Orff decision blocks extremist property-rights theory from being used in water cases across the West.

LOS ANGELES (June 23, 2005) -- The U.S. Supreme Court today unanimously rejected a lawsuit over water rights brought by California agribusinesses that threatened to undermine basic environmental and public health protections. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the court in "Orff v. United States." To download the opinion, click here.

"This is a huge win for the environment of the western United States," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), an intervener-defendant in the case. "The court said unanimously that agribusinesses cannot use their subsidized federal water contracts to block laws that protect the public and the environment."

The Orff case was the most recent effort by recipients of taxpayer-subsidized reclamation water to challenge the federal government's compliance with environmental requirements under the Endangered Species Act and other laws. Several California landowners sued the U.S. government claiming they should be paid when the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) reduced water delivery to comply with environmental protections. In 1993-94, after a six-year drought, the DOI reduced the amount of water delivered to water districts south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect threatened wildlife.

"The real winners here are California's endangered salmon and other threatened wildlife whose protection depends on the environmental laws that were challenged in this case," said Michael Rubin, an attorney at the law firm Altshuler, Berzon, which represented NRDC and the other environmental groups in the case.

The case arose against the backdrop of the water politics of the West, and the increasing effort by agribusinesses and other private interests to use their alleged property rights to block laws that protect the public. Appellate courts have consistently rejected claims by federal water contractors that they have a contractual right to a full allocation of water regardless of availability or the requirements of other laws, according to NRDC.

"These contracts say in plain language that the government can reduce deliveries to comply with environmental laws," said Michael Wall, a senior attorney at NRDC. "The need to protect water quality and wildlife is an urgent issue around the West and increasingly around the country."
The statute interpreted by the court (the Reclamation Reform Act of 1982) applies to all 17 Western states that have major federal water projects.

"This ruling blocks attempts by massively subsidized agricultural interests to force the government either to bankrupt itself or bankrupt the environment," said Hamilton Candee, a senior attorney at NRDC. "This is a victory for the American taxpayer as well as the environment."