The heavy-handedness of at
least one federal environmental agency toward
agricultural water users in California has
been dealt a serious blow by a court in
The judge ruled recently that water
diverted from farmers in California in 1992
and 1994 -- some 300,000 acre feet -- to
provide protection for Delta smelt must be
paid for by the government agency involved to
the tune of $26 million.
The water was withheld from the farmers by
order of the Endangered Species Act in
violation of contracts they hold with state
water agencies. Four water distribution
agencies in Kern, Kings and Tulare counties
were denied the water.
The attorney who represented the local
water agencies, which are administered by
boards comprised primarily of farmers, is now
preparing a case on the same grounds that
calls for water users in the Klamath Basin to
be similarly compensated in the amount of $100
Even the amount owned the Kern, Kings and
Tulare county farmers will "either bankrupt
the treasury or bankrupt our environments,"
according to Michael Wall, an attorney for the
National Resources Defense Council.
On the farmers' side of the issue, attorney
Roger Marzulla said: "... if the government
takes private property it must pay for it.
That's exactly what the court held ... "
The judge presides over the U.S. Court of
Federal Claims. He said: "The government is
certainly free to protect the fish, it must
simply pay for the water it takes to do so."
The denial of water to farmers in the
southern San Joaquin Valley resulted in some
prime agricultural land being fallowed, and a
loss to the state's economy.
Most of the farmers involved were able to
compensate by concentrating on alternate crops
temporarily without severe hardship.
However, in the Klamath Basin, withholding
the water for only one season resulted in
extreme financial stress for dozens of farm
families and the communities in which they
normally produce their crops. Some farm
families and other businesses went bankrupt.
The Klamath water was diverted to allow
salmon and some other fish species to swim
toward their spawning grounds, allowing Native
Americans along the waterways to catch them in
a traditional manner.
The federal government has the right to
appeal the decision against the Endangered
Species Act, but it has not announced whether
it will do so. The attorney for the farmers
has said the least the federal forces can do
is discuss their intentions with farmers and
others affected before taking such drastic
arbitrary action as they did in both cases.
California's respected farm publication,
"California Farmer," reported the legal action
in its April issue, saying the decision
defines a new water state for farmers. That's
a state of affairs farmers in California can
Don Curlee is a freelance writer who
specializes in agricultural issues. Write to
him at Don Curlee-Public Relations, 457
Armstrong Ave., Clovis, CA 93612.