This week, Mississippi filed suit against the federal government seeking at least $25 million for damage to 8,000 acres of 16th Section land belonging to three school districts in southwest Mississippi.
It was not an easy decision to make, but it was the right one for our children. The background is important:
The Secretary of State serves as co-trustee of the 640,000 acres of 16th Section land held in trust for 101 school districts. Timber sales, mineral and hunting leases, and other transactions involving the land generate much-needed revenue for these schools.
In 2016, we became aware of artificial flooding damage to 16th Section land along the Mississippi River. The problem dates back to the 1950s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers devised a floodgate system in central Louisiana, the Old River Control Structure. The system, created to prevent harm to cities in Louisiana, changed the natural course of water flowing from the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya River by diverting more water down the Mississippi.
The impact to school lands was not considered, but the result has been devastating. The artificial flooding has left behind large amounts of silt that has caused the deterioration of wildlife habitats and tree mortality. The value of affected acreage has plummeted. Oil and gas operations have been forced to close during periods of high water. Agricultural losses are substantial.
When we realized the extent of the damage, we attempted to find a beneficial resolution to all parties. I testified twice before the Mississippi River Commission requesting changes to the floodgate system. We held meetings with the Corps and our Congressional delegation.
When it became clear there was no realistic resolution, we took another route. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permits the federal government to take our land — they just have to pay us for it. In a case with similarities to ours, the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled temporary flooding equates to a “taking” of land within the meaning of the Constitution.
Payment is what we now seek.
Importantly, our agency’s respect, and my personal respect, for the Corps cannot be overstated. Growing up in Vicksburg, I witnessed firsthand the Corps continual contributions to our community, state and nation.
Mississippi’s 16th Section land, however, remains one of our state’s most important assets set aside for our public schools. Past decisions have led to current loss, and our school children must be compensated for it as the Constitution requires.