Who owns Klamath water — farmers or the public?

  For four years, farmers on the California-Oregon border have battled the U.S. government in the courts for $100 million in damages, after the Bureau of Reclamation withheld irrigation water from the Klamath River. Now, Pacific Coast fishermen, whose livelihood depends on the salmon that spawn in the river, have wriggled their way into the complex legal fracas.

The Klamath Basin farmers claim they have a water right that was not delivered in 2001, a severe drought year. The Bureau of Reclamation left water in the river, in part to help threatened coho salmon, and the farmers’ crops suffered. "The U.S. doesn’t own the water," says Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District. "It was a property right that was taken away without compensation."

In February, however, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Francis Allegra ruled that about 3,000 small fishermen, represented by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, can intervene as a third party in the case. The fishermen turned the farmers’ argument against them by claiming that failure to keep water in the river damages the fishing industry. In 2002 and 2003, the Bureau delivered more water to the farmers, causing some of the largest fish die-offs in U.S. history (HCN, 10/14/02: Dead fish clog the low-flowing Klamath). "We have a substantial economic interest in the case," says Glen Spain, the Federation’s Northwest regional director. "We depend on water as a public right." Hearings on March 30 will determine whether the irrigators can claim the water as a property right. Says Spain, "This is a conflict between public and private property rights."

Although the fishermen are not eligible for any financial awards, Spain says he hopes they can prevent the government from striking a "sweetheart deal" with irrigators, in which the Bureau would give farmers more water and pay them less in damages.