The U.S. Court of Federal Claims announced a significant victory for coastal communities, salmon fishermen, and others who depend on a healthy Klamath River for their livelihoods. The court rejected the major 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, private property is taken when water is left in rivers to protect threatened salmon and other species. Calling such an argument “rootless,” “unrealistic,” and a “fantasy,” the court ruled that the Klamath irrigators have no property rights to specific water deliveries under federal or state law.
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 court told them they would have an uphill battle to win such claims.
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.” The irrigators claimed they were owed a billion dollars because of the curtailment of water during the summer of 2001.
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 shuts 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 through the whole basin to prevent these types of crises in the future,” said Glen Spain of PCFFA.
The Klamath irrigators’ claim was against the federal government, which opposed paying them. Irrigators in California’s Central Valley brought a similar constitutional “takings” claim that was accepted by a different Court of Federal Claims judge. That ruling was widely perceived by conservationists and legal experts to be wrongly decided. Instead of appealing, the federal government settled the claim and paid the irrigators $16 million. The same court in its Klamath decision noted that this earlier decision “appears to be wrong on some counts, incomplete in others, and, distinguishable [from the Klamath case] at all events.” This rejection of the Central Valley decision, while not conclusive, is good news for salmon fishermen and others who depend on healthy streams and balanced water use.
“The Court of Federal Claims decision today rejects an extreme view of property right 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 federal claims court deals with questions of monetary compensation from the federal government. While the court today rejected the irrigators’ claims that they had property rights in Klamath Basin water, it allowed further briefing on certain limited contractual claims against the government, even though it observed that on the claims, “plaintiffs face an uphill battle.”