During the summer of 2001, in a near-record drought year, government officials reduced diversions of the Klamath River to farmers in order to sustain federally protected coho salmon downstream. These irrigators claimed the lack of water caused them economic losses and subsequently filed suit seeking taxpayer compensation for an unconstitutional "taking." When commercial fishermen and conservation groups moved to participate in the case, the irrigators strenuously objected. In Friday's ruling, Judge Francis Allegra found that the salmon advocates have a legitimate stake in the outcome.
"The irrigators argued that a billion dollar decision from the Court of Claims is about as significant as a withdrawal from an ATM," said Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice. "The order of the court embraces the contrary common sense idea that a claim for a billion dollars has real world implications for fish, fishermen, and their families."
Regulation of commercial salmon fishing in Northern California and Oregon is largely governed by the health of Klamath salmon stocks. In 2002, an estimated 70,000 adult salmon died in the river before they could spawn. Scientists identified extremely low flows caused by the upstream irrigation diversions as a primary cause of the fish kill. Fish surveys indicate salmon stocks in the Klamath will be low for years to come with a small number of adult salmon expected to return this year. Federal and state fishery managers have indicated that the commercial salmon season for 2005 is likely to be severely limited in order to rebuild the damaged salmon stocks.
Farmers in California's Central Valley brought a similar constitutional "takings" claim that was successful in a lower court Instead of appealing that decision, the federal government recently settled the claim and paid the irrigators' $16 million, a development fraught with peril for those who commercially fish salmon from the Central Valley.
The court here indirectly addressed such a situation, stating that the interests of PCFFA "give rise to the distinct possibility that a ruling against the United States would have significant impacts on the allocation of the water in the Klamath Basin and corresponding negative impacts on PCFFA's fishing interests."
"Trying to resolve these claims without having a seat at the table for fish and wildlife is like having a three-way debate with only two people," said Glen Spain of PCFFA. "If fish and wildlife had a seat at the table in the California Central Valley litigation, it might have saved taxpayers $16 million dollars and ensured that water would be left in the river for fish."