A federal judge has disallowed claims by victims of the devastating 2011 floods, in four states, along the Missouri River including Iowa and Nebraska.
In a ruling unsealed Tuesday, a Federal Claims Court judge agreed with plaintiffs who sued the federal government, claiming that the Corps' policies favored wildlife protection over their economic interests.
The management changes allowed the corps to keep more water in reservoirs for wildlife, modify water-control structures and reopen previously closed chutes to create more shallow-water habitat.
Damages could exceed $300 million. Firestone chose 44 "bellwether plaintiffs" for assessing the claims.
But the court ruling was not a complete victory for the property owners.
A second phase of litigation will determine the extent of landowners' losses and whether the government has a viable defense against their claim it took private property without just compensation.
In her 259-page opinion, Firestone said the evidence established the Corps' changes to the river "had the effect of raising the Missouri River's water surface elevations in periods of high flows".
The judge also rejected the government's argument that the changes the corps made only increased the "risk" of flooding, and that the corps did not know that they would, in fact, cause flooding.
Firestone said in the ruling, "recurrent flooding in the Missouri River basin will continue into the future" and that farm land will continue to see blocked drainage because of expected higher river levels.
"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, Missouri. "It rightfully recognizes the government's responsibility for changing the river and subjecting us to more flooding than ever before".
R. Dan Boulware, lead counsel in the case for the farmers, said the battle has been long for producers who lost many acres of good ground. "Although we do not concur with the Court's conclusions regarding the 2011 flood event, we are very pleased with the Court's conclusions regarding the Corps changes to the river causing flooding, and we are certainly pleased with an outcome that will provide substantial compensation to plaintiffs living along the river who have suffered significant flood damage and losses throughout the past decade", said Boulware.
"The $300 million judgement is a pretty big 2×4 upside the head to tell the Corps to start worrying about flood control", Hurst says.
In the summer of 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the Corps is falling short on the system in place to update water control manuals.
During that year, Firestone wrote, the corps' releases of water were tied directly to protecting the integrity of the dams and reservoirs in the basin, rather than protecting endangered species.
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.
But John Echeverria, a takings expert at Vermont Law School, said it's unclear whether individual landowners would be able to get paid for losses due to flooding.