Judge: Corps responsible for flooding, damage in 4 states

ST. LOUIS — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should act immediately to make flood control the top priority on the Missouri River, an attorney for hundreds of farmers, landowners and business operators said Wednesday after a federal judge ruled the agency was responsible for recurring flooding.

Judge Nancy B. Firestone's ruling Tuesday in Washington cited river management changes initiated by the Corps of Engineers starting in 2004, including efforts to aid endangered fish and birds, that led to damages estimated to exceed $300 million in four states: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. The Corps manages the Missouri River's system of dams and locks and decides when and how much water is released from reservoirs into the river.

In her 259-page ruling, Firestone wrote that flooding "was caused by and was the foreseeable result" of the Corps' management of the river. Another trial will start in October to determine how much money the lawsuit's 372 plaintiffs will receive.

"We are evaluating the court's ruling, and considering next steps, in coordination with the Department of Justice," Corps spokesman Gene Pawlik said in an email.

The lawsuit, filed in 2014, contended the Corps unconstitutionally deprived people of their land, essentially taking it without compensation. Firestone found in favor of the plaintiffs in five of the six years in which flooding was blamed on Corps management, disallowing flood claims in 2011.

R. Dan Boulware, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he will ask the judge to reconsider her decision disallowing the 2011 flood claims. Still, Boulware said the ruling makes it clear that the Missouri River is changed and is more prone to flooding.

"Now Congress needs to do something. They need to step in and say, 'We've got a problem here,'" Boulware said in a phone interview Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, agreed.

"I hope this decision is the first step in a new direction for the Corps," Blunt said in a statement. "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 lawsuit contended the Corps made a management shift in 2004 that downplayed flood control while emphasizing restoring ecosystem and habitat creation for threatened and endangered species. The court ruled that practices such as notching of dikes and reopening of chutes worsened the flood risk.

The lawsuit also cited the Corps' practice of releasing threatened and endangered species from reservoirs, even when river levels below the dams were high. And, it cited increasing reservoir storage as a factor in the recent floods.

The 63-day trial began in Kansas City, Missouri, before moving to Washington. It concluded in December.

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