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A group of 131 Arkansas farmers and landowners who live and work along the White River and its tributaries -- mostly in Prairie and Monroe counties -- sued the federal government Thursday, saying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' management of the waterways has allowed floodwaters to destroy their livelihoods and homesteads.

Filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., the lawsuit alleges that the Corps' "deliberate departure" from flood-control policies to policies favoring recreational and environmental concerns has constituted an illegal taking of their land without compensation.

Rather than trying to change the Corps' methods, saying most of the damage is already done, the plaintiffs are seeking monetary compensation.

Attorney Chad Pekron, who filed the suit on behalf of the residents and business operators, said the flooding that has resulted from the Corps' unannounced releases of water at higher elevations and other management decisions over a period of several years has affected tens of thousands of acres, and with it, generations of hard work and family legacies.

"By this point, it has become apparent that the Corps isn't going to change its policy," Pekron said, explaining why the farmers have now decided to take action. "This isn't just a temporary invasion of their property. And under the Constitution, property is not to be taken without just compensation."

After the lawsuit was filed in late afternoon, the public affairs office of the Corps' office in Little Rock was already closed, preventing any immediate comment on the litigation.

The lead plaintiff, Jimmy Baxter of Biscoe in Prairie County, said the Corps has never announced or publicly acknowledged that its policies have changed drastically over the decades, particularly in the past 10 years, but his research showed that the agency's gradual departure from its original flood-control mission is behind the bouts of increased flooding in recent years.

Baxter and his brother farm about 4,000 acres in Prairie, Woodruff and Monroe counties, following in the footsteps of his late grandfather, who started farming in the area in 1949 and retired after 43 years in 1992.

He said his grandfather lost part of one crop in 1984 because of flooding, and that "just about did him in."

"Now," he said, "I've lost five of the last 10 crops. If it weren't for the matter of it being part of our heritage and generations tied up in this, it's almost not worth it."

He farms soybeans, rice, wheat, and other crops on the low-lying land.

"There were 36 farms when I was a kid in this town. Now there's four of us," he said.

Baxter said the Corps used to discharge water in the area every November or December, which duck-hunters enjoyed and the farmers didn't mind because it recharged the soil, making it fertile for spring planting. Now, he said, "they hold all that water till springtime, when we're out there trying to put a crop in."

Since 2008, he said, "the only year we haven't had a spring flood was 2012."

Baxter said the inundations puzzled him, prompting him to wonder if global warming was somehow to blame, until he researched weather patterns and learned that rainfall amounts had basically stayed the same from year to year. He said it soon became apparent that changes the Corps made to the amount of water it held in conservation pools and flood pools was the culprit.

"It just kicked us in the teeth," he said of the unannounced change. He added, "Farms and homes don't take precedence anymore. But we're realistic. If the economic value of recreation is more important than farming, just pay us for what you're costing us."

Meanwhile, he said, noting that it takes a lifetime and costs a fortune to build a farm by gradually leasing acres, he tells his children that if they want to farm, they must first "learn a marketable trade" to fall back on.

"When I got out of college, I had saved every nickel I made for 10 years so me and my brother could start our own farm," Baxter said. He worked as an accountant and his brother worked as a machinist until they had enough money to take over their grandfather's farm. During that time, he said, he would come home from work at 3 p.m. and immediately jump on a tractor. Then his brother would get off work at 3 a.m and take over, with neither of them getting much sleep while they gradually built their business.

The lawsuit takes issue with "a significant and deliberated departure" by the Corps "from its longstanding policies and practices regarding the management of the White River and its tributaries, including but not limited to, the Black River, Cache River, and Little Red River ..., and the six flood control reservoirs and dams located within the White River Basin."

It says that in order to provide "the highest quality, year-round public recreation," the Corps changed its practices "despite knowing that the direct, natural, probable and foreseeable result of that departure would be increasingly frequent, prolonged, and severe flooding" of the plaintiffs' property.

The lawsuit asserts, "But for the Corps' departure from its longstanding flood-control policies and procedures, most -- if not all -- of this prolonged flooding would not have occurred." Any flooding that would have occurred under the Corps' prior policies and procedures would have been minimal in comparison, it says.

The change, the suit says, "was part of a multi-year process to appropriate a benefit for the public; namely, to increase quality year-round recreation within the River System's reservoirs and tail waters, and to preserve wetlands in the Basin."

The lawsuit lays out the history of the flood-control system for the Basin, starting in the mid-1800s, when the federal government had "little to no involvement with flood control efforts." It says that in 1929, Congress vested the Corps with authority over flood control matters, and in the Flood Control Act of 1936, declared floods a federal responsibility.

After the completion of reservoirs and dams, the government's flood-control policies, as implemented by the Corps, "opened the way for extensive growth and development of the Basin, especially for agriculture," the lawsuit states.

Following the government's lead, "Our clients have spent substantial amounts of money buying and developing the land for agricultural uses," said Pekron, who is with the Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull law firm in Little Rock.

"The Corps' changes to its flood-control policies and operations with the Basin ... have led to repeated, atypical, and longer durations of flooding of thousands of acres, ... causing severe and unprecedented losses" to the plaintiffs, the suit alleges.

The suit cites findings from the University of Arkansas' Agriculture Division that flooding in 2011 resulted in about $335 million in flood damage to Arkansas farmers, while 2016 flooding caused an estimated $50 million in damage, and flooding in early 2017 caused an estimated $175 million in damage, as well as adversely affecting farming operations on nearly 1 million acres.

Metro on 03/22/2019

Print Headline: In lawsuit, Arkansas farmers, landowners blame Corps for flood losses


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