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U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Native News Online photo by Levi Rickert

WASHINGTON — American Indian tribes in California’s Klamath Basin praised Monday’s decision by the United States Supreme Court not to hear the Klamath Project irrigators’ Fifth Amendment water rights case, Baley v. United States.

By not hearing the case, the Supreme Court upheld the Klamath Tribes’ treaty water rights as the most senior water rights in the Klamath Basin. These water rights are critical to protect the tribes’ fisheries and traditional way of life.

“Bailey is an important affirmation of our tribe’s priority right to the water to sustain our fisheries,” Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Byron Nelson Jr. said on Monday.

Klamath Project irrigators sought nearly $30 million in compensation from the United States government for the Bureau of Reclamation’s curtailment of water deliveries during a severe drought in 2001.

In 2017, the US Court of Claims ruled that the Klamath Tribes and downriver Klamath Basin tribes have senior water rights that take priority over those of the Project irrigators.

In 2019, the US Court of Appeals affirmed that decision and went on to declare that the Klamath Tribes’ water rights include Upper Klamath Lake waters and that, in 2001, the Klamath Basin tribes were entitled to—at the least—the amount of water required to meet Endangered Species Act requirements.

With the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the lower court’s decision, the case is closed, and the decisions from the lower courts stand.

“We’re pleased to have this case put to rest and the seniority of the Klamath Tribes’ water rights recognized and reinforced. The courts in this case were correct about our treaty rights, which include protecting and sustaining the endangered C’wam and Koptu in Klamath Lake. We look forward to healing and restoring our tribal fisheries,” Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry stated.

Although the decision hinged on recognition of the senior tribal water rights, the case technically was between the irrigators and the United States.The Klamath Tribes participated as amicus curiae (friend of the court) to assure that the courts did not ignore the role of tribal water rights.

The Klamath Tribes were represented by the Native American Rights Fund.

“We were proud to represent the Klamath Tribes throughout this 19-year-long litigation. The law is very clear about the Klamath Tribes’ senior water rights in the region. The courts have been very clear as well. We are glad the courts reached the right outcome in this case and that tribal rights and sovereignty have been affirmed,” NARF Executive Director John  Echohawk said.

Learn more about the Bailey v. United States case.

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