OMAHA, Neb. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shouldn't be blamed for causing major flooding along the Missouri River that has affected five states regularly since 2006, the federal government says in its initial response to a lawsuit.
More than 200 landowners claimed in their March lawsuit that they should be compensated for the extensive damage they experienced - particularly during the extended 2011 flooding that devastated hundreds of thousands of acres of mostly farmland in South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.
When the Corps decides how to manage the Missouri River's reservoirs, officials balance flood control and other potential uses of the river, including barge traffic, hydropower, recreation and providing habitat for fish and wildlife. The landowners say the government is putting less emphasis on flood control because of efforts to restore habitat for endangered species.
Government lawyers deny that in a 56-page response filed Thursday. They argue that authorities never promised to stop all flooding on the Missouri River, and that providing habitat for endangered species didn't exacerbate flooding.
"The system does not guarantee a flood-free zone in the Missouri River reaches between the system reservoirs and below the system," the government's lawyers wrote. "Downstream flooding will occur even if releases are reduced to minimums from the system dams because enough uncontrolled area exists downstream from several of the dams to cause major flooding if significant rainfall occurs."
The landowners argued that the recurring flooding along the Missouri River has improperly deprived them of their land, so they should be compensated because the government improperly took it.
Eddie Smith, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said he wasn't surprised by the government's initial response. He said the lawsuit is likely to take several years to resolve.
The 2011 flooding lasted more than three months after the Corps began releasing massive amounts of water from reservoirs upstream that were filled by melted snow and heavy rains. The floodwaters overwhelmed levees, carved gouges up to 50 feet deep, created sand dunes 15 feet deep and deposited strange debris on farmers' fields.
Outside experts who reviewed the 2011 flooding said the Corps did the best it could in dealing with record amounts of water that flowed into the 2,341-mile-long river after unusually heavy spring rains in Montana and North Dakota.