MAY 04, 22:21 EST
By KILEY RUSSELL
Associated Press Writer
CORCORAN, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that the government must pay farmers in California's arid Central Valley for irrigation water diverted to protect endangered fish.
Growers had argued that by using water to protect chinook salmon and the delta smelt, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service effectively took fields out of production and took money from farmers' pockets.
On Monday, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge John Paul Wiese ruled that the farmers are entitled to protection under the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking property without paying for it.
``Under this ruling, the federal government is certainly free to take water to protect the fish, but it must pay to do so. That's a pretty big deal for a lot of farmers,'' said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The ruling could have broad implications for farmers and urban water users in the 17 Western states, where federal rules protecting wildlife are increasingly in conflict with water allocations.
Typically, farmers pay in advance for water each year under contracts with the government. If the contracts aren't fulfilled, farmers may or may be reimbursed.
Farmers sued in 1998, claiming the federal government diverted $25 million worth of water from 1992 to 1994.
Fred Starrh, a cotton farmer in Kern County, said he pays about $3 million a year for water for
his 12,000-acre ranch and welcomed Friday's ruling.
``For us as a grower it's big,'' Starrh said. ``For the growers across the United States it's big. If it stands, I think it could bring reasonableness to the process. We've just been sitting here getting hammered.''
Still, it is unclear just how the decision will be implemented or what kind of water contracts will be affected. In many instances, water contracts held by the government may be outside the scope of the lawsuit.
``Our contracts are written in a way that allows us to short our contractors under certain circumstances. We don't believe that this filing impacts federal contracts, but we're still reviewing it,'' said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the largest supplier of water in the West.
On the Net:
Court's opinion: http://www.law.gwu.edu/fedcl/Opinions/Wiese/01/Tulare.pdf