WASHINGTON --Drainage and levee districts along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers are suing the federal government in an attempt to recoup millions of dollars in losses the districts and their landowners have suffered due to mismanagement of navigation channels in the two rivers by the Army Corps of Engineers.
If successful, the lawsuit will help farmers and landowners along the rivers whose lands and pocketbooks have been damaged by Corps projects. The districts, which were created by landowners adjoining the rivers to drain excess water from their lands and maintain levee systems, allege in the lawsuit that changes in the Corps' operation and maintenance of navigation channels on the rivers and its failure to protect levees has resulted in significant costs to the districts. Specifically, the districts say the insertion of wing dams and other obstructions in the rivers, and other Corps activities such as its refusal to dredge the navigation channels, have raised river levels, increased hydraulic pressure on levees, and allowed unprecedented amounts of water to seep into farm lands behind the levees. As a result, the districts have spent much more money pumping water off the lands and repairing levees than was anticipated when the Corps first began operating and maintaining the channels.
While the districts are seeking to recover their losses, the Corps' actions also affect landowners along the rivers who have also suffered millions of dollars in damage. High river levels and water seepage have decreased the productivity of some adjoining farm lands by saturating the ground and causing farmers to delay planting their crops. In addition, landowners have paid significantly higher drainage district fees to cover the increased costs of draining their lands. Mr. John Robb, a commissioner of Henderson county Drainage District No. 3 in Gladstone, Illinois, said landowners in his district now pay ten times as much per acre in drainage district assessments than before the changes in Corps activities on the rivers. "Our costs are now up to $30 per acre," said Robb. '"The landowners are the ones who really feel the effects of the Corps' refusal to operate and maintain the navigation channels properly."
Mr. Gary Baise -- a member ofthe Washington, D.C. law firm ofBaise, Miller & Freer, P.C., which is representing the districts and also the owner-operator of a soybean farm in Jacksonville, Illinois -- said the present situation is out of control. "The districts and their landowners should not be required to carry the financial burden of maintaining and operating the federal government's navigation channels," said Baise. "If the federal government wants the districts to carry this burden, then our federal laws, especially the U.S. Constitution, require the federal government to compensate the districts and farmers accordingly."
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. Federal Claims Court in Washington, alleges specifically that the Corps navigation projects have had effects well beyond those originally contemplated when the districts signed agreements with the Corps during the 1950s and 1960s. Under those agreements, the districts received a modest lump sum payment from the federal government for anticipated damages related to Corps projects in exchange for their agreement not to sue the government for those damages.
The districts and the federal government based their agreement on estimates the Corps gave Congress on the amount of levee damage and water seepage that would occur from the Corps construction, operation, and maintenance of the navigation channels. However, water seepage rates are now as much as seven times higher than the amounts the Corps represented to Congress, and the Corps' refusal to repair and maintain levees is also inconsistent with representations the Corps made to Congress, Robb said. "The Corps claims it is not responsible for any damage simply because of the agreements that were entered into, and also claims that the statute of limitations for suing the federal government has passed," said Robb. "But the fact is that the districts and landowners are being affected in ways not anticipated by those agreements, and the law says they should be compensated."
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