With the potential for floods looming large, Sen. Dirk Kempthorne on Thursday blasted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for stopping a flood control project on the St. Joe River.
“Repairs to the dangerous conditions at the dikes in St. Maries have been suspended for two months while the Service has engaged in a fruitless consultation process,” the Idaho Republican wrote in a letter to the agency’s director.
“It is time for the Service to allow the dike repair to proceed before lives are lost and property destroyed.”
But Benewah County has been free since March 21 to proceed with the project, according to Fish and Wildlife biologist Rick Donaldson.
That’s when his agency completed a review of how the project would affect bald eagles that perch in the cottonwood trees along the river.
That completed the scientific consultation required whenever a federally funded project might affect a threatened or endangered species.
But there’s a hangup.
Because cottonwoods are being removed from the levees, the biologists concluded that 35 acres of habitat had to be set aside elsewhere along the river. They said that cottonwoods must be planted, and wooden perches built to take the place of some trees.
Another federal agency is balking at that.
The Economic Development Administration is paying for the levee work with money Congress designated for the project last April. And it can’t afford to buy land or easements for habitat, according to spokeswoman Ella Rusinko.
EDA officials contend that Fish and Wildlife grossly overestimated the amount of habitat affected.
Instead of 35 acres, they think four to nine acres is more like it.
“If they want a drastic change like that, we may have to go back into consultation,” said Donaldson.
This time, consultation would take much longer than the 11-day, hurry-up job the agency did in March, he said. He added that Fish and Wildlife would like to avoid that, and hopes to reach a compromise.
The EDA is questioning not only the biologists’ conclusion, Donaldson said, but their ability to judge when an animal might be harmed.
So is Kempthorne.
“I believe there is no empirical evidence to support the Service’s conclusion that removal of the cottonwoods will in fact harm identifiable bald eagles,” he wrote.
The Army Corps of Engineers is requiring Benewah County to remove the cottonwoods in order to qualify for federal disaster aid.
This week, the corps is in St. Maries. Workers are in an emergency mode. They’re piling dirt and sandbags along State Highway 3, where floodwater spilled over the dike last February.
Benewah County officials had hoped to reinforce the nonriver side of the dams by now, prior to a major levee reconstruction this summer.
But the EDA won’t write checks for any work until it’s sure that Fish and Wildlife requirements are satisfied.
“We’d have that done if this controversy hadn’t arisen,” said a frustrated George Currier, the county’s civil defense director. “We’re fighting our own government agencies now.”