Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview,  Washington State

Larry Martin: The Skills of a Top Water Lawyer

Irrigation districts have many distinctive legal needs, both those related to water rights and the regulations incumbent on organizations that deal with environmental topics and those related to employee issues, real estate, contracts, and a variety of other legal issues. That means that a lawyer who specializes in working with irrigation districts and water companies needs a wide variety of skills and experiences. In this interview, Larry Martin, an attorney with Halverson Northwest Law Group, tells us about his long experience in water law and the gamut of skills needed to be an effective water lawyer. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Larry Martin: I am a lawyer in Yakima, Washington, with Halverson Northwest Law Group. I have been with this law firm for about 30 years, though we have changed names over the years. I graduated from Washington State University, went to law school at the University of Puget Sound, and have been in Yakima since shortly after graduation. I started getting into water law within a couple years of coming to Yakima. At the time, our firm was heavily involved in the State of Washington vs. Acquavella water rights adjudication for the Yakima River basin. I started working on the case with one of my senior partners, found out that I really liked water law and the people I represented, and have been involved with it ever since. 

Apple and pear orchards along a canal in the Yakima River Valley.

Irrigation Leader: What is distinctive about water law as compared to other fields of law? 

Larry Martin: The basic principle of water law sounds simple: First in time is first in right. However, the details can be complex. There are many nuances, and almost every issue and situation is a little different. Even though the general concepts of water law are straightforward, applying them in the real world can be difficult. I have also found over the years that there are few attorneys who practice in water law on a regular and consistent basis. I work in it on a full-time basis. It is not a field of law you can dabble in. It takes a while to learn all the acronyms and details. It is also surprising how much biology is needed, as water law relates to fish, habitat, chemicals, and other environmental issues. 

Irrigation Leader: How did you learn about the field? Did you learn by doing, or did you have a mentor in your firm? 

Larry Martin: I did have a mentor in my firm. His name was Don Bond, and he had been working in water law for many years. He is now retired. When I started our firm and clients were right in the middle of the Acquavella adjudication. I was thrown right into the process. We had to develop water rights for numerous clients, including irrigation districts, water companies, cities, and farmers. Each client required an evidentiary hearing for the court to determine its respective water rights. We had to put together all the information on the history and the water use of each of those particular entities; file exceptions or appeals; and review the claims of others to make sure that they did not adversely affect our clients. We were in court at least monthly for many years due to the complexity of the adjudication and the number of parties involved, including the United States, the State of Washington, the Yakama Nation, irrigation entities, municipalities, and many individual water users. Nothing provides a better education than preparing and presenting a thorough analysis of your clients’ water rights and their history. I am also indebted to the late Jim Trull, the former manager of the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District. He not only got me involved with the National Water Resources Association and our state association, but he was also a great mentor and friend. 

Irrigation Leader: What sorts of water-related entities make up the majority of your clients? 

Larry Martin: Most of my work is for irrigation districts and irrigation water companies. I also do a lot of work for private water users, such as farmers, irrigators, and municipalities, who all have important water rights. 

Irrigation Leader: What is unique about irrigation districts as legal clients? 

Larry Martin: Water rights work is an important aspect of their legal needs, but it is only one of many. Irrigation districts are not that different than other municipal-type entities like cities and counties. They have the same sorts of issues that almost any government entity may have, such as employee issues, real estate issues, and business contracts that need to be reviewed. On top of that, they face all the regulatory issues that affect water users, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA); the Clean Water Act (CWA; and other health, safety, and water regulations. 

Pear orchards near Dryden, Washington.

Irrigation Leader: What proportion of your work for irrigation districts do those various issues make up? 

Larry Martin: The overall breakdown has changed over time. When I first started, our work for irrigation districts primarily concerned water rights and water issues related to the adjudication. Because all my clients in the Yakima Basin were involved in the adjudication, that took up 80–90 percent of the time I devoted to irrigation district and water company clients. We had numerous hearings, legal issues, mediations, and settlement negotiations. Now, as the adjudication has wound down, most of the focus is on what I call general business-type issues: real estate; contracts; agreements; and keeping on top of the ESA, the CWA, and other regulatory requirements. Now, only about 20 percent of the work I do for irrigation districts and water entities relates to water rights; 80 percent is general business or regulatory work. 

Irrigation Leader: Is that because many of the disputes over rights have been definitively settled? 

Larry Martin: Yes; we are at the end of the Acquavella adjudication. All the water rights for my clients, as well as for almost everybody else in the Yakima basin, have been confirmed and settled by the court. Now that we know all the water rights for everybody in the Yakima basin, everybody can focus on other topics. However, Washington State is considering starting adjudications in other basins that will affect my clients in those basins. 

Irrigation Leader: If most of your work today focuses on general business operations, does that mean that you are not involved in as much litigation today? 

Larry Martin: That is correct. When the adjudication was at its peak, I was probably in court at least two or three times a month. Now, I seldom see the inside of a courtroom. My work mainly consists in giving advice and providing support. Going to court is a small part of what I do today. 

Irrigation Leader: Does water law in Washington State differ from water law elsewhere in the West? 

Larry Martin: No, it is generally consistent. Every state’s water laws have some differences, but the concepts and analysis of western water law are similar across the western states. I am registered as a lawyer in Oregon as well as in Washington.

Center pivot irrigation near the Columbia River in Washington State.

Irrigation Leader: How have water law and the overall field of water management in the West changed over the course of your time as an attorney for irrigation districts?

Larry Martin: The regulatory landscape has become a bigger part of everything that we do. Even though a lot of the laws and regulations were enacted many years ago, they did not seem to be the focus of many of my clients or of government regulators. Over time, the regulations have seemed to get more burdensome and widespread and have become a bigger focus for almost every irrigation district and water company as well as for anybody who practices water law. 

Irrigation Leader: How does urbanization affect the operations of the irrigation districts you work with from a legal point of view? 

Larry Martin: It is an extra factor that every irrigation district and water company must be aware of. The irrigation districts and water companies were formed for the irrigation of farmland. Now, with increased population moving in, cities expanding, and more houses being built, their responsibilities have changed. They now not only provide irrigation water for farms but also irrigation water for yards. That also brings in lots of new members who have needs different from those of farmers. It adds a layer of complexity and requires you to comply with additional regulations. You need to make sure that you have sufficient easements, rights of way, and distribution systems, and you must work effectively with local government agencies. 

Irrigation Leader: Are there any other trends in the water world that are affecting the practice of water law? 

Larry Martin: One of the trends that we are seeing in Washington is that no new water rights are being issued by the state. Every basin in the state of Washington has been determined to be overappropriated. That means that people who need water increasingly must acquire that water from somebody else. One of the big changes over the last 10 years or so has been a major focus on water transfers, water sales, and water purchases. Those can be time consuming, because you cannot just go out and buy and physically move water to your location. You must make sure that the proposed transfer is going to work in the new location and not impair anybody else. That has become a bigger focus not only of the water users, but of water lawyers as well. 

Irrigation Leader: So, if somebody buys a water right from someone else and wants to use it in a different geographical location, they must make sure that they don’t inadvertently violate some legal restriction? 

Larry Martin: They must make sure that they are not going to impair somebody else’s water rights. All transfers must go through an extensive regulatory process and analysis. For example, it is extremely difficult to buy a water right and move it upstream because of issues related to the environment, fish, and other users in between the two points of diversion. Also, if you are trying to transfer a groundwater right, you need to look at whether water is available in the new basin. Not every area has an unlimited amount of water and groundwater. Before you acquire a right, you need to make sure that you are going to be able to acquire and use that water in the new location. 

Irrigation Leader: What skills should an irrigation district look for in a water lawyer? 

Larry Martin: A water lawyer needs to have a broad range of skills. You do not need somebody who is doing litigation or environmental work all the time. You are going to need a general-purpose lawyer who can provide answers on real estate; rights of way; employees; and the regulatory issues that affect irrigation districts, including those related to water rights, the ESA, and the CWA. One reason that there are relatively few water lawyers out there is that there are frankly not that many who have that broad range of needed legal background in all those areas. You might be able to hire a law firm that has that range of skills, but trying to find it in an individual lawyer can be difficult. All those legal areas cannot be learned in one law school class. It takes quite a few years to develop the necessary skills and knowledge base in all those different areas. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your advice for a young lawyer who would like to become a water lawyer? 

Larry Martin: Take a broad range of classes in real estate, legal writing, contracts, environmental law, and water law, if offered. Take summer jobs or internships with law firms, government entities, or other agencies that focus on environmental or water law issues. When you do become a lawyer, join a firm or other lawyers that practice in those areas and represent irrigation districts or other water users. There is no better way to become a water lawyer than by learning from somebody who is already doing it. I do not know if you could ever become a water lawyer completely on your own, straight out of law school. It takes a few years to understand all the laws and politics that affect irrigation districts and water companies. 

Larry Martin is an attorney with Halverson Northwest. He can be contacted at lmartin@hnw.law or (509) 248‑6030.