The federal government has agreed to pay four California water districts $16.7 million for water that the government diverted a decade ago to help two rare fish in the Central Valley, officials said Tuesday.
The settlement came after a federal judge awarded $26 million to the water districts a year ago. The debate over appealing that decision or settling the case grew into a larger debate over the Endangered Species Act and privacy rights.
Some politicians, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, urged the government last week to fight the decision, while the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Representative Richard W. Pombo, Republican of California, urged the government to agree with the judge's ruling that the water districts were entitled to money for water they had lost.
Environmental groups feared that the ruling would force the government to pay millions of dollars each time it reserved water to help threatened wildlife.
But the water districts argued, and the judge ruled, that they deserved compensation under the Fifth Amendment, which protects private property from government seizure.
The water districts said in a statement that Senior Judge John Wiese of the Court of Federal Claims had carefully safeguarded states' rights to make water allocation decisions even as he protected property rights.
The four agencies are the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District, the Kern County Water Agency, the Lost Hills Water District and the Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District. They will get their legal costs on top of the water's market value for water diverted to aid endangered winter-run Chinook salmon and threatened delta smelt.
Senator Feinstein said the decision "could seriously harm California's historic water rights system."
"This precedent could make it impossible for the state and federal agencies to protect and manage the San Francisco Bay-Delta, the heart of the state's water system," without vastly increased expenditures, she said.