In Defense of the Corps

In the midst of Harvey’s unprecedented rainfall, the Army Corps of Engineers was faced with a difficult choice: release water from the Barker and Addicks reservoirs and flood homes downstream, or risk the dams being breached. They chose the former, and now the flooded homeowners are filing lawsuits seeking compensation for the damage to their properties.

The lawsuits are alleging that a “taking” took place–the government’s action effectively took the flooded homeowner’s property. Legal scholars are already debating the merits of the cases, which promise to drag through the courts for years.

I have long argued that any action on the part of government that diminishes the value of a property is a “taking” and compensation is due the owner. However, context matters. And in this instance, the concept of “taking” does not apply.

When officials announced the release of water from the reservoirs, they made it clear that water was going to come out of the reservoirs one way or another. At a minimum, water would overflow the reservoirs. And in the worst case, the dams would fail. In either of these cases, the release would be uncontrolled. And if the release were uncontrolled, officials could not predict how much water would flow into the bayous nor how many homes would be impacted. A controlled release allowed for more accurate predictions and gave property owners time to prepare.

At the time the release was announced, Col. Lars Zetterstrom, the Corps’ Galveston district commander, said,

If we don’t begin releasing now, the volume of uncontrolled water around the dams will be higher and have a greater impact on the surrounding communities…. It’s going to be better to release the water through the gates directly into Buffalo Bayou, as opposed to letting it go around the end and through additional neighborhoods and ultimately into the bayou.

In short, the homes that were flooded because of the release had a strong chance of flooding no matter what the Corps did. But a controlled release reduced the number of homes impacted.

It is understandable that those whose homes were flooded are upset. The flooding was not caused by the actions of the Corps. The flooding was caused by an unprecedented amount of rain.

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