KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Roger Ideker remembers a calmer, friendlier river that lured his dad into buying and farming land in Holt County. He even joined him in the family operation.
“He had a vision that farm someday would be of value,” Ideker recalls about his dad. “Why? Because he could see the government was building levies and dams and eventually that essentially swamp ground would be turned into productive ground.”
That was the central argument of a federal claims court lawsuit filed in 2014 by Ideker Farms and 371 other farmers, landowners, and businesses in six states along the Missouri River. Simply that with the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944 and efforts to narrow and tame the river, farmers bought up land and began farming the fertile soil. Invited they argue, by the federal government.
“And then,” Ideker recalls, “we started to say gosh, this is different than it has been.”
Floods resumed in 2007 and 2008. As they researched why, they learned river management under the Army Corps of Engineers had shifted. Where flood control had been the top priority of eight federally authorized purposes, they alleged the Endangered Species Act now took priority.
Dan Boulware, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, says a federal judge in Minnesota ruled in 2004 that the federal government needed to treat each “purpose” equally. He said it was up to Congress to figure out how to rectify conflicting federal laws.
“He (the judge) says I don’t know which trumps the other,” Boulware said, referring to flood control and endangered species laws. “I don’t know that. So congress needs to decide. And guess what. Congress has never decided.”
More flooding followed. Damages added up.
Three years after the lawsuit was filed, a federal claims court judge sided with the landowners: that by inviting them to settle on the flood controlled land, then changing the rules of management to cause more flooding, the government had “taken” the land without “just compensation” under the U.S. Constitution’s 5th Amendment.
The judge also agreed with the landowner’s experts who warned the flooding will continue, and even get worse each time. Boulware believes that’s why the flooding of this spring has been so historic.
“What’s the flood going to be like in 2022. Is it going to wipe out Kansas City? Is downtown Kansas City going to be underwater?”
Boulware doesn’t think so, but he does believe urban flooding is coming, and that in the meantime, city based businesses will be harmed by the economic impact, when farmers buy fewer supplies.
He hopes Congress will act to clear up the confusion and restore flood control as the priority of river management.
To that end, Congressman Sam Graves, whose Missouri district includes many of the harmed landowners, has again filed a measure to do just that. The House Resolution is not his first attempt, but a spokesman says it could come up in more ambitious measures like the Water Resources Development Act.
Meantime phase two of the federal lawsuit takes place next year: a trial to determine how much the damaged farmers are owed. That could go as high as $300 million for flooding through 2013.
Ideker is frustrated at how long it’s taken, and that damages since then aren’t covered. But he says, farmers don’t often walk away:
“I don’t want to give up. Most farmers don’t,” he said. “We don’t want to say we are, but it’s getting to be pretty difficult.”
The Army Corps of Engineers didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment about this story.