As a lawyer, I first encountered the economic ruin and heartache from controlled discharge from a Corps’ reservoir about 25 years ago. The Corps had opened the gates at the Keystone reservoir west of Tulsa, filling the entire floodplain from Mannford, through Sand Springs and Tulsa. My client packaged fresh salads in a building on the edge of the floodplain that was not known to have ever flooded.
The Small Business Administration offered disaster loans to businesses, and my client’s only hope for survival was to accept a loan.
Unfortunately, the six-month interruption of my client’s business resulted in a loss of market share and employees. The SBA loan and insurance didn’t cover nearly all the losses. There was no revenue to cover the regular bills due in the weeks after the flood. The business had been marginally profitable, only because it had little debt. The SBA loan required the owner to sign a personal guarantee. The eventual result of the SBA loan was that my client became bankrupt (at age 70), since the business couldn’t generate enough money to service the debt and pay its other expenses.
I could find no legal basis for challenging the Corps’ management of the Keystone dam and the Arkansas River basin. The Corps operates under broad statutory authority that has many competing goals, the least of which seems to be protecting homes and businesses built in floodplains below the dams.
The Corps has no control over rainfall. In responding to rainfall, or lack of it, the Corps must respond to those who have statutory claims on impounded water for drinking, power generation, irrigation, recreation, and maintenance of the depth of water in navigation channels. The Corps is constrained by the design of its dams and the storage capacity of its reservoirs. To meet all its goals, the Corps has only one tool: controlling the rate of release of water.
Even if the Corps didn’t have governmental immunity from liability for many of its actions, persuading a judge or jury that the Corps made bad decisions would be an enormously expensive and difficult task.
The lesson is that the economic benefits and protection provided by federal and state projects are extremely uneven in application. We should make decisions based on our own situations.
If you’re a beneficiary of a specific federal program, you can probably count on whatever protection that offers, but only for now. If we expect federal, state and local governments to protect us from weather, we end up in the situation we’re already in.