(CNSNews.com) - Beleaguered farmers in the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California are seeking legal help in their struggle to survive following the federal government's decision three months ago to use crucial irrigation water for endangered and threatened fish instead of for irrigating the farmers' fields.
With the backing of the City of Klamath Falls, the farmers have decided to hire the Washington, D.C. law firm of Marzulla & Marzulla to sue the government under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits the government from taking private property without compensation.
According to a statement from the Klamath Basin Crisis News Team, more than 1,000 farmers and other community members met at the Klamath County Fairgrounds this week "filled with weariness, dread and a little hope," to hear attorney Roger Marzulla's proposal for a class-action lawsuit requesting more than one billion dollars in compensation from the government for taking their irrigation water in violation of their century-old water rights.
Marzulla won a similar lawsuit two months ago, representing California's Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
According to Don Russell, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, the City of Klamath Falls has pledged $100,000 as seed money to help launch the lawsuit. "The city's support provides the solidarity we need," said Russell.
The following day, the Klamath County Board of Commissioners announced that they will seek legal help to study the feasibility of transferring control of the entire Klamath Basin Irrigation Project from the Bureau of Reclamation to a local entity.
Farmers Officially Request "God Squad"
The move for a class-action lawsuit follows an earlier legal action by the Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of the Klamath and Tulelake Irrigation Districts, which has petitioned Interior Secretary Gale Norton to convene an Endangered Species Committee.
The committee is a cabinet-level panel sometimes referred to as the "God Squad" because it has the power to declare an exemption from the act's requirement that the rights of threatened or endangered species be given priority over all other rights, even if it means the species could become extinct.
Although several individuals had suggested the possibility of requesting "God Squad" action during the last three months, this was the first official request.
The petition asks the government to overrule the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's decision to withhold the irrigation water, and order the bureau to reinstate earlier plans that would have taken less severe measures to preserve the endangered fish.
On Thursday, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) made a similar proposal as an amendment to the FY 2002 Interior Appropriations bill.
California Democrats Kill Support Resolution
Two days earlier, California's Senate Natural Resources Committee voted along strict party lines to kill a bipartisan resolution that would have supported the farmers' efforts to have their water rights restored.
Although all three Republican committee members voted in favor of the resolution, five Democrats voted against it. The resolution was, however, granted re-consideration, meaning the committee will consider it again at a later date.
According to the committee staff's analysis, the resolution received no support from outside groups, while the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and a group called Friends of the River opposed the resolution.
Meanwhile, a national outpouring of support for the beleaguered farmers and their communities has grown since a peaceful Independence Day demonstration thrust them into the national spotlight.
"The momentum nationwide is incredible," said Russell, who has received emails and letters of support from people all over the country.
Support has also been demonstrated by the number of people who've signed an on-line petition in support of the farmers. Nearly 6,000 people had signed the petition as of Friday afternoon.