AP NEWS

Federal court: Tribal water rights outrank farmers’ rights

November 18, 2019 GMT

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) — A federal appeals court has found that the water rights of Klamath Basin tribes take priority over those of farmers who sued the federal government in 2001 for reducing their irrigation water supply after a dry year.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is a key step forward toward the tribes’ goals of restoring the Klamath Basin ecosystem and saving chinook and coho salmon, the Yurok tribe said Sunday in a statement. The federal appeals court made its decision public on Nov. 16 in a lawsuit that’s been in the courts for two decades.

The irrigators have not decided if they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Times Standard reported.

The complex case involves how to allocate Klamath River water among three competing demands: the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Kalmath tribes, endangered fish species and irrigators who were granted water rights more than a century ago in a vast irrigation project that spans the Oregon and California border.

While the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Klamath tribes were not directly involved in the case, the ruling means that “rather than fighting irrigators or the federal agencies about the existence of our rights, we can move forward in determining what water the ailing fish populations need. This is a key step forward in reclaiming and restoring the Klamath River ecosystem,” said Amy Cordalis, the Yurok tribe’s general counsel.

The irrigators sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation when the agency reduced their water flows to comply with the Endangered Species Act and meet water obligations to the tribes after a very dry year. The farmers claimed millions of dollars were owed as the result of illegal search and seizure of their water rights.

Nancie Marzulla, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said she believes the farmers are still entitled to compensation for the 2001 incident.