Lawsuit: US Army spillway opening hurts wildlife, localities

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — Officials in Mississippi are trying to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission to consult with them before opening the Bonnet Carré Spillway in Louisiana again and flooding the region with polluted river water.

A federal lawsuit filed this week by several cities, counties and groups accuses the corps and commission of violating federal law by opening the spillway more frequently. They say the defendants hurt wildlife and localities by opening it for prolonged periods of time without considering the consequences.

The spillway has been opened 14 times since it was built in the 1930s to help manage Mississippi River flooding and navigation. Of those openings, five have happened since 2011. It was opened in 2018 and 2019, marking the first time the spillway was opened for two consecutive years. This year alone, the spillway was opened twice and left open for a total of 123 days. The corps’ manual plans for spillway openings ever seven to 10 years to stop rivers from flooding New Orleans.

And the increased rainfall from warming temperatures means the frequent openings will likely continue, the lawsuit says.

The increased opening of the spillway has cause polluted river water to spread throughout the region, according to the lawsuit. It’s blamed for issues including high wildlife mortality rates, decreased salinity levels and the spread of potentially toxic algae blooms that led to the monthslong limit of contact with water at beaches and vacation spots. News outlets report the impact was reminiscent of the 2010 BP oil spill, which caused a record number of dolphin and sea turtle corpses to wash ashore.

The president of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies and the chair of Mississippi Sound Coalition’s Science Advisory Committee said this appears even worse than the oil spill.

“We have a catastrophic loss of our fisheries,” Moby Solangi said, according to WXXV-TV. “Oysters are gone. We have hundreds of millions of dollars of damage in tourism, natural resources, and the image. So, if this continues and nothing is done, the Mississippi Sound and the coastal communities are going to suffer.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce in September declared a federal fisheries disaster in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana over the Gulf of Mexico’s being flooded with fresh water from the spillway’s prolonged opening. The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has estimated that spillway openings cost fisheries more than $160 million.

The corps opens the spillway after it gets approval from the commission’s president, who leads the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary injunction that requires the corps to consult local governments about how to minimize the impacts of opening the spillway. It also wants the defendants to study the impacts of frequent spillway openings and offer ways to mitigate damage. Such mitigating actions could include releasing water through other spillways and addressing river pollution, according to the lawsuit.

Reports don’t include comment from the defendants.