Contract requires irrigation districts
to keep paying federal government
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A group of groundwater irrigators in Washington has failed to convince a federal appeals court to free them from paying ongoing fees to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Plaintiffs in the case argued they shouldn't have to continue paying water usage fees to the bureau because they'd already paid back the federal government for constructing irrigation projects.
The Grant County Black Sands Irrigation District and other plaintiffs demanded $10,000 in damages, alleging they had overpaid for their share of construction costs.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit turned down the appeal, ruling that a lower court was correct in dismissing the group's complaint.
Groundwater irrigators in the Quincy Basin cannot pay off the government for past construction projects, the court ruled.
The irrigators' contract with the government requires them to continue paying the bureau for water usage, as if they were making regular service payments to a utility company, according to the decision.
The case stemmed from ambiguities in various types of contracts the bureau established with water users in federal irrigation projects.
Groundwater in the Quincy Basin is subject to the bureau's jurisdiction because it seeped into the ground as the result of surface irrigation projects developed by the federal government.
To withdraw the artificially stored groundwater, irrigators must pay the bureau for operations and maintenance costs, as well as a $1.70-per-acre flat fee for project construction.
Under reclamation law, enacted in the early 20th century, the government basically acted as a building contractor for dams and other irrigation projects. Irrigators were expected to pay back those costs over extended periods of time.
Due to the Great Depression, Congress developed new payment options for irrigators in 1939.
As part of those provisions, some irrigators entered into a new type of contract in which they basically rented water from the bureau.
Irrigators paid part of the projects' costs under the new contract, but the bureau was considered a utility rather than a construction contractor.
In 1956, Congress updated the law to distinguish between long-term and short-term rental contracts.
Irrigators with long-term rental contracts were eligible to switch to the traditional "repayment" model under certain conditions, while those with short-term contracts could not.
Contracts longer than 10 years are considered long-term.
Irrigators in the Quincy Basin had entered into 10-year contracts, but they argued the agreements should be considered long-term because they're perpetually renewed, among other reasons.
The plaintiffs also claimed the bureau treated the agreements as repayment contracts under certain circumstances, and that a previous legal decision referred to the agreements as repayment contracts.
The court rejected their arguments, ruling that a 10-year term was clearly spelled out in the contracts.
Though a portion of the payments cover the irrigation projects' fixed costs, that shouldn't be interpreted as repayment for the principal amount of a loan, the court ruled.
The previous legal decision and other arrangements with the bureau don't affect the terms of the contracts, because repayment was not a central issue in those matters, according to the court.