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."
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.