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Passion for Water Law

May 29, 2024

Austin Durglo set the course of his career and found a means of contributing to his Native American community while taking a water law class at Salish Kootenai College of northwest Montana.

In pursuit of becoming a water attorney, he enrolled in a unique dual program at the University of Idaho. He was one of two students at the university’s May 11 commencement ceremony to receive both a master’s degree in water resources: science and management emphasis and a juris doctorate in law.

Durglo is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of northwest Montana and aims to become licensed to practice water law throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“I took a water law class at the end of my bachelor’s degree and had an explosion of interest of not only how complex water law can be, but also the differences in each state,” Durglo said. “My goal is to really work with tribes in some fashion, directly with them or as a consultant. Tribal water rights are much different than any other water rights. I found it interesting to learn the history behind that and really understand what that means.”

Durglo grew up surrounded by freshwater lakes, streams and rivers and initially wanted to become a hydrologist, but after reading a few cases on water law, his career goals changed as he wanted to have an opportunity to return to his reservation and guide important decisions, while also helping people resolve challenges regarding a scarce and vital resource.

“I realized I would be able to make a more significant impact as an attorney rather than a hydrologist and could play a role in shaping laws and policies of how things are done on the reservation,” Durglo said. “I think that’s why I chose law school over a career in science but still enjoy learning about science and hope to incorporate that knowledge as I enter my career in water law.”

Prior to enrolling at U of I, Durglo moved to Moscow for an internship with the Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS), which is a research entity under the U.S. Forest Service devoted to improving the health of forests and grasslands. Durglo spent a summer collecting data from designated research plots within wildfire burn areas.

Erin Brooks, a professor within U of I’s Department of Soil and Water Systems, often collaborates on research with RMRS and recruited Durglo to become a Vandal.

Durglo chose U of I because it was one of the few schools offering the degrees he sought as a dual program. Taking them concurrently allowed him to complete his studies a year sooner. Durglo also appreciated the small class sizes with renowned faculty at U of I, as well as the chance to study in a state with countless real-world examples of the natural resources issues he studied in class.

“If you are looking to hire somebody, that understands the science and potential legal connotations natural resource management brings, this is a great program. What a great, rounded background and education,” Brooks said. “The law degree itself is a challenge, and to put another master’s next to it is pretty astonishing to me.”

Demand for attorneys with expertise in water management should continue to mount as demand for water increases.

“We are in for a looming trainwreck in the State of Idaho in terms of our water management,” Brooks said. “There are going to be some hard decisions and there is going to be some litigation to determine the fate of water use and allocation.”

Durglo’s research at U of I focused both on the legal aspects and the management side of water resources. For his master’s thesis, he helped test the U.S. Forest Service’s Water Erosion Prediction Project (FS-WEPP) model, a predictive model guiding erosion management decisions in post-wildfire settings.

The model he helped improve can predict erosion and runoff from burned areas that have been salvage logged and can be used as a tool to predict sediment delivery into important waterways and help protect the environment. His focus was on how heavy logging equipment influences erosion and how the model interface predictions compare to erosion data collected in the field. He’s also studied the effectiveness of modeling methods that were used in the research plots for mitigating skid trails, such as piling slash on them to increase ground cover.

The model was originally released in 1995 to assess erosion from Midwestern cropland. It was adapted for use in forest land about 15 years ago — evaluating how slope, soil type, weather, cover type and other factors influence runoff and erosion. The model draws weather trends from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration database and can quantify the percentage risk of erosion associated with various management scenarios.

Durglo and researchers from several other institutions have partnered with the Rocky Mountain Research Station on updating FS-WEPP and creating a cloud-based interface to enhance the user interface. Durglo and other researchers participate in weekly calls to update progress and troubleshoot the model.

In addition to his work on water modeling, Durglo reviewed court challenges brought against the U.S. Forest Service for awarding past salvage logging contracts to understand some common themes in the lawsuits. He concluded lack of sufficient environmental analysis is a primary reason why salvage logging project approvals are stuck down in court, demonstrating the importance of accurate modelling tools such as FS-WEPP.

Durglo is scheduled to take the Idaho bar exam in late July. In the fall, He will begin a judicial clerkship in U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Montana, aiding a judge with research and preparations.

Published in Catching Up with CALS

Austin Durglo aims to become licensed to practice water law throughout the Pacific Northwest.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at uidaho.edu.


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