08 August 2010

Nebraska Office of FWS Responds to La Platte Bottoms Inquiry

On July 26th - following a July 12 phone conversation - an email was sent to the Nebraska Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking several questions regarding the La Platte Bottoms highway construction project. This email request included the following notation: "Note that any information sent or received may be shared on my bird news blog, in order for other people concerned with what is happening at this site, can also be kept informed." Since it was noted up front that the information would be provided on this news blog, here is the reply, received August 6, 2010 from the biologist involved with the project. The text is presented verbatim, though a few sentences not specificially pertinent to the project are not included.
It should be noted here that a Black Tern has been photographed catching fish from the waters at the La Platte Bottoms.

Response by Agency Biologist

"Background--As you know, the Bellevue Bridge project is not just construction of a bridge over the Missouri River, but also includes construction of a new 4-lane highway across the floodplain of the Missouri River from Glenwood, Iowa to Bellevue, Nebraska. The project includes construction of seven interchanges along its length. The bridge portion of the project is proposed upstream and within one-mile of the Missouri and Platte rivers confluence. The project proponent is the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) from Iowa. The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) took the lead as the nonfederal project sponsor. All of our negotiations were with the FHWA and IDOT, and to a somewhat lessor degree with the Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR). We spent a considerable amount of time reviewing and responding to documents prepared to support this major construction project under authorities of the National Environmental Policy Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and Endangered Species Act.

"A major concern of ours was the potential for development to occur in the Missouri River floodplain as facilitated by those seven interchanges along the new four-lane highway (i.e., indirect impacts). We reasonably expected tremendous modification to hydrologic cycles in the Missouri and Platte rivers--rivers whose hydrologic cycles already have been hugely modified through artificial means. With an increase in run-off due to the conversion of crops to concrete surfaces and roofs came major concerns for the potential for contamination of this important confluence area. The Missouri and Platte rivers confluence was previously identified in the recovery plan for the endangered pallid sturgeon as a Recovery Priority Management Area. The pallid sturgeon frequents this area in the spring as it prepares to spawn in the Platte River. Much time was spent connecting the dots to support our concerns as they relate to indirect effects and the pallid sturgeon, but we also advocated for protection and avoidance for other federal trust resources that may be impacted by the proposed construction project. You requested several items in your July 26 E-mail--I have responded to each item below.

"Bald Eagle--Protection of riparian habitat for the bald eagle was an important issue during the course of the project review because the proposed project and its associated development could result in the loss of important feeding and winter roost habitat for the species during the wintertime--this area can remain ice free during the winter. Yes- you are correct that it was listed then, but it has since been delisted. That said, however, bald eagles still receive protection under provisions of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act--we continue to work with project proponents to protect eagle nests and winter roost sites across Nebraska.

"Least Terns and Piping Plovers--I was unaware of records for terns and plovers at the LaPlatte wetlands, but I am not surprised given the nearby location of the Platte River which provides a tremendous amount of sandbar habitat for these species. The wetlands were considered when we evaluated the project effects on federally listed threatened and endangered species. The wetlands provide no nesting habitat for the least tern or piping plover. The wetlands are unlikely to provide feeding habitat for the least tern as it goes dry periodically in the summer and/or freezes solid in the winter and cannot sustain small fish. The site may provide some foraging habitat for adult piping plovers, depending on habitat conditions, but none for broods given the distance from suitable nesting habitat located on the river. Additionally, we had no information that the foot print of the proposed project would result in the loss of these wetlands although indirect impacts could be reasonably expected in the future.

"Shore birds, waterfowl, wading birds--we recognized the importance of the aforementioned wetlands and the other habitats in the confluence area to wildlife species. For that reason, we sponsored the development of the Platte and Missouri River confluence working group whose goal it is to protect habitats in the confluence area including wetlands, riverine processes and functions, and the riparian corridor. Agency and organization representatives in attendance at working group meetings were the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District, and Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. Others in attendance included the former Nebraska State Director for Senator Ben Nelson's Office who strongly advocated a level of protection and conservation in the confluence area. Efforts were made to identify compatible and noncompatible land uses and sources of funds to acquire land in the confluence area for conservation purposes. There was much discussion about contamination in the confluence area given the extensive commercial industrial land use in the past and the relationship of such potential contamination to land values. The area was viewed as highly developable once the Bellevue Bridge and interchanges were constructed. A Brownfield Grant was prepared and submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency to fund contamination sampling--this was subsequently funded by EPA. Sampling has now been completed and we expect to receive a final survey report this Fall. The outcome of the contaminate survey report will drive land use in the area. Contaminated areas are expensive to remediate and less desirable for purchase for industrial development thereby increasing the confluence area's potential for greenspace, protection of wetlands, and conservation landuses.

"Wetland Mitigation Site--I am familiar with the mitigation site you mentioned in your E-mail--it is the Oreapolis mitigation site. The mitigation site is located near a railway as you point out in your E-mail--we recognize there are some drawbacks with this--primarily disturbance from passing trains. Even so, I think the positive items about the site outweigh the drawbacks. The site is located on a level portion of the floodplain--a site that may be desirable to developers because it is level requiring little dirt work and is located between two river highway crossings (new Plattsmouth and Bellevue bridges) simplifying transportation needs. The site is located within one-mile of the Schilling Wildlife Management area and even closer to a river front property to the north where the private landowners previously expressed an interest in a perpetual conservation easement. The Oreapolis mitigation site is a good addition to these existing areas and helps to enlarge the complex area that includes the Platte and Missouri rivers confluence that is important to the Platte and Missouri river confluence working group as discussed above.

"Migratory Birds--We provide recommendations to project proponents to avoid impacts to migratory birds. Our first recommendation is to do clearing and grubbing outside of the nesting season. If that is not possible, we recommend that surveys for active nests be done by qualified surveyors and that any active nests be avoided. I have no indication that the FHWA, IDOT, and NDOR will not complete such surveys--or follow our recommendations on how to stay in compliance with MBTA. Our recommendations have been discussed frequently with these organizations for several different projects, including the proposed Bellevue Bridge project."