NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Klamath Falls: Water Rights Versus Endangered Species

July 20, 2001

Farmers in the Klamath Basin, a high desert area on the California-Oregon state line, contract for water with the federal government. But today more than 1,400 family farms on some 170,000 acres in the region are dry and no crops will be harvested this year. That's because the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut off their water.

  • Under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the "critical" habitat of species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened or endangered must be protected.
  • The Service ruled that, in light of a drought in the Klamath Basin, the endangered shortnosed sucker fish, the Lost River sucker fish, and the threatened coho salmon, could suffer if local farmers kept receiving irrigation water.
  • Environmental activists filed taxpayer-funded "citizen" lawsuits, and a federal judge ordered the Bureau to set aside the water from Klamath Lake to protect habitats for the fish.
  • Beginning in April, the Bureau cut off about 90 percent of the water from Klamath Lake to maintain water levels for the fish.

Congress is considering $20 million in financial aid to the farmers and some environmentalists want the government to buy the land and turn it into a preserve. However, critics say Congress should amend the ESA to add protection for property owners.

  • They say Congress could prohibit any government agency from taking action that diminishes the value of private property or require that compensation for damages be paid.
  • It could also require an independent scientific review of all proposed endangered species listings and require a public comment period before implementation of new listings.
  • And it could even provide incentives to landowners to reward them for protecting a species.

The loss of irrigation water will cost the local economy $200 million, according to Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Source: Michael Kelly, "Battle From the Endangered Species Act," Washington Post, July 12, 2001; Gretchen Randall, "In the Klamath Basin, Farmers and Ranchers are Becoming the Real Endangered Species," National Policy Analysis Paper No. 345, July 2001, National Center for Public Policy Research, 777 North Capitol Street NE #803, Washington, D.C. 20002, (202) 371-1400.

For NCPPR text


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