Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Innovator,  Interview

The Montana Water Resources Association: Advocating for Montana Irrigated Agriculture in Helena and Washington, DC

Mike Murphy has decades of experience in agriculture and has been the executive director of the Montana Water Resources Association (MWRA) for 27 years. MWRA advocates for Montana’s irrigated agriculture on both the state and the federal levels. In this interview, Mr. Murphy tells Irrigation Leader about the association’s top issues, including infrastructure funding and water rights adjudications. 

Mike Murphy: I grew up in an agricultural environment. My family has been involved in Montana agriculture since the late 1800s. As a child, I started out in 4‑H with lambs, and over the years, I continued my involvement in agriculture. My wife Jeanne and our kids and I continued our involvement in production agriculture with the purchase of our own ranch and have been raising cattle for more than 35 years. Over the years, I came to understand and appreciate the value of water even more, and when the opportunity arose to become the executive director of MWRA, I jumped at the opportunity. I started with MWRA in 1993 and have been with the association for about 27 years. I have the pleasure and the honor of representing Montana’s agricultural industry and all its water users. As an organization, MWRA works hard to protect water rights and keep water available for agriculture as well as municipalities and other water users. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the irrigation issues facing the association today. 

Mike Murphy: One of the bigger issues that we face here in Montana is that a lot of our irrigation projects were developed 50–100 years ago and are now at the point where they need fairly substantial renovation, retrofits, and modernization. In many cases, the cost of those repairs exceeds the ability of the agricultural producers to pay for them. Finding the financial resources to restore and maintain those projects in order to keep them going for future generations is a challenge. The Milk River Project is an important example, but similar problems are found throughout the state of Montana. 

The St. Mary siphon carries water to the Milk River.

Another important issue we are trying to get through is the overall Montana water right adjudication process, which will determine what water rights agriculture and other water users actually have throughout the state. One specific related issue that needs to be resolved in order to complete the adjudication process is that of reserved water rights. Among the reserved rights that are particularly important to completing the statewide adjudication are those associated with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). The CSKT reserved rights are the last of seven tribal water rights to be negotiated. In fact, there is currently legislation in Congress to address the settlement authorization for that particular compact: the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, which was introduced by Montana's United States Senators, Steve Daines and Jon Tester. 

Infrastructure and adjudication are just a couple of the big issues that we’ve worked on. MWRA works on a wide range of issues that affect irrigated agriculture, including the Endangered Species Act. The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project is dealing with the need to maintain its diversion structure for irrigation while facilitating fish passage for an endangered species. That’s been an ongoing battle. Environmental interests are not as concerned with making sure there are water resources available for agriculture as we are. It required an extensive battle through the courts to maintain those water resources for our agricultural producers, but fortunately, agriculture and common sense prevailed and provided for a win-win solution for the irrigators and other water users and for the fish—in this case, the pallid sturgeon. The irrigators were able to do that by working with the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to facilitate the construction of a fish-friendly bypass and the modernization of the diversion structure.

Irrigation Leader: What is the association’s position with regard to Senators Daines and Tester’s legislation on the compact?

Mike Murphy: The CSKT compact has been a pretty contentious issue within Montana. Recognizing the importance of the compact, MWRA as an organization, along with Montana’s other major agricultural organizations, has been supportive of the compact. We realize the importance of getting the tribal water right determined, as it is a crucial component of completing the state water right adjudication process and providing certainty about all Montana water rights. We have worked in concert with the other agricultural organizations to support legislation on the state level that passed in 2015. The process of getting settlement legislation passed at the federal level has been going on now for several years, and we are making substantial progress now that both Senator Daines and Senator Tester are on board with the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, S. 3019.

Irrigation Leader: Would you share your thoughts on the Sidney and Kinsey irrigation districts with us?

Mike Murphy: The Sidney Water Users Irrigation District and the Kinsey Irrigation Company have been dealing with the issue of whether or not they should be allowed to continue receiving Pick-Sloan power and the rates associated with it. We look at the Pick-Sloan power issue as one that Congress committed to in 1944. Only about 10 percent of the promises that were made in regard to the inundation of land associated with the reservoirs that were built have ever been fulfilled. Kinsey and Sidney are examples of irrigation projects that were established under the program to facilitate irrigation development in the West, and ultimately, those projects were designed and built upon the availability of Pick-Sloan power. The determination that those projects are not be able to continue to receive Pick-Sloan power would have huge effects on them and might even result in the loss of those projects. We as an organization are there to help advocate for those projects to continue to receive Pick-Sloan power and the associated rates.

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to Congress?

Mike Murphy: My message to Congress is an encouragement to pass legislation that will help build our economy, including reasonable funding alternatives for the construction of new irrigation infrastructure and the repair and modernization of projects such as the Milk River Project. Passage of the bipartisan Montana Water Right Protection Act will not only provide for settlement of water rights and other tribal issues, but will result in economic development and jobs. I would also like to encourage Congress to support legislation to address the Pick-Sloan power concerns of the Sidney and Kinsey irrigation projects, which in turn affect our agricultural communities and the overall Montana economy.

Irrigation Leader: What should every irrigation-related vendor know about your meeting?

Mike Murphy: Our annual conference is generally held the last week in January or the first week in February. We hope that by the beginning of 2021, the coronavirus will be under control. We wouldn’t be able to facilitate a conference in Montana right now, since we’re limited by group size. Right now, we’re looking at the first week in February. We currently plan to hold the conference in Helena next year. Generally, we try to hold the conference in Helena every other year to facilitate more direct access to the state legislature. Anywhere from a dozen to 20 vendors participate in our conference. They are important to the industry, to our agricultural producers, and to all our water users. The face-to-face conversations at the conference are valuable, and the presentations help irrigators connect with those vendors and get the resources they need to facilitate improvements in our projects and keep water available to agricultural producers and all water users throughout Montana. 

Mike Murphy is the executive director of the Montana Water Resources Association. He can be contacted at mwra_h2o@msn.com or (406) 235‑4555.