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High Court Rules Against Farmers in Water Dispute

The justices reject a suit from Californians who sought $32 million for water they didn't get.

June 24, 2005|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Individual farmers may not sue the federal government to enforce water contracts signed by their irrigation districts, the Supreme Court said Thursday in a unanimous ruling that limited landowners' ability to seek compensation for reduced flows.

Two dozen farmers from California's Central Valley wanted the federal government to pay them about $32 million as compensation for water they were supposed to get under a federal contract.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation diverted the water to comply with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect two threatened types of fish.

The federal government argued that its contract with the Westlands Water District allowed lawsuits only by the district -- not by individual landowners who are its members.

California and the water district agreed, contending that letting farmers sue the government directly could result in a rash of cases and undermine water districts' ability to do business with the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that managed water in the West.

The 1982 Reclamation Reform Act "does not permit a plaintiff to sue the United States alone," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.

At issue was a 1963 water contract between the Bureau of Reclamation and Westlands, the nation's largest water district, which encompasses 600,000 acres of crops such as cotton, tomatoes and onions in western Fresno and Kings counties.

In 1993 the Bureau of Reclamation cut Westlands' water allocation by half because of federal requirements to protect the threatened winter-run Chinook salmon and the delta smelt, a fish about the size of a finger. Westlands and some farmers in the water district sued.

Westlands dropped its suit two years later as part of negotiations to establish the California Federal Bay-Delta Program, a project designed to address state water problems.

About two dozen individual property owners and farming partnerships pressed the litigation. The farmers contended they needed a way to get compensation for their losses.

If the Supreme Court had agreed, hundreds of individual farmers could have tried to take on the Bureau of Reclamation, leading to chaotic litigation, government lawyers said.

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