Judge Rules Government Must Pay for Withheld Water

In a case that could have substantial implications for enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge ruled recently that the U.S. government must pay California irrigators some $14 million for water it withheld from them during an early 1990s drought in the state. The water was held back in order to maintain river and stream flows sufficient to protect two endangered fish species. The ruling builds on an earlier decision by the same judge that the withholding amounted to a property taking under the U.S. Constitution, which means the property owners (in this case, irrigators) must be compensated. Since water supplies in arid Southern California (and the Southwest generally) are perpetually short of demand, this decision means that any move to restrict flows to the region’s irrigation districts amounts to a property taking of enormous value. The case’s prosecutor argued that the government will simply find other, less economically damaging ways to protect species; enviros, on the other hand, said that the decision more or less screws endangered fish.