OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska natural resources district has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Farm Service Agency, alleging they have wrongly denied the district access to data.
The Central Platte Natural Resources District has spent four years trying to gain access to the geographic information system data. Better known as GIS data, the information is used to map out and track things like irrigation practices and cropland; it can also be used to help guide district decisions.
But the district has received only "evasive responses, feigned cooperation, shifting legal interpretations and flagrant stonewalling" from federal officials, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln last week.
Without access, the district is faced with spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-create the data, said Lincoln attorney Tom Wilmoth, who represents the district.
When reached Tuesday, USDA officials didn't immediately comment on the lawsuit.
The case has implications for the state's 23 natural resources districts, primarily for water-management purposes, said Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Resource Districts.
"It seems kind of ridiculous for us to duplicate all of that and spend more local tax dollars to regenerate information that's already there," he said.
The data also could help farmers and producers keep track of their collective water usage and know how to reduce use in certain areas, Edson said.
Nebraska's 23 natural resources districts are required by law to provide services ranging from protecting groundwater to guarding against soil erosion.
The Central Platte district encompasses all or part of 11 counties in south-central Nebraska along the Platte River.
Federal officials initially denied the district's request in January 2006, citing an exemption that allowed them to keep private "personnel, medical or similar records," according to the lawsuit.
The district appealed and in 2007, gained access to some of the data it requested, although not in the GIS format it deemed helpful.
A federal appeals court later ruled in a similar case that there is a countervailing public interest in disclosing the digital files. The USDA uses the database to monitor program compliance. With access to the data, the public could more easily determine whether the USDA was "catching cheaters and lawfully administering its subsidy and benefit programs," according to the ruling.
But the district was again denied this past June, when officials cited an exemption added to the 2008 Farm Bill that prohibits release of the data, except in select cases, including when working with a cooperating entity.
Wilmoth and Edson said the district has cooperated, among other ways, by providing the data that helped federal officials build the database in the first place.
The lawsuit seeks to declare the federal agencies in violation of the Freedom of Information Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, order immediate release of the data and grant other relief the court deems appropriate.
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