The U.S. Court of Federal Claims announced a second significant victory for coastal communities, salmon fishermen, and others who depend on a healthy Klamath River for their livelihoods. The court rejected the remaining breach of contract claims in a lawsuit by Klamath Basin irrigators demanding taxpayer dollars, after they were denied access to water in 2001 that belongs to all the people of Oregon and California.
Earthjustice represented the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA) in opposing extreme property rights advocates who argued that, under federal law, irrigation contract rights preclude the government from leaving water in rivers to protect threatened salmon and other species. Noting that the irrigators arguments "run headlong into the host of rulings construing the [Endangered Species Act] . . . rulings largely ignored by plaintiffs in their brief," the court dismissed Klamath breach of contract claims.
Water contracts between Klamath farmers and the federal government oblige the government to deliver water to farmers when it is available. This requirement is subject to the government's other legal obligations, including protecting endangered and threatened species. The irrigators attempted to circumvent these established standards and the refused to go along in no uncertain terms.
During the summer of 2001, in a near-record drought year, government officials reduced diversions of the Klamath River to irrigators in order to sustain federally protected coho salmon. These irrigators claimed the lack of water caused them economic losses and subsequently filed a lawsuit seeking taxpayer compensation for a constitutional "taking" of their property and for breach of their irrigation contracts. The court rejected the irrigators' property taking claims in August of 2005 and today's decision rejecting their contract claims as well concludes the case in the Court of Claims.
PCFFA intervened to protect its members' and their families' interests in healthy fisheries that depend on adequate water flows in the Klamath River. The irrigators tried to block the fishermen from the case but failed. In February 2005 the federal claims court ruled that commercial salmon fishermen have the right to participate fully in the case. This ruling marked the first time any group trying to protect fish and wildlife has been allowed to intervene as a full party in a Court of Federal Claims case.
"This ruling should finally shut the door on water disputes from 2001. But those were only a symptom of the more fundamental problem of too many demands for too little water. People should look forward, not backward, and work to bring the water budget sheet back into balance throughout the whole basin to prevent these types of crises in the future," said Glen Spain of PCFFA.
"The Court of Federal Claims decision today rejects an extreme view of property right and contract law advanced by the irrigators. The decision is based on well-established legal precedent and should limit future claims like this," said Todd True of Earthjustice. "This ruling is good news for fishermen, their families, and all our communities that depend on a fair and balanced allocation of our scarce water resources."
The Klamath Water Users Association continues to oppose a separate court ruling from last March that ordered the federal government to maintain minimal flows in the Klamath River during drought years to keep salmon alive. A decision is expected soon from the 9th Circuit Court if Appeals.
The federal claims court deals with questions of monetary compensation from the federal government.
The court's August 31, 2005, rejected the irrigators' property takings claims in Klamath Irrigation District v. United States and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Todd True, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 30
Glen Spain, PCFFA, (541) 689-2000
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