The Mississippi River, shown here at sunset, is at the heart of a Mississippi lawsuit. Congress acted in the 1950s to construct the Old River Control Structure to prevent a natural change in the course of the Mississippi River. The state argues that the decision resulted in substantial periods of flooding on thousands of acres of school land. 

Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood are teaming up to sue the federal government to recoup money they say southwest Mississippi school districts lost when steps were taken in the 1950s to ensure the Mississippi River continued to flow through New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

That decision, they say, resulted in about 8,000 acres of 16th section school land in southwest Mississippi being flooded for substantial periods each year, impacting the ability of school districts to earn income from the land, such as through the sale of hardwood timber.

“This is a historic day for our state,” Hosemann said in a statement. “Today, our state and three public school districts allege the United States has taken property deeded to Mississippi 200 year ago.”

The state is asking for a minimum of $25 million that would go to those local school districts.

In most parts of the country, in the 1780s a 16th section of 36 section townships (a six mile by six mile square) was set aside by the U.S. Congress for the benefit of the public schools.

In the 1950s, Congress acted to construct the Old River Control Structure to prevent a natural change in the course of the Mississippi River. The river south of Natchez was beginning to flow west into the Atchafalaya River and head toward Morgan City.

If the Old River Structure had not been constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the fear was that the vast flow of the river would be into the Atchafalaya, negatively impacting the economies of southeast Louisiana communities that depend on the Mississippi River for their livelihood.

Hosemann, who held a news conference Monday to announce the lawsuit, said Mississippi was not questioning whether steps should have been taken to protect New Orleans and other south Louisiana towns that depend on the Mississippi River, but that the federal government should have provided compensation to the state of Mississippi at the time.

He said in later Supreme Court rulings Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has written that “a temporary flooding is a taking” of land by a governmental entity. And when a governmental entity takes land through eminent domain, the landowner must be provided compensation.

Hosemann said the floods to the 16th section land have been more than temporary in recent years. Between 1950 and 1971, there were 75 flood days on the lands. Between 1973 and 2016, there were 1,061 flood days.

At issue, is as the flow was forced to stay on its natural course, more silt accumulated on the bottom of the river bed, making flooding more likely. Hosemann said he does not believe the increased instance of flooding in the area is the result of climate change.

The school districts in Claiborne, Adams and Wilkinson counties also are involved in the lawsuit.

Hood said that the state lawsuit probably will result in private landowners in southwest Mississippi pursuing similar claims.

“The federal government has caused thousands of acres of land in southwest Mississippi to flood, killing timber and, in essence, taking property from Mississippians,” Hood said.

“…I have a duty to make sure that no individual, company, even the federal government takes property from our state, its citizens and, particularly, our children without paying for it.”

Private attorneys have been hired by the state to pursue what Hosemann said was a complex case. They will work on a contingency basis, only being paid if the state prevails.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.