Volume 14 Issue 1 January MT

The Importance of the Montana Water Court

By Kris Polly

First in time, first in right should be a simple rule to follow. But as Montana Water Court Judge Russ McElyea tells us, adjudicating water rights is a little more complex than that, especially since in many cases, rights from the 19th or early 20th centuries have only fragmentary documentation or no paper trail at all. In this month’s cover interview, we take a look at the expert legal knowledge—and interesting detective work—that goes into adjudicating water rights in Montana.

We are also honored to feature an interview with Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson about the importance of irrigation to Arkansas—the nation’s number 1 rice producer—and the need to think strategically about future water supplies in the face of competing demands for water and declining groundwater levels. We then speak with two water professionals who are working hard to do just that through major water infrastructure projects. Edward Swaim, the executive director of the Bayou Meto Water Management District, tells us about progress on the Bayou Meto Irrigation Project, which will distribute water from the Arkansas River to about 268,000 acres of farmland, and Dennis Carman, the director and chief engineer of the White River Irrigation District, tells us about the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project, which will supply water to farmers from the White River. We also talk to Kenneth Graves, the chairman of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, about the importance of the irrigated crop for Arkansas’s economy.

Next, we interview Kirk Byles, the CEO of FreeWave Technologies, about his company’s radio devices and sensor products, which enable an entire smart agriculture ecosystem, and about the company’s new partnership with center-pivot manufacturer Reinke.

The eventual decision in the Supreme Court case Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, known as Sackett II, will affect water managers nationwide. That’s why we are excited to share a detailed interview with Damien Schiff, the senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation who argued on behalf of the Sackett family before the Supreme Court.

American Leak Detection’s high-density polyethylene irrigation ditch liner is a lightweight, robust, man-portable lining system that is easier to install than concrete and pipe, conserves water, and provides years of service while reducing annual maintenance costs. We speak with Chief Technical Officer Kenneth Suazo about the system’s genesis and potential.

The legal issues surrounding water rights, property rights, and government regulation are highly complex, but as any western water manager knows, they are far from abstract and theoretical. Even if law is not your specialty, I know you will find our interviews with Mr. McElyea and Mr. Schiff fascinating.

Kris Polly is the editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and the president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at kris.polly@waterstrategies.com.