A federal judge in Washington, D.C. ruled Tuesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for flooding and damaging farms and property in four Midwest states along the Missouri River: Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. The ruling states that the government must compensate farmers, landowners and business owners for the flood damage, which has been estimated to exceed $300 million.
The case, Ideker Farms et al v. United States of America, was brought in 2014 by 372 plaintiffs comprised of farmers, landowners and business owners, and has been led by Polsinelli in partnership with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
"As a farmer and landowner who has experienced substantial losses from these floods, I'm extremely pleased with this outcome," said lead plaintiff Roger Ideker of Ideker Farms in St. Joseph, Mo. in a statement "It rightfully recognizes the Government's responsibility for changing the River and subjecting us to more flooding than ever before."
The mass action lawsuit alleged that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' actions violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment that bars the Government from taking private property without just compensation. Judge Nancy Firestone with the United States Court of Federal Claims found in favor of the plaintiffs in five of the six years that the flooding was claimed dating back to 2007, disallowing the flood claims in 2011. The judge ruled that 2011 flooding occurred because runoff exceeded the amount of storage in the river's six corps controlled reservoirs, not because of changes the corps had made in river flow management.
Judge Firestone stated in her Trial Opinion that the evidence established that the Corps' changes to the river "had the effect of raising the Missouri River's water surface elevations ("WSEs") in periods of high flows." She found that since 2007, the flooding has been among the worst in the history of the river and the Corps' changes in the management of the river caused or contributed to the flooding.
The Court also acknowledged that "recurrent flooding in the Missouri River Basin . . . will continue into the future," and that increased blocked drainage of farm lands due to higher river levels is a problem. The court’s ruling is available here.
The ruling also addressed the critical shift in the management of the river by the Corps in 2004 to restore its ecosystem and benefit and create habitat for threatened and endangered species. The court found that the notching of dikes and revetments, as well as the reopening of the historic chutes, which allows the river to meander and erode the bank, created potential flood impacts. These changes to the river, coupled with increased reservoir storage and threatened and endangered species releases from the dams during high river stages below the dams, served to cause or contribute to cause flooding in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014 and since.
This ruling marks the end of phase one, which began on Mar. 6, 2017, focusing on liability and the cause of the flooding. The case will next proceed to phase two, where the Court will determine the extent of losses due to the taking.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, said he was pleased “that the Federal Claims Court has found what Missouri families, farmers, and business owners have been saying for more than a decade: the Army Corps of Engineers’ mismanagement of the Missouri River has resulted in widespread damages with substantial costs,” Blunt said. “I hope this decision is the first step in a new direction for the Corps. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure the river is managed in a way that prioritizes flood control, while balancing other interests.”
The Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to our request to comment.
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