Eagle Lake residents on verge of taking case to feds

Published 11:59 pm Saturday, July 23, 2011

EAGLE LAKE — With water levels at Eagle Lake still nearly six feet above the ideal stage, homeowners here are on the verge of taking their case to the federal government in one form or another — whether six entities in control of water levels on the lake decide to keep the process moving past an Aug. 18 target date to lower the lake to the ideal 76.9 feet or not.

“If you’ve got piers and the water’s on your pipes and the piers are laying in your yard, would you suggest you go on and clean it up before the Corps looks at it?” asked Charles Mullins Saturday, as about 140 people jammed Tara Wildlife to hear from experts and each other on the finer points of filing claims against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for property damage, what to expect on their tax bills later in the year and how far the water should drop to preserve the leisure season.

Federal law requires claims be filed within two years of the act causing the damage or injury. Claimants may file suits in federal court if cases aren’t decided in six months, or, if they are decided, within six months of a final action on the case by the government.

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Answers amounted to the best info available from those who led topics, chosen by the small handful of meeting organizers largely for their experience with the topic.

“In your claims process, you need to mention the word ‘negligent,’” said George Sills, a retired Corps engineer, levee expert and lakeside property owner. “My suggestion would be to get a good, reliable estimate of what it would take (to repair damage).”

Renters may file claims for moving expenses, while some expenses could turn speculative, Sills said, using himself as an example.

“I run a business up here. I entertain clients up on that lake,” said Sills, operator of a private engineering services firm. “I couldn’t take any client on that lake. That’s a damage. That hurt my company. How I’m going to come up with a cash value on that, I don’t know.”

The lake was 82.3 feet Saturday. Muddy Bayou Control Structure was closed for 51 days in May and June, which raised the lake to 90 feet to ease pressure on the mainline levee at Buck Chute, where the Corps hurriedly shored up sand boils ahead of the Mississippi River’s historic rise to 57.1 feet May 19. Construction of a 1,700-foot berm and 30 relief wells on the mainline levee at Buck Chute is funded and scheduled to begin in the fall, Corps officials have said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Warren County, Madison Parish, La., the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — all of which manage lake levels — will meet at Vicksburg District offices Tuesday to discuss the process and whether to bring the lake down to 70 feet, a level some say will allow residents to measure their damage faster.

It’s an option that has the community of about 600 people divided. Shows of hands for and against lowering the lake past 76.9 feet turned up about the same number of raised arms.

“Some other reasons to lower the lake are we have concerns there’s fish in the lake that we don’t want in there,” said property owner Ken Klaus, adding authorities could trap or net non-native species in lower lake stages. “When the Corps does their repair, they should be able to do a more efficient repair than if the lake was high.”

Steve Koppman, a lake resident and co-operator of Grand River Clothing Co., said a lower lake will mean activity on a lake still closed for recreational boating.

“We had a businessman’s breakfast Wednesday morning at Eagle Lake Methodist Church and in a show of hands it was adamantly 15-to-2 to not lower the lake,” Koppman said, adding the lake would be too low to support recreation and businesses would suffer. “You’re going to put the lake out of business. Anyone who needs to make repairs can make it if the lake’s at 76 feet, I think. You’re going to shut the lake down until next spring? You’re wrong! The lake should stay at 76 feet.”

Dr. Angela Koestler, a key organizer of Saturday’s session, said staying positive was the key and the more information, the better.

“The only thing that gets people moving is when you voice your opinion,” she said.