Dry ground and unmet promises: Platte County wetlands project is dead in the water

The restoration project in Platte Landing Park was supposed to provide safe habitat for native species. Now, it poses a health risk

By: - January 24, 2022 11:52 am

The Corps of Engineers wetlands rehabilitation project in Parkville, Mo. A plastic mesh was used in restoring the wetlands and later deemed unfit for use in the rehab (Chase Castor/The Beacon).

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon.

A wide expanse of plastic netting sits partially buried by dirt and vegetation in Parkville’s Platte Landing Park. Intended as the base of an ongoing wetlands restoration project, the netting has instead become an expensive — and dangerous — nuisance.

The City of Parkville in 2017 signed an agreement to participate in a restoration project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Known as an “1135 project,” named for a section of the federal Water Resources Development Act, it is one of dozens across the country aimed at repairing damage caused by Corps of Engineers activity, river damming in particular.

Under terms of the agreement, the federal government agreed to pay 75% of the costs, and Parkville agreed to use the land’s assessed value to pay the remaining 25%.

But several years later, the city and the Corps are caught in an ongoing battle as to who should pay for what. A reassessment of the land’s value has thrown the initial agreement into disarray, and neither party wants to pay to fix missteps made in the early construction period.

Weeds now thrive in the spot where native plants were intended to grow. Plastic netting poses a safety risk for birds and wildlife. Winter presents an opportunity to raze the weeds without hurting the dormant natives, but there’s no guarantee a resolution will be reached before spring.

Local-federal partnership 

Platte Landing Park encompasses 140 acres of land just southwest of the city’s downtown. With two miles of trails, several dog parks and a recently installed boat ramp, the park has long been a haven for recreational activity. City leaders had hoped that further investments in the natural environment would help attract wildlife and even more outdoor enthusiasts.

Restoring the wetlands in Platte Landing Park was billed as a $3.5 million project. The initial agreement had Parkville covering $694,250. That amount was increased to $875,916, and then $906,700 in 2019, after the Corps of Engineers indicated it had received more funding for the project. At the time, the value of the land was still accepted as sufficient to pay for the city’s cost.

However, the Corps of Engineers no longer believes the land is worth that much. The federal agency did not respond to multiple requests from The Beacon to clarify the new appraised value, or why it decided to reappraise the property after the initial agreement.

“The city was not planning on putting any cash towards the project. We were using the land value as our local match,” said Alysen Abel, Parkville’s public works director.

Parkville purchased the land from Platte County for $1 with the understanding that it would be used in the wetlands restoration project. According to a news release announcing the project’s groundbreaking in 2019, the restoration area includes 23 acres of emergent wetlands, 14 acres of wet mesic bottomland prairie and 4.5 acres of riparian corridor.

Two years after the groundbreaking, little has been accomplished. Aside from the netting peeking through dry winter vegetation, there’s no outward sign any work has been done at all.

“We were told by the Corps that we would have these beautiful wetlands and, you know, things just haven’t gone that way,” said Tina Welch, who represents Ward 1 on the city’s Board of Aldermen.

A question of material error

When the project was announced, dozens of vendors expressed interest in securing a contract to restore the wetlands. Some were located in Missouri and Kansas, while others were as far away as California.

The Corps of Engineers eventually awarded a contract to BKM Construction LLC, a company based in Leavenworth, Kansas. When reached by email, minority owner Michael Meyer told The Beacon the project is now in the maintenance phase, and he directed any questions about the materials used to the Corps of Engineers.

David Kolarik, chief public affairs officer for the Corps’ Kansas City District, said an erosion control blanket was initially installed to “prevent weeds from outcompeting the plantings and to prevent any side slope erosion.”

The blanket has drawn criticism from environmental advocates, including the Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City. Critics say it poses a danger to birds in the wetlands. It contains non-biodegradable plastic mesh, which goes against recommended best practices for restoration projects.

“Just coco fiber would’ve been acceptable,” said Mary Nemecek, vice president of the society’s local chapter. “You’d put your plug plants in and use that for weed suppression. It’s the plastic piece that’s so concerning. And that product is more expensive.”

Kolarik confirmed that the Corps intends to remove the erosion blanket,  but neither he nor Abel was able to provide a time frame for its removal.

“The preferred time of removal would be during the dormant season when the plantings would be least disturbed,” Kolarik said.

The wetlands aren’t staying wet

Some areas of the multi-acre project have fared better than others. In order for the wetland restoration to succeed, the ground must consistently hold water. So far, that hasn’t happened.

“On the west end it does hold water at various times, places, and durations,” Kolarik said. “The east end doesn’t retain water as initially desired; however, it is unclear at this point what investment the partners would be able and willing to make to retain more water on that end.”

Installing a clay liner on the east end would incur more expenses for the city, another cost it didn’t anticipate when it agreed to the project. Welch said the public works department continues to negotiate with the Corps of Engineers. But the project remains deadlocked. Every week the negotiations continue, the window narrows for corrective action to be taken before spring.

Nemecek has watched the negotiations with growing concern. The Corps of Engineers has said removing the netting in the dormant season would help salvage some of the native plants, but hasn’t put forward a solution to the problem of the water draining.

“So I don’t know what they’re looking at addressing,” Nemecek said. “It’s not been clear whether we’re going to fix the wetlands so they hold water. Are we only going to take the netting out? Are we not going to do any of this because it’ll increase the cost of the project?”

Residents and city officials have become frustrated by unmet promises and the ever-lengthening project timeline.

“We just kept on waiting, thinking, ‘Oh, well, you know, it’s gonna rain and things are gonna fill,’ and every time it would rain, the water would just disappear,” Welch said. “It’s been very frustrating.”

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Emily Wolf
Emily Wolf

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.