Ark. Game & Fish Comm'n v. United States

Decision Date04 December 2012
Docket NumberNo. 11–597.,11–597.
Citation568 U.S. 23,133 S.Ct. 511,184 L.Ed.2d 417
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

James F. Goodhart, Little Rock, AR, for Petitioner.

Edwin S. Kneedler, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Julie DeWoody Greathouse, Counsel of Record, Matthew N. Miller, Kimberly D. Logue, Perkins & Trotter, PLLC, Little Rock, AR, James F. Goodhart, John P. Marks, Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, Little Rock, AR, for Petitioner.

Earl H. Stockdale, Chief Counsel, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General, Edwin S. Kneedler, Deputy Solicitor General, Benjamin J. Horwich, Assistant to the Solicitor General, William B. Lazarus, Katherine J. Barton, Robert J. Lundman, Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

Periodically from 1993 until 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) authorized flooding that extended into the peak growing season for timber on forest land owned and managed by petitioner, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (Commission). Cumulative in effect, the repeated flooding damaged or destroyed more than 18 million board feet of timber and disrupted the ordinary use and enjoyment of the Commission's property. The Commission sought compensation from the United States pursuant to the Fifth Amendment's instruction: "[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The question presented is whether a taking may occur, within the meaning of the Takings Clause, when government-induced flood invasions, although repetitive, are temporary.

Ordinarily, this Court's decisions confirm, if government action would qualify as a taking when permanently continued, temporary actions of the same character may also qualify as a taking. In the instant case, the parties and the courts below divided on the appropriate classification of temporary flooding. Reversing the judgment of the Court of Federal Claims, which awarded compensation to the Commission, the Federal Circuit held, 2 to 1, that compensation may be sought only when flooding is "a permanent or inevitably recurring condition, rather than an inherently temporary situation." 637 F.3d 1366, 1378 (2011). We disagree and conclude that recurrent floodings, even if of finite duration, are not categorically exempt from Takings Clause liability.


The Commission owns the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area (Management Area or Area), which comprises 23,000 acres along both banks of the Black River in northeast Arkansas. The Management Area is forested with multiple hardwood timber species that support a variety of wildlife habitats. The Commission operates the Management Area as a wildlife and hunting preserve, and also uses it as a timber resource, conducting regular harvests of timber as part of its forest-management efforts. Three types of hardwood oak species—nuttall, overcup, and willow—account for 80 percent of the trees in the Management Area. The presence of these hardwood oaks is essential to the Area's character as a habitat for migratory birds and as a venue for recreation and hunting.

The Clearwater Dam (Dam) is located 115 miles upstream from the Management Area. The Corps constructed the Dam in 1948, and shortly thereafter adopted a plan known as the Water Control Manual (Manual) to determine the rates at which water would be released from the Dam. The Manual sets seasonally varying release rates, but permits planned deviations from the prescribed rates for agricultural, recreational, and other purposes.

In 1993, the Corps approved a planned deviation in response to requests from farmers. From September to December 1993, the Corps released water from the Dam at a slower rate than usual, providing downstream farmers with a longer harvest time. As a result, more water than usual accumulated in Clearwater Lake behind the Dam. To reduce the accumulation, the Corps extended the period in which a high amount of water would be released. The Commission maintained this extension yielded downstream flooding in the Management Area, above historical norms, during the tree-growing season, which runs from April to October. If the Corps had released the water more rapidly in the fall of 1993, in accordance with the Manual and with past practice, there would have been short-term waves of flooding which would have receded quickly. The lower rate of release in the fall, however, extended the period of flooding well into the following spring and summer. While the deviation benefited farmers, it interfered with the Management Area's tree-growing season.

The Corps adopted similar deviations each year from 1994 through 2000. The record indicates that the decision to deviate from the Manual was made independently in each year and that the amount of deviation varied over the span of years. Nevertheless, the result was an unbroken string of annual deviations from the Manual. Each deviation lowered the rate at which water was released during the fall, which necessitated extension of the release period into the following spring and summer. During this span of years the Corps proposed Manual revisions that would have made its temporary deviations part of the permanent water-release plan. On multiple occasions between 1993 and 2000, the Commission objected to the temporary deviations and opposed any permanent revision to the Manual, on the ground that the departures from the traditional water-release plan adversely impacted the Management Area. Ultimately, the Corps tested the effect of the deviations on the Management Area. It thereupon abandoned the proposal to permanently revise the Manual and, in 2001, ceased its temporary deviations.


In 2005, the Commission filed the instant lawsuit against the United States, claiming that the temporary deviations from the Manual constituted a taking of property that entitled the Commission to compensation. The Commission maintained that the deviations caused sustained flooding of its land during the tree-growing season. The cumulative impact of this flooding over a six-year period between 1993 and 1999, the Commission alleged, resulted in the destruction of timber in the Management Area and a substantial change in the character of the terrain, which necessitated costly reclamation measures. Following a trial, the Court of Federal Claims ruled in favor of the Commission and issued an opinion and order containing detailed findings of fact. 87 Fed.Cl. 594 (2009).

The Court of Federal Claims found that the forests in the Management Area were healthy and flourishing before the flooding that occurred in the 1990's, and that the forests had been sustainably managed for decades under the water-release plan contained in the Manual. Id., at 631. It further found that the Commission repeatedly objected to the deviations from the Manual and alerted the Corps to the detrimental effect the longer period of flooding would have on the hardwood timber in the Management Area. Id., at 604.

As found by the Court of Federal Claims, the flooding caused by the deviations contrasted markedly with historical flooding patterns. Between 1949 and 1992, the river level near the Management Area reached six feet an average of 64.7 days per year during the growing season; the number of such days had been even lower on average before the Clearwater Dam was built. Between 1993 and 1999, however, the river reached the same level an average of 91.14 days per year, an increase of more than 40 percent over the historic average. Although the Management Area lies in a floodplain, in no previously recorded time span did comparable flooding patterns occur. Id., at 607–608. Evidence at trial indicated that half of the nuttall oaks in the Management Area were saturated with water when the river level was at six feet, id., at 608; the evidence further indicated that the saturation of the soil around the trees' root systems could persist for weeks even after the flooding had receded. Id., at 627.

The court concluded that the Corps' deviations caused six consecutive years of substantially increased flooding, which constituted an appropriation of the Commission's property, albeit a temporary rather than a permanent one. Important to this conclusion, the court emphasized the deviations' cumulative effect. The trees were subject to prolonged periods of flooding year after year, which reduced the oxygen level in the soil and considerably weakened the trees' root systems. The repeated annual flooding for six years altered the character of the property to a much greater extent than would have been shown if the harm caused by one year of flooding were simply multiplied by six. When a moderate drought occurred in 1999 and 2000, the trees did not have the root systems necessary to sustain themselves; the result, in the court's words, was "catastrophic mortality." Id., at 632. More than 18 million board feet of timber were destroyed or degraded. Id., at 638–640.

This damage altered the character of the Management Area. The destruction of the trees led to the invasion of undesirable plant species, making natural regeneration of the forests improbable in the absence of reclamation efforts. Id., at 643. To determine the measure of just compensation, the Court of Federal Claims calculated the value of the lost timber and the projected cost of the reclamation and awarded the Commission $5.7 million.

The Federal Circuit reversed. It acknowledged that in general, temporary government action may give rise to a takings claim if permanent action of the same character would constitute a taking. But it held that "cases involving flooding and [flowage] easements are different."

637 F.3d, at 1374. Government-induced flooding can give rise to a taking claim, the Federal Circuit concluded, only if the flooding is ...

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