Power given up to override federal water works

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Fishermen and environmentalists expressed concern over the recent decision by the state of Missouri to surrender its veto power over federal water projects that impact wetlands, rivers and streams.
In response to the move, federal officials say that they know of no other state that has given up this certification authority.

In surrendering its authority, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said it will save $99,000 annually. That's a small savings, say critics, when the Bush administration is already narrowing the definition of protected wetlands, making it easier to destroy them.

"It's a hell of an authority to give up," said Tim Searchinger, a senior attorney for Environmental Defense.

In the past, the DNR has used its authority to block or force modifications of projects that require federal permits. In one of its more controversial decisions, it denied certification for the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project on the Mississippi, arguing that the work would threaten water quality and wildlife. That decision is now being appealed.

Despite the appearance given in abdicating authority, the DNR said that political pressure was not a factor in its decision. Budgetary considerations, it insisted, took precedence, as Missouri experienced a $67 million shortfall.

DNR Director Steve Mahfood said that he expects the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be able to take over the responsibility of reviewing proposed projects to make sure they comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

A spokesman for the EPA, however, expressed surprise at the move and indicated that the federal agency might not want the added responsibility.