KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — The U.S Supreme Court has declined to take up a long-running case filed by farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin demanding compensation from the federal government for water use limits.
The Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA), an organization that represents a coalition of irrigators in the region, announced the decision in a statement on Monday.
“The Court accepts review of a very small percentage of cases. Still, this development is very disappointing,” said KWUA Executive Director Paul Simmons.
The case, dubbed Baley v. United States, was filed in 2001 after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ordered that water levels in Upper Klamath Lake be kept at a certain level in an attempt to protect several species of fish native to both the lake and the Klamath River.
Attempts to revive the populations of Lost River and Shortnose suckers, two species sacred to the Klamath Tribe, have been led by the tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A separate but related effort to preserve Coho salmon in the Klamath River has come from the Yurok Tribe of northern California.
Plaintiffs in the 2001 case argued that the federal government was required under the Fifth Amendment to pay compensation to irrigators for limiting their water rights.
"Ultimately, last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed with the trial court that the plaintiffs were not entitled to compensation because there existed senior, tribal rights for lake levels and flows in at least as great amounts as were required under the ESA," the KWUA said. "That logic meant that no property was actually taken, according to the trial court."
Irrigators petitioned the Supreme Court for a review of the case, claiming that the 2017 decision was based on "fundamental misunderstandings and misapplications of western water law by the federal courts." The petition was supported by briefs from multiple other organizations and local county governments.
“We thought we had a decent chance, but it did not go the way we wanted. There is no choice but to move on,” Simmons said. “Going forward, we focus on having enough water, period. The Klamath Project is authorized for irrigation and should be operated for irrigation.”
“This decision affirms sound and settled principles of Tribal reserved water rights," said attorney Stefanie Tsosie of Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. "Earthjustice has long worked to protect and restore the Klamath River and its salmon, which hold significant cultural value for Tribes in the Klamath Basin and are essential to sustaining the West Coast commercial salmon fishing industry.”
Klamath farmers and ranchers organized a rally at the end of May, attempting to bring greater attention to the water shortages that they face. While the "Shut Down & Fed Up" push did not immediately produce a major reversal of existing federal policy, the KWUA reported that a proposal to further reduce the water supply for irrigators did not materialize.