14 February 2012

Mitigation Progress Continues Along Missouri River

During the past two years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has continued to purchase additional land tracts for mitigation purposes along the Missouri River.

In the Omaha District, the agency - as of early February - has bought from willing sellers, 20,114.87 acres for the Missouri River Recovery (Mitigation) Program, said Sean M. Keating, a senior realty specialist, civil branch. "We have also acquired an additional 5,438.73 acres of land use through fish and wildlife mitigation easements granted to the United States by our partners in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission."

Thus far in fiscal year 2012, 137.66 acres in two tracts have been acquired, Keating said.

A small tract of 45.41 acres is at Tobacco Island, southeast of Plattsmouth, in Cass County, Nebraska. This area is also known as the William Gilmore WMA, and is managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, through a partnership agreement with the Corps of Engineers.

"This parcel is a little smaller than we would normally acquire, but it will help improve access to Tobacco Island off of Horning Road through Plattsmouth," Keating said. "The previous owner had a tendency to close and lock the gate across the road. A second tract of 92.25 acres is at Brownville Bend in Nemaha County, Nebraska."

There were 454.45 acres acquired during FY 2011 in the Omaha District, which includes Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. The fiscal year ended on October 31st, 2011.

The parcels were all in Nemaha County, Nebraska, according to Keating. Two were associated with the Langdon Bend site (95.07 acres and 265.26 acres).

Langdon Bend now includes 1283 acres, and has been a focus site for additional habitat management work, including the installation of water pumps and creating areas where water conditions can be actively managed to improve conditions for migratory fowl.

A tract of 94.02 acres was bought at Brownville Bend.

"The two smaller tracts were recreational land, encumbered by Wetland Reserve Program easements, while the larger tract was technically agricultural land, although it had not been farmed in almost two years as a result of high groundwater making it too wet to farm," Keating said.

The Missouri River flood of 2011 influenced acquisition of additional property.

"When acquiring real estate, the Corps of Engineers is first required to have the property appraised," Keating said. "Once the water came up, it became very difficult to appraise anything. Even before the flood, our appraisers were having a difficult time attempting to pin down prices in a market where prices for land - particularly agricultural land - were rising daily."

This year the Corps is "looking at the possibility of using more outside appraisers to help carry some of the workload left over from last year in addition to the new willing sellers we have had contact us so far this year."

"We are looking at trying to add to existing Corps-owned projects at Langdon Bend and St. Mary's Island, but there are also exciting new possibilities at Sonora Bend, Civil Bend and even something a little closer to Omaha at Papillion Bend," Keating said. Since this "is a willing seller program, any or all of these potential sites could fall through at any time."

It is uncertain if the flood has had any influence on an increased interest in selling flood-prone land in the river valley.

"We were contacted by a number of landowners between approximately October and January and it did seem at that time as if there was a fairly definite increase in interest," Keating said. "There is a good chance that a number of those landowners are merely exploring all of their options. I don't believe there have been any landowners who have suddenly changed their opinions regarding the Missouri River Recovery Program or the Corps of Engineers, but if the Corps is able to offer them a price that works for them, I think there are some who will be willing to sell their property."

"We are thankful that these landowners are even exploring the possibility and are hopeful to reach agreements that are agreeable and beneficial to all parties," Keating said.

Regarding future property purchases, "a lot will depend on what appraisers say about the market for land in the Missouri River valley in the wake of the flooding, and whether or not landowners agree with their analysis."