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The Rushville-Sugar Lake Levee in Atchison protects the area from flooding from the Missouri River.

Those who live and work along the Missouri River have grown accustomed to the certainty of increased flooding in the last 15 years.

It became so common that property owners sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the government entity responsible for keeping the Missouri River within its banks. A federal judge found that the corps was liable for the flooding and said last week that the federal government must compensate property owners who suffered damage.

The ruling, from Judge Nancy Firestone, was hailed as good news for landowners who have long argued that the corps took their land through flooding and violated the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the taking of property without compensation. But the victory was a mixed one, with Firestone ruling that the corps must compensate landowners for a flowage easement and reduced land values.

The judge, however, also found that the federal government doesn’t have to pay for lost crops and damaged buildings and other property.

This not only reduces the potential recovery for landowners, including many in Northwest Missouri and Northeast Kansas. It also creates less of an incentive for the federal government to comply with the judge’s order or settle claims.

“We didn’t get all we wanted,” said Dan Boulware, the lead plaintiff’s attorney with the Polsinelli Law Firm. “We hit them pretty good.”

Property owners who have waited more than a decade are learning another certainty. Lawsuits move slowly, with partial victories and appeals.

Boulware said the case could drag on for another two or three years if the corps appeals and his side attempts to overturn the portion of the judge’s ruling on damage to property.

The real relief could come from a change in behavior at the government level. U.S. senators from four downriver states, including Missouri, have written a letter calling on the corps to accept liability, settle the case and prioritize flood control.

“The corps needs to acknowledge they are at fault and settle the claims that should have been resolved years ago so property owners can put this chapter behind them,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri. “Their continued efforts to deny victims the compensation they deserve is completely unacceptable.”

It’s hard to envision an outcome that doesn’t involve compensation to property owners and an enhanced focus on flood control over endangered species and other priorities that have turned some of the best farmland in the world into a flood zone. The question is whether the corps does it the easy way or takes the long, frustrating path of ongoing litigation and appeal.

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