From: Don Thompson, Associated Press
Published December 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Precedent-Setting Water Rights Decision over Endangered Species

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a precedent-setting decision, the federal government agreed to pay four California water districts $16.7 million for water the government diverted a decade ago to help two rare fish.


The settlement announced Tuesday could have implications across the West, where the government often clashes with property owners in attempts to save species on the brink of extinction.


The case stemmed from the government's efforts to protect endangered winter-run chinook salmon and threatened delta smelt between 1992 and 1994 by withholding billions of gallons from California farmers.


Court of Federal Claims Senior Judge John Wiese ruled in December 2003 that the government's halting of water constituted a "taking" or intrusion on the farmers' private property rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from taking private property without fair payment.


Environmental groups feared the ruling would force the government to pay millions of dollars each time it reserves water to help threatened wildlife.


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Under the settlement -- between the Justice Department and several thousand farmers from five San Joaquin Valley water districts -- the water districts will get their legal costs on top of the market value of the water diverted by the government in 1992, 1993, and 1994.


A regional Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman confirmed the settlement, but couldn't comment on the decision made in Washington, D.C. Officials there couldn't be reached by phone after business hours.


Source: Associated Press


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