Today, US Court of Appeals Upheld Senior Water Rights of Tribes
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit today upheld the senior water rights of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and other Tribes in an appeal by Baley v. United States. Baley and other Klamath Irrigation District farmers argued that the federal government took their water without compensation in 2001 when water deliveries were delayed in order to satisfy the needs of endangered fish in Upper Klamath Lake and salmon in the Klamath River. The Court reasoned that because the Tribes’ water rights were reserved in the 19th century, they were entitled to be fulfilled first before the farmers were entitled to any water.
“Baley is an important affirmation of our Tribe’s right to the water to sustain our fisheries,” said Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Byron Nelson Jr.
In 2001, farmer protests over reserving water for fish requirements led the federal government to change its regulations and devote more water from the Klamath system in 2002, producing the biggest die-off of adult salmon ever recorded. While water flows as regulated by biological opinions of the federal agencies had been modified several times since then, they continued to be controversial. However, a long series of federal court rulings has rose general principles of water law in the western states, affirmed the right of senior water rights holders to first priority in water. The Baley Plaintiffs argued that the long distance between Upper Klamath Lake and the Hoopa Valley and Yurok Reservations insulated the Klamath Project from the Tribes’ reserved water rights. The Court disagreed. The Court also ruled that the Hoopa Valley and Yurok Tribes’ lack of participation in the State of Oregon water adjudication did not take away their entitlement to water in the Klamath River, noting that Oregon could not have determined California rights.