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Government to make restitution

December 22, 2004

Combined wire, local reports

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

The case involving irrigators in the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District has been closely followed by farmers in the Klamath Reclamation Project, who have filed a similar claim against the government.

The case in California 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 farmers.

"I think it's a fair resolution of a case that has been pending for a number of years," the farmers' Washington-based attorney, Roger Marzulla, told the Sacramento Bee Tuesday. "And it retains intact an important principle."

Marzulla is also representing Klamath Project farmers, who have filed a $1 billion claim against the government for withholding water from them in 2001.

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.

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.

On the Net:
Court of Federal Claims: http://www.uscfc.uscourts.gov

Defenders of Property Rights: http://www.your propertyrights.org





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