On March 27, a three-judge panel in a federal court dismissed the claims of several coastal counties and cities in Mississippi, along with fishing and recreational organizations, regarding the Corps’ opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway for 123 days in 2019.
The plaintiffs claimed that the Corps was required by the National Environmental Policy Act to perform an additional environmental impact study taking account of the damage to fisheries and other environmental damages. Since 2008, the spillway has been opened seven times, including three consecutive years from 2018 to 2020, and unprecedented dual separate openings in 2019. There’s no question that damage to fisheries from the influx of fresh water has been substantial, albeit not permanent.
But the court found that the Corps has been operating the Bonnet Carré Spillway, along with several other flood control structures, according to statutory requirements laid down by Congress, which give the Corps some leeway but not complete discretion. When certain trigger points are reached, the Corps must operate it, by statute. Although environmental conditions have changed, the structures have not, nor have their authorized purposes of flood control, preserving levees and navigation.
“For better or worse,” the judges concluded, “Congress and the Corps have authority to act on the plaintiffs’ dire environmental concerns. The federal courts do not.” Any other ruling would have disregarded the plain language of the governing statutes and opened the way for other lawsuits challenging the Corps and chipping away at its sovereign immunity.
The Mississippi River & Tributaries Project, under which the Corps operates the Bonnet Carré and the other structures, is laser focused on flood control and navigation. To water that down would put everyone—residents, communities and the industry that depends on the waterway—at greater risk.