CORCORAN, Calif. - A federal judge has ruled that the government must pay farmers in California's arid Central Valley for water diverted to protect endangered fish.

Growers had argued that by taking water away to protect chinook salmon and the delta smelt, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service effectively took fields out of production and took money from farmers' pockets.

"Under this ruling, the federal government is certainly free to take water to protect the fish, but it must pay to do so. That's a pretty big deal for a lot of farmers," said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Growers in the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District and with the Kern County Water Agency, among others, sued in 1998, claiming the federal government took $25 million of water, about 490,000 acre feet, over a period of three years ending in 1994.

Judge Paul Wiese of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., ruled Monday that the farmers are entitled to protection under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the government from taking private property without paying for it.

The ruling could have broad implications for farmers and urban water users in the 17 western states, where federal rules protecting wildlife are increasingly in conflict with water allocations.

"For us as a grower it's big," said Fred Starrh, a cotton farmer in Kern County. "For the growers across the United States it's big. If it stands, I think it could bring reasonableness to the process. We've just been sitting here getting hammered."

In a normal year, about 800,000 acre feet of water is kept in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for endangered species, said Starrh, who sat on the governor's drought panel. In a dry year, the take amounts to 1.2 million to 1.8 million acre feet.

An acre foot, 325,900 gallons, is roughly the amount of water five people use in a year.

Starrh pays $85 an acre foot, about $3 million a year, for his 12,000-acre ranch. He pays $2 million before January and pays the balance by June for water that may never be delivered. This year he only expects delivery of 33 percent of his contract, and only a partial refund for the water he doesn't receive.

He said the cost of water used to protect salmon and other endangered species easily could amount to tens of millions of dollars a year for water users.

In addition to the cost of the water, there is the cost of lost production and lost wages - factors that hurt the state's economy.

"At least now they'll have to look at what they're doing and say it's going to take X number of dollars to take this water," Starrh said.

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