Mending Scars

Farmers Slowly Recover From Flood

Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
Farms across the Missouri River basin continue to battle back from the 2011 flood. Farmers hold out hopes they will be compensated by a federal court. (Photo courtesy Scott Olson)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Corn and soybean farmer Roger Ideker says his river bottomland near St. Joseph, Mo., is still scarred from Missouri River flooding five years ago.

The 2011 Missouri River basin flood caused an estimated $2 billion in damage in several states. The basin was overrun with flood waters from spring rains and snowmelt from Montana. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to make unprecedented water releases from northern dams, flooding farms and communities in the lower basin and bringing into question whether the Corps handled the situation correctly. Many downstream blamed the Corps of Engineers' water release from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota for exacerbating the flood. A task force later found the Corps did all it could to manage the water.

Still, 382 farmers, landowners and businesses sued the U.S. government for $250 million in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. in 2014, claiming they are due compensation for land unlawfully taken in the flood. That case continues to play out as discovery is set to close Nov. 18, 2016.

Ideker is one of the hundreds of basin farmers still trying to return large chunks of land buried in sand back to production and hoping for a successful claim.

"Flooding has changed the way the river acts," said Ideker, who farms some 2,000 acres. "Our farm goes back to 1952 and it acts different. The water comes up so fast. It doesn't take a whole lot of rain to raise it up to a new level."

This year the Ideker farm has about 250 acres out of production and scars on the land are visible.

"Well the farm has not recovered," he said. "We still have problems with flooding and a high river. We have a lot of erosion and seepage problems. We're farming the property. Some portions of ground we're not able to farm."

In the months after the waters receded, Ideker said he moved sand deposits back into erosional areas and scour holes.

"We picked it from fields at a very high cost," he said. "They're better but they need to be fine-graded but I've not been able to do it. We're working to get the farm back in shape. We're doing what we can. When you take out 200-plus acres it raises costs to produce. You're kind of limited in what you can do. We're hopeful. We think we have very good case."

Ideker said he continues to be concerned about the long-term viability of his farm. In particular he has concerns that damage to the land and an elevated flood risk could hurt land values.

Last week the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the Army Corps of Engineers is falling short on the system in place to update water control manuals. Corps regulations state water control manuals should be reviewed at least every 10 years.

"However, officials from all 15 districts GAO interviewed said they do not document informal reviews of water control manuals because they consider such reviews part of the daily routine of operating projects," GAO said.

"...The Corps' engineer regulations also state that water control manuals shall be revised as needed, but the extent to which manuals have been revised or need revision remains unknown because the Corps' divisions do not track consistent information about manuals."

LEGAL CASE

R. Dan Boulware, a St. Joseph-based attorney leading the lawsuit, said there continues to be good farm ground out of production as a result of the flood.

"I will say this, we have a number of farmers who have lost land, prime farmland, still buried in nine feet of sand," he said. "It will probably never be recovered."

Boulware said he is making the case the 2011 flood caused by the Corps' water release constitutes a taking of property in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

He compares what happened with the flood to when a government agency shows up at a farmer's door and says land is needed to build a highway.

"You can't take the property without compensation," Boulware said. "In this sense we have a water highway. The government is expanding the right of way of a water highway. They're just taking it. They haven't paid for it. There are losses for the taking. We expect to recover reasonable value of losses from the taking."

There have been other similar lawsuits in recent years that have been successful. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 issued a ruling in Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The court ruled temporary flooding can constitute a taking. The same federal claims court where Boulware is arguing his case issued a similar ruling on a lawsuit involving Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2015.

Boulware said although the 2011 flood has been a focal point, the overall flow of the river has changed as a result of the Corps of Engineers' release.

"The flooding is ongoing because the federal government has changed the river," he said. "They have changed the equilibrium of the river. It has been ongoing."

In 2004 the Corps instituted the Missouri River Recovery Program, http://bit.ly/…, to accelerate changes to the river to enhance wildlife habitats. Boulware said the river has become flood prone and is still changing.

The Corps of Engineers does not comment on pending litigation.

"We like our chances," Boulware said. "We wouldn't have filed suit if we didn't think we would win."

MENDING GROUND

Tekamah, Nebraska, farmer Scott Olson's farm had some 500 acres underwater in 2011 for some 100 days. Today, he continues to dig away sand some four to eight feet deep on about 20 acres.

Recovering land buried in sand is a slow process.

On the land dug out, Olson has taken steps to recover soil fertility by planting cover crops, applying fertilizer and using proper crop rotations.

Last year Olson said he had a "good bean crop" and this year the corn stand is good on the 200 acres in production -- best he's had since 2011. Between 2011 and 2016 Olson has managed to grow a crop on at least some of the acres lost to sand in 2011. Olson had a crop loss from high water again in 2013.

In 2011, most of the 45 acres buried was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. In 2012 Olson managed to dig out the CRP ground where he found green grass.

Olson said his expectations are low even if the lawsuit is successful.

"I don't think I will be paid," he said.

"So many people were wiped out by this. There was so many people who got absolutely shafted on that deal. I'm in contact with people up and down the river.

"I don't know of anyone who has the land back to where it should be."

Read the GAO report here: http://www.gao.gov/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

(CC/CZ)

Todd Neeley