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Farm Field

Indian Water Rights

Indian water right litigation cases and negotiation efforts require a variety of technical studies.  Reserved water rights for future use of water are generally associated with the purpose(s) of the Reservation listed in the treaty signed between the federal government and the tribe.  The primary methodology used to quantify future reserved water rights for tribes is through the Practicably Irrigable Acreage (PIA) standard.  The Supreme Court determination in Arizona v. California set forth this method for quantifying future water rights on tribal lands.  PIA evaluations require a complex set of studies evaluating water supply, soils, and crop markets which inform the economic feasibility determination.  Similarly, future industrial or commercial water right claims are often based on an economic analyses of the intended water use.  Future domestic and municipal water rights are generally based on population projections of the tribal members.  


Dr. Bob McKusick serves as Technical Advisor for all Highland Economics Indian water right projects.  Bob has over 35 years experience leading economic and demographic studies related to Indian water right projects.  Principal Travis Greenwalt leads PIA and industrial analyses for future reserved water right claims, and principal Barbara Wyse leads all demographic studies related to future domestic water claims.  To date, our economists have worked cooperatively with more than 50 tribes throughout the US to present credible economic research, impartial analysis, and defensible results.  This includes work in more than 20 cases providing economic analysis in litigation support role of Federal reserved water rights.  


Our work in these cases has included:


  • Estimating the water needs associated with domestic, commerical, municipal, and industrial (DCMI) claims; often employing population growth projections using cohort component models

  • Determining economic feasibility of potential irrigation developments associated with Practical Irrigable Acreage (PIA) claims through collaboration with soils scientists, hydrologists, engineers, and GIS analysts

  • Market and economic feasibility analyses of potential future development associated with Large Commercial or Industrial water claims, which can involve assessments of: tourism and recreation development potential, natural resource developments (oil, gas, mining, etc.), processing of agricultural products, and others

  • Expert witness testimony in support of litigation


Sample Indian Water Rights Studies

Federal Technical Team Economics Lead for PIA, Large Industrial and DCMI water claims, Montana


This project involves conducting a number of technical studies as members of the federal technical team, all of which support the water claims process for a confidential Tribe in Montana. The first component, which has been completed in draft form, examined the economic feasibility of irrigated agriculture across the Reservation. This required researching market conditions for multiple crops, from the local to the international level. Using crop budgets tailored to the study area, we also conducted a Benefit-Cost Analysis to determine if an irrigation project would be economically feasible, and at what size. This analysis was used to determine the Practicably Irrigable Acreage (PIA) future water claims. Another component of this project (completed in draft form) estimated the Reservation's water needs for future industrial uses.

This required researching the existing economic resources on the Reservation, and conducting a critical assessment of industries that have a reasonable likelihood of development, both logistically and when considering market conditions. We used this research to determine a reasonable size for the future large industrial activities and a corresponding future water claim for these sectors. The final project component involved estimating the water needs for domestic, commercial, municipal, and industrial (DCMI) uses. This task involved building a population growth model to project the future population of the Reservation. We combined the population projection with research on per-capita water consumption to generate an estimate of the future water needs for DCMI uses.

Subcontractor, Federal Technical Team Economics Lead for PIA, and homeland claims, New Mexico 


Highland Economics is a sub-contractor to  Keller – Bliesner Engineering, and part of the federal technical team for conducting studies to support  negotiation or litigation of water rights claims for several pueblos in New Mexico. In the first part of the project, Highland Economics will work with a soils expert and crop production experts to determine crop suitability and expected yields in the study area. Highland Economics will then create crop enterprise budgets specific to the study areas. These budgets will be used to assess the economic viability of agriculture for future water claims of the pueblos. Highland Economics will also consider the value-added potential of food processing on the pueblos.  This will involve an in-depth study of market conditions, an assessment of the costs associated with establishing such a facility, and an estimate of the water required to run the facility.  The crop production and food processing economic analyses will be used in preparing Practicably Irrigable

Acreage (PIA) analyses and water claims.  In another project component, Highland Economics will be conducting focus groups of pueblo residents to gauge the extent of subsistence farming in the study area, as well as the practices, costs, and benefits associated with this kind activity.  This primary data collection will be used as a basis for homeland water claims on the pueblos. 

On-call, Economic Analysis Assistance to Secretary's Indian Water Rights Office (SIWRO)


Highland Economics is an on-call contractor to SIWRO, assisting with technical studies of various components of Indian Water Right Settlements or litigation cases across the United States.  As part of this on-going project Highland economists have conducted independent analyses and reviews of economic studies that have been used as the basis for litigation level Indian water right claims and proposed Indian water right settlements. In addition, we have examined the process of Indian Water Rights Settlements, highlighting potential advantages they can provide to the American public.  Drawing on recent scientific literature and extensive in-house experience in Indian water issues, we explored how Indian water rights settlements have the potential to provide a number of economic benefits.  We outline each of the potential benefits in detail and suggested economic valuation methods that could be used to measure them.  

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