolis.

Three obvious shortcomings indicate that the site is not suitable:

a) site is bordered by a two-track railroad right-of-way that is such a disturbance factor that it completely negates any value to the site as a place being created to replace lost natural values;
b) the proposed flow condition at the mitigation site - bisected by a flow channel - does not replicate the no-flow setting at the La Platte Bottoms; and
Even when the Corp's officials were shown a government map showing a flow channel through the middle of the area, they still insisted that there would be no-flow wetlands here and there.

The La Platte Bottoms do not have any flow channels so the area is completely "static water."

c) No information is available to indicate whether there will be all-weather access to the mitigation site. At the La Platte Bottoms, the hard-surface road west of Harlan Lewis Road ensures that someone can visit nearly any time. The officials could not understand how birders would prefer visiting the La Platte Bottoms instead of the "off-road" site that could be provided at Oreapolis.

Why would someone want to park along the road, rather than be at a place with no road traffic? Anyone would only have a wait until a train went by to realize the difference.

The site selection did not consider how a railroad right-of-way would be a negative impact to the locality.

There is a bicycle trail along the Big Papillion Creek, just a few pedals to the north that allows ready access. A hard surface road allows people that prefer to not get out of their vehicle to arrive, park on the road shoulder and take a look at what is happening in the bottom wetlands. This is an asset.

One Corps officials did get the point that recreational access should be provided, but this might only be considered with future projects.

5) Mitigation Plan Bias

The mitigation site plan stated:

"The impacted wetlands are wholly surrounded by actively cultivated row crop production. Additionally, these wetlands occur immediately adjacent to the existing intersection of LaPlatte Road and Harlan Lewis Road, and are therefore not conducive to wildlife occupation."

This is a completely biased "opinion" used to negate the value of the wetlands at the La Platte Bottoms. Yet the statement was used to guide decisions concerning the bottoms.

Me and Justin Rink - and a hearty thanks for him attending - strongly expressed our displeasure with language like this being in a government document, and that such false statements should not be used in any manner in project documents.

6) Levee Relocation

A NDOR official said that moving the levee upland so that the highway right-of-way was on the river side of the levee would not make any difference. This seems to be incongruous as the NDOR would certainly oppose any situation when the usual, yet intermittent high waters at this place were flooding the bottoms and along the highway lanes.

There will undoubtedly be opposition to any proposal to move the levee location, as most of the documentation reviewed, considers the highway as a means to local development as an economic boost. Levee relocation would dramatically reduce the extent of land that could be developed.

7) Culverts

When the highway is built, will there be culverts included to allow a hydrologic connection between the flat lands if water is present. NDOR officials said yes, but is nothing available that can be evaluated as to whether or not they will be effective in allowing the movement of water bird broods, turtles and frogs.

If transit is not allowed, they will try to cross the highway, and probably get smashed by a fast-moving vehicle.

Further effort will be given to determine how the culverts will be suitable for wild residents.

8) Habitat Fragmentation

The government issued 404 permit is for a meager 4.97 acres. Yet, by looking at a site may, the highway right-of-way will cut off additional bits of recognized wetlands which will not be "filled." There was no consideration given to this additional impact.

A measly bit of wetland between one road and another has minimal value and could actually cause bird mortality if a species such as the Red-winged Blackbird looking for a home picks such a spot, yet has to fly across traffic to a nearby larger wetland to forage. This sort of setting would be deadly for fledglings, trying to move about and find a larger area of habitat that would suffice as a safe haven.

9) Secondary Impacts

The intent of the Highway 34 - Bellevue Bridge project is to provide a transportation corridor between Highway 75 in southern Sarpy County and across to Iowa. Yet, this means so much more to local officials, as publicly expressed in a variety of ways.

The Section 404 review process, did not consider obviously stated views which indicate the preferred use of the land adjacent to the project site is for commercial/industrial development for economic benefit.

Two examples readily express an obvious, preferred bias for development:

"This new bridge will provide excellent access to areas south of Bellevue (including the former Arcadia chemical plant) that the city has long, and unsuccessfully, promoted for industrial development." - Bellevue Future, A Community Agenda for Bellevue, Nebraska; March 2002
"From an economic development perspective, the new connector and bridge will open up over 3,000 acres of land for industrial developments, specifically rail-served sites which are in great demand. The Highway 34 corridor with its access to all major utilities and Highways 75 will become the major industrial complex in the Omaha metropolitan area providing jobs in light to heavy manufacturing businesses. In addition, the connection to Interstate 29 will open up this area to large warehouse/distribution facilities who want to distribute their products north and south via Interstate 20 and east and west via Interstate 80." - Sarpy County Economic Development Corporation, August 2009

A suitable analogy for this project is what has occurred at North 27th Street and Interstate-80. Once the NDOR built an interchange, there was immediate development which completely changed the setting. The saline wetland is now bordered by fast-food joints, businesses, motels and other commercial constructs.

It's very obvious that the highway is looked upon as a means to develop the area, and to not consider the prevalence of this view is another example of ignoring prevalent facts.

A legal requirement of the 404 evaluation process is to consider secondary impacts, yet, despite statements obviously available online and expressed in a variety of manners, this aspect has been ignored.

For the Corps' to completely ignore what will occur, is just another example of them making a decision which ignored readily available, and most importantly, pertinent information.

Essential to this consideration is that their inhibited classification of the extent of wetlands will aid any future development efforts. Since most the La Platte Bottoms are "not considered to be wetlands" by the Corps of Engineers, much of any future fill activities will not require a permit, and can be filled at will by any developers.

Surplus Property

One item of future consideration occurred at the end of the meeting. After stressing how the NDOR project would ruin the site, along with the contention that they should do something to conserve the remaining scene was fervently stressed. With an owner of adjacent land possibly willing to sell "surplus property," the Nebraska state agency should "buy them out" to ensure the land use does not change. A Corps official did note that there is the possibility for a change in the mitigation measures for a project. NDOR said that maybe not for this particular project, but perhaps for other road-building activities, that the "key land" could be acquired.

An acquisition of "surplus property" could be an important first-step in the conservation of the remaining "bottoms."

The point was stressed that NDOR should pursue the possibility, and there was a direct request for a commitment to do so. A followup would be provided within four weeks.

Importance of Communication

If there is one essential fact learned from this whole La Platte Bottoms undertaking, is that it is essential to be involved early in the planning process for a project, and tell officials what the situation is. This was not done when it should have been by anyone that was aware of the project when it was being developed.

The Corps of Engineers appreciates public involvement, and this meeting was one manner to convey the importance and value of public comment. The forum also provided an opportunity to suggest methods to reach the public on items which they may be interested in, and how to do this in a manner taking advantage of paper-free emails, and by providing essential documents online, as the agency already does, but to take full advantage of the medium to get out their message.

When a Corps official asked how the agency could effectively communicate with the birding community, there was no viable method that could be suggested. It is very rare that anyone involved with the latter, would be interested in what the former is addressing. This is a serious shortcoming and should be given further consideration so that birders can get involved with actions which may threaten the habitats where they watch birds.

A hearty two-thumbs down to the Fish and Wildlife Service for not having someone at the meeting, despite about a dozen requests - via email and phone call - for them to send someone from their Grand Island office. This agency did not ever bring up the tern and plover occurrence details. The explanation was that Fridays are not a good day because of limited staff, and that people were on vacation. The office supervisor was around, and perhaps he could have attended, but obviously did not.

Late-Afternoon Visit to the La Platte Bottoms

After seemingly worthless words were conveyed and the government building was left behind, Justin and I went to the La Platte Bottoms to see what might be around. It somehow seemed indicative that there were very few birds observed. There were a few Black Terns, a Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot, and a few Red-winged Blackbirds. The lack of birds vividly conveyed how - after a massive impact to the place by construction of a highway and interchange - there will probably never again be the bird diversity that can still be appreciated for a time.

The La Platte Bottoms setting will be destroyed due to the construction of a highway and interchange.