Lose Klamath Water Fight; Judge rejects most of a
suit seeking $1 billion from the U.S. for virtually
cutting off irrigation to protect fish during a
Los Angeles Times – 9/1/05 by Eric Bailey, staff
SACRAMENTO — A federal
judge Wednesday rejected the major arguments of
Klamath Basin farmers who sought $1 billion from the
federal government after regulators virtually cut
off irrigation water during a drought to protect
Environmentalists and fishermen who have been
battling farmers over water in the sprawling
agricultural basin on the California-Oregon border
called the decision by Judge Francis M. Allegra of
the U.S. Court of Claims a major victory.
"This is good news for
the fishermen and families down river who have been
largely shut out of this debate," said Todd True, an
attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm
involved in the case.
Roger Marzulla, a Washington lawyer representing the
Klamath irrigators, said the decision reversed a
century of Western water law by handing over state
rights "to a federal bureaucracy in Washington."
"It's a pretty scary prospect for all the Western
states," Marzulla said, adding that "in a perverse
way" the judge had done farmers a favor, offering up
an opinion that "is so bad and so wrong it's a huge
target for reversal on appeal."
The lawsuit stemmed from a federal decision during
the drought-stricken summer of 2001 to shut off
water to irrigators in the 220,000-acre basin, a
move that undercut crops and sent some farmers
skittering toward bankruptcy.
Federal officials said the action was necessary to
protect endangered salmon in the Klamath River and
two species of sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake,
the sprawling and shallow pool astride Klamath
Falls, Ore., that serves as a headwaters to what was
once one of America's greatest salmon populations.
Buffeted by criticism from farmers, U.S. officials
eventually restored some of the water deliveries
and, by some estimates, paid basin farmers about $40
million to offset the costs.
But the irrigators filed a lawsuit, emboldened in
part by a court decision in 2001 to compensate
farmers in California's Tulare Lake Basin because of
water restrictions caused by endangered species
Officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which
operates the Klamath irrigation project, declined to
comment on Allegra's decision.
Farmers and irrigation officials also said they
would withhold any statements until they had studied
the ruling, which came out Wednesday afternoon.
But environmentalists and fishermen said the judge
had squarely sided with their argument that farmers
do not hold a priority right to water in the river
and lake needed to ensure that the endangered fish
are not sent further toward extinction.
"This attempt to extort money from the federal
government for making the right decision — to put
water in the river and protect endangered fish —
went nowhere, just as it should have," said Glen
Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's
The judge soundly rejected the most important
arguments expressed by the farmers, who said they
deserved compensation because their rights to the
Klamath Basin waters amounted to a virtual ownership
interest that had been unfairly seized from them.
Allegra called the property claim "rootless" and
unrealistic and rejected some of the arguments as
"fantasy." He also criticized the earlier Tulare
Basin decision, saying that "with all due respect,
Tulare appears to be wrong on some counts,
incomplete in others."
The judge held open the door for further arguments
by both sides on the legal debate over whether U.S.
officials breached a contract duty to provide water
to the farmers.
Allegra added, however, that the Klamath irrigators
faced an "uphill battle" to prove that the federal
Endangered Species Act was designed to undermine
their contractual right to water from the U.S.