Irrigators in the Klamath Basin whose water was shut off in 2001 to protect fish aren’t entitled to government compensation, according to a federal judge.
In some cases, the farmers were disqualified from obtaining damages for lost water for a variety of reasons, the ruling said.
Other farmers in the region held valid property rights in the water but the 2001 shutoff wasn’t a government seizure because several native tribes held senior water rights, according to Judge Marian Blank Horn of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The lawsuit, filed about 16 years ago against the U.S. government, sought roughly $30 million for the shutoff, which was prompted by concerns about drought impacts on the threatened coho salmon and endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers.
Horn noted that the litigation has been “long and complicated,” involving several types of irrigators and having undergone review by “multiple judges” as well as a federal appeals court.
Ten months after holding a two-week trial in the case, the judge has determined the claims of one class of farmers was precluded by a previous court order, while others were blocked by revised lease terms on national wildlife refuges.
Others held contracts “immunizing” the federal government from liability during droughts or other circumstances where sufficient water was unavailable, she said.
Horn found that some growers proved they’d be eligible to be compensated for a permanent physical taking of their water, which would be a significant victory if not for the effect of tribal rights on their claims.
The Klamath, Yurok and Hoopa tribes have “time immemorial” water rights that precede those of the farmers, even though they can’t use them for “consumptive” uses like irrigation, the ruling said.
These in-stream tribal water rights entitle them “to prevent other appropriators from depleting the flows of the Klamath River below levels required to support the fish they take in exercise of their treaty rights,” according to the ruling.
By withholding water to fulfill its obligations under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government was preserving enough water to avoid violating the senior tribal water rights, Horn said.
Therefore, the government wasn’t seizing the irrigators’ property without just compensation, she said.
While Horn’s ruling is a setback for the plaintiffs, they can challenge the ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.