It’s a very common sight in the summer months, pivots and irrigation lines watering not only their desired fields, but soaking adjacent roads and highways.
Unfortunately, this practice is very wasteful and potentially dangerous, and could be a violation of Montana law.
The right to water use is a very important and controversial topic for any Montana farmer.
Disputes over who has the best right to water are the subject of constant argument and adjudication between neighbors. Montana Water Courts are steadily busy deciding who has the best right to use the very limited available sources of water, and farmers spend considerable amounts of money protecting their interest in this valuable resource.
For these reasons, it is difficult to explain why so many farmers are content to waste thousands of gallons of water every year, spraying public roads with water that could mean the difference in this year’s successful crop.
Another aspect of irrigating public roads that is often overlooked is the safety view.
Spraying water on roadways speeds erosion, making frequent maintenance or construction necessary, which may mean increases in transportation taxes. Eroded or damaged roads may also cause damage to vehicles and more frequent accidents.
In addition, an unexpected blast of water on a vehicle windshield may cause a driver to momentarily lose sight of the road or control of their vehicle and cause serious accidents.
Montana Code Annotated § (MCA) 45-5-208 provides up to a $1,000 fine or up to one year in a county jail for negligently engaging in conduct that creates a substantial risk of death or serious injury to another.
Due to the high speed of motor vehicle traffic on roads and highways, it is clear that negligently allowing an irrigation system to spray oncoming traffic may constitute this offense.
This practice may also constitute Criminal Mischief, under MCA §45-6-101 for tampering with public property, so as to endanger or interfere with persons or property or its use.
Montana Code Title 7 also provides local governments with the power to regulate and prevent any obstructions (including water spray) to public roadways.
In addition to these laws, Montana Code(s) also sets out very specific guidelines for encroachments like this upon county roads and highways and procedures for removal.
MCA §7-14-2134 authorizes the county to order any obstructions such as standing water removed from the roads, and §7-14-2141 very specifically puts the owner of any ditch or other source of water or water user, who allows it to overflow from their property onto the road, at liability to remove the water and repair the damage caused.
It can be very easy for irrigators to prevent these infractions, by monitoring more closely where their lines are watering, and changing the hand or wheel line locations or programming the pivots to keep the water on their fields and not on public roadways.
“By taking precautions to keep your water on your crops rather than the road, you can not only save water, money, and ensure better health for your crops, you can also help make Montana roads and highways a safer place to drive for everyone,” says Paul Carroll, and intern for County Attorney Mary Ann Ries.
Editor’s note: Paul Carroll, an intern with the county attorney prepared and submitted this article to the I-O.