Farmers in the Klamath Basin are not the first group of irrigators to lose their water to endangered fish. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service ordered California to shut down pumps that divert water to farmers in the Central Valley in order to protect chinook salmon and delta smelt.
"It was very
infuriating," says Brent Graham of the Tulare Lake Basin water
In 1998, the 29 affected
irrigation districts sued the federal government, claiming that it
unfairly took $25 million worth of water. This spring, the farmers
won. A federal judge ruled in May that the farmers are protected
under the Fifth Amendment that prohibits the government from taking
private property without paying for it.
Klamath Basin farmers say this case sets a precedent, and they want
to be paid for their losses. In mid-July, the Tulelake Irrigation
District retained the lawyers who won the Tulare case to analyze
the Klamath situation in preparation for a
"By taking our water they made our land
useless," says Deb Crisp, a local rancher who works for the
Tulelake Growers Association. "This lawsuit holds the Department of
Interior and these out-of-control agencies accountable for the
decisions they are making and the lives they are destroying."
According to the irrigators' lawyers, they could
win over $1 billion.
"The similarities are
striking between the Tulare case and the Klamath," says Bob
Harrison of Defenders of Private Property Rights, the law firm
looking into the case. "We have a fair degree of confidence that
what the court established in Tulare will be repeated for the
Not everyone agrees. Janet Neuman at
the Lewis and Clark Law School says the Tulare case has intricacies
that may not apply to the Klamath. For starters, the Tulare Lake
case only succeeded in proving that the landowners' property was
taken by very narrowly defining the property right, she says. That
means that decision may not be broad enough to set a precedent for
Klamath farmers, who have a history of losing to the Endangered
Species Act. Twice in the past year, Klamath farmers have sued the
federal government to try to receive their water delivery from the
Bureau of Reclamation. In each case, the judge found that the
farmers' water right was subservient to the Endangered Species Act.
"The Tulare case is the only one that has gone
the other way," Neuman says. "It could be a fluke, but it could
also be a warning bell that this thing is far from
The Klamath Basin farmers plan to file
an intent to sue this month.