Big Ag, The Missouri River, and the Lawsuit Against the Corps

TractorIn the lawsuit by Missouri Valley agriculturalists against the Army Corps of Engineers, the plaintiffs (who consist mostly of lower valley farmers, including members of the Corn Grower’s Association, Farm Bureau, and Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association) claim that the Army is responsible for the Missouri River flood of 2011, as well earlier floods.  The plaintiffs assert that new Corps policies, first instituted in 2004, have led to increased flooding along the river.  According to the plaintiffs, the Corps has made flood control and the protection of private property a lesser priority in its management calculations than the enhancement of fish and wildlife habitat.  Essentially, agriculture interests (who we’ll call Big Ag for the purpose of simplicity and because the term aptly describes the financial and political power of the plaintiffs) argue that the Corps put the habitat requirements of the pallid sturgeon, least tern, and piping plover over the human need for flood protection.

The plaintiffs assert that the Army’s channel chute restoration and notching of wing dams along the lower river has also contributed to bank erosion and the subsequent loss of private property.  That erosion constituted an unlawful federal “taking” of private property.  The plaintiffs’ claims, which are the basis of their legal case, hold no merit whatsoever.  For decades, the Corps has consistently placed the interests of valley farmers and the river’s one or two barge operators over fish and wildlife; this is why the lower river valley’s ecological health is currently in such a sorry state – it’s not because the Corps has done such a fantastic job as an ecological steward.  The Army built the entire hydraulic system of dams and navigation works to increase American agricultural and industrial output.  Contrary to the arguments of the plaintiffs, the Army has never abandoned those two paramount goals.  It continues to manage the Missouri River to enhance the productive capacity of the American economy.

Yet, Big Ag’s seemingly ridiculous lawsuit is about more than placing blame for the flood on the shoulders of the Corps.  It has a larger agenda.  Namely, Big Ag wants to assert total dominance over the Missouri River.  The farming community is attempting, through the courts and media, to intimidate both the Corps and the environmentalists – the two groups that have challenged their blatantly self-interested Missouri River policies.  Simply put, the case is a public relations ploy, designed to tag the Army, and by association the environmentalists, as villains – the bad guys who have brought down the flood waters on the innocents – those upstanding, selfless, patriotic farmers living in the Missouri River bottoms.  The fact that Big Ag established a website to publicize its case is indicative of its larger agenda.  How many plaintiffs create a slick little website to put forward their “legal” arguments?

If the public believes Big Ag’s deception, it is conceivable that the Army and the environmentalists will be so wounded politically that neither group will be able to challenge the farming community’s river policies for years to come.  Big Ag will reign supreme along the Missouri.  Of course, that result will be detrimental to the non-farming community in the Missouri Basin, who will be faced with a greater risk of flooding.

Big Ag wants more than hegemony along the Missouri.  Through the courts and the Midwest’s lame, kowtowing media outlets, it is attempting to deflect public scrutiny of its role in the Missouri’s increasingly frequent flooding.  Make no mistake about it, the flood of 2011 and the earlier floods were largely the result of irresponsible farming practices.  Since 2007 (which, incidentally, is the year the plaintiffs argue the river began experiencing more frequent high flows) farmers destroyed millions of acres of water-absorbing wetlands, pasture land, and CRP land in the Dakotas and Montana.  Throughout the 20th century, farmers eliminated the Lower Valley’s floodplain, oxbow lakes, and sloughs – all the areas that held water during flood episodes and lowered flood crests.  Farmers have also been staunch supports of the navigation channel, which lacks the conveyance capacity to move flood flows south to the Mississippi.

Finally, Big Ag hopes there will be no river restoration work along the river in the wake of the court case.  Why?  Because they do not want a single acre of land in the lower valley taken out of corn and soybeans.  Their policy stance is essentially this: “No Land Forfeiture for Flood Control.”  Ironically, channel widening and chute restoration, both of which would require only a minimum of agricultural land, actually increase the river’s conveyance capacity, which in turn lessens the flood risk.  But in a bizarre twist of logic, Big Ag claims it is that kind of restoration work that’s contributed to Missouri River flooding.  That assertion is completely divorced from any objective reality.  It is instructive that when questioned about how, specifically, environmental concerns, ecological restoration, the pallid sturgeon, piping plover, and the least tern, foster flooding, the plaintiffs cannot provide a factual, sound, rational explanation.  Instead, they offer generalizations, or meaningless statements about the Corps somehow losing its focus, or that leftie environmentalists somehow hijacked the Corps of Engineers.

The reason Big Ag and its lawyers cannot provide a rational explanation for how ecological restoration has fostered flooding is that they do not have an explanation.  Big Ag – whose ranks are swollen with GOP and Tea Party stalwarts (who love to wrap themselves in the American flag and sing “God Bless America,” while labelling anyone who questions their publicly harmful, greedy policies as “socialist” or “anti-American”) have taken a page straight out of the GOP playbook – which is this – if you don’t have facts – just make ’em up.  That approach works during elections, especially with an electorate as propagandized as the one in the Midwest, but it’s unlikely to work in a court case.  The Law, with its emphasis on factual evidence, isn’t like the American electoral system, where anything goes, including outright deceit.

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