The 2022 Water Legacy Award Winners 

One of several highlights from last week’s Governor’s Water Conference was the annual bestowing of the Water Legacy Award(s). The award recognizes an individual who has, over the course of his/her career, made extraordinary contributions in water and resource management in Kansas. In a sense, it is a lifetime achievement award for individuals who deserve recognition for the lasting impact they have made toward ensuring a safe and secure water supply for Kansans, now and into the future.    

Normally only one award is given per year. This year three Water Legacy Awards were given due to the number of worthy applicants and as it had been three years since the last award was last made (as the 2020 and 2021 conferences were virtual). 

This year’s recipients included an agency attorney, a scientist, and a law professor.  I helped write one of the nominations, supported a second, and would have supported the third if asked, as I have known and worked with each of them over my own career and agree each is deserving.

Below are the full nomination statements, as read at the conference, when each award was given.  Pictured below are the awardees, from left to right: Donald Whittemore, Lee Rolfs, and John Peck.

Leland “Lee” Rolfs, Agency Attorney

Leland “Lee” Rolfs is a native Kansan, born in Topeka, where he attended elementary and junior high school. He graduated from Hays High School. Upon graduation from Ohio University, Lee began his professional career in Chicago before returning to Kansas to pursue a law degree at the University of Kansas School of Law.

Lee served as an attorney for the Water Resources Board and as Legal Counsel for the Chief Engineer of the Division of Water Resources (within KDA), holding the status of Special Assistant Attorney General, from 1978 through 2008.  Over his extensive career, Lee was involved in nearly every aspect of water policy formation and implementation.  

Lee worked extensively to draft numerous written Administrative Policies for Chief Engineers Guy Gibson and David Pope. Lee led the agency efforts to convert the Administrative Policies into formal regulations, bringing consistency to DWR’s implementation of more than twenty-five water laws, including the Kansas Water Appropriation Act, the Groundwater Management District Act, and Water Structures laws. Lee collaborated well with staff, the public, and Kansas’ diverse local units of government.

Similarly, Lee also supplied excellent staff support for DWR on legislative matters. For many years, he was deeply involved in legislative activities, including drafting legislation and preparing testimony for the Chief Engineer to present.

Lee supplied legal support for DWR’s administrative hearings on diverse, complex water issues, such as the enforcement of repairs to unsafe dams, water rights related issues, and the designation of Intensive Groundwater Use Control Areas (IGUCAs).  As decisions of the Chief Engineer were appealed to the courts, he and his legal staff were involved in District Court litigation and appeals to higher courts. 

He successfully defended several cases before the Kansas Supreme Court, including one that challenged the constitutionality of the 1978 amendments to the Kansas Water Appropriation Act, which mandated permits or existing water rights for virtually all non-domestic water uses in Kansas.

Lee provided legal counsel to the Chief Engineer and other Kansas Commissioners for Kansas’ four Interstate River Compacts.  In two of these Compacts, Kansas had to seek enforcement through litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases that required decades of perseverance, with Lee being a major player on the Kansas Litigation Team.  For example, in Kansas v. Colorado, which was filed to enforce the terms of the Arkansas River Compact, he helped examine witnesses at trial before the Special Master, draft numerous briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court and prepare the team or oral arguments before the Court.

Similarly, in Kansas v. Nebraska and Colorado,  filed in the U.S. Supreme Court to enforce the terms of the Republican River Compact, Lee was a key member of the Kansas settlement team that achieved enforceable standards for Compact compliance.

In total, with Lee’s significant help, Kansas achieved Compact compliance by upstream states with both Compacts and received over $40 million in economic damages for past violations of these Compacts.

Since his retirement from state service, Lee has served as an Adjunct Professor of Law, teaching water law at Washburn University School of Law.  He has also consulted with the Kansas Water Office, the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes, and the Division of Water Resources, and represented clients in water-related litigation.  

Over the years, Lee often navigated many contentious, controversial, and even volatile circumstances.  But even in the most stressful of situations, Lee could be counted on to respond with calm, reason and good humor.    

It is difficult to adequately describe the impact and influence Lee has had on the management of water resources in Kansas; I challenge anyone to find a water law, regulation or appropriation standard that does not bear his fingerprints or influence.    

Donald Whittemore, Scientist  

Dr Donald Whittemore is a Senior Scientific Fellow, Emeritus, in the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He received a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of New Hampshire and his Ph.D. in Geochemistry from Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the hydrogeology and hydrogeochemistry of water resources in Kansas, especially the High Plains Aquifer, stream-aquifer systems, and saline waters.

More than any other individual in the last century, Don has significantly enhanced our knowledge of Kansas groundwater and surface water resources. Don’s work has been central to helping identify and control contamination, driving everything from remediation efforts to litigation. 

His detailed interpretations of water chemistry have significantly enhanced our understanding of the water quality of Kansas aquifers and surface waters, including uranium concentration in the Arkansas River and the High Plains Aquifer in western Kansas, the composition of brines across the state, potable water prospects for the Dakota aquifer, bromide problems in the Kansas River, and the multitude of similar issues he has worked on.   

Moreover, his detailed assessments of regional hydrogeology have proven extremely valuable in helping us better understand prospects for groundwater-fed irrigation in western and central Kansas. It is no exaggeration to say that his work on water chemistry and regional hydrogeology will be heavily relied on far into the future.

He has collaborated with others on relationships among water-level changes, groundwater use, and climate, and on uranium in the Arkansas River corridor in southwest Kansas.

Don retired from the KGS in 2017, but is still working on a number of projects as an emeritus scientist.  He is a truly irreplaceable resource, and not just in terms of water quality and regional hydrogeology, but in terms of a range of water issues in the state, such as water use by invasive vegetation in the riparian zones of central Kansas or the chemistry of recycling/reuse of saline water from oil production, which relates directly to the issue of induced seismicity. Odds are high that if there’s a water issue facing the state, Don has seen it, studied it, and can accurately comment on it. The state is incredibly fortunate that he chose to devote his career to Kansas water issues.

Don’s work stands the test of time in part because he is so careful and methodical.  As one of his colleagues from the KGS put it: “His results and conclusions are consistently reliable.  You can take them to the bank. I have never heard anyone question even a single sentence of Don’s work.”  Don cares deeply about getting things right. His persistent attention to detail has paid great dividends to our state and will continue to do so well into the future.

Dr. Whittemore is the first scientist to receive the Kansas Water Legacy Award. 

John Peck, Law Professor  

Professor John Peck is a native Kansan, graduating from Kansas State University in 1968 with a degree in civil engineering. After working three years for the U.S. Public Health Service and the EPA in Washington, D.C., he earned his law degree from the University of Kansas School of Law.

He practiced law with Everett, Seaton, Peck here in Manhattan, from 1974 to 1978, at which time he joined the law faculty at the University of Kansas School of Law.  He taught contracts, land transactions, and family law, but was the only professor specializing in water law.  His expertise was sought after in the private sector; he has been special counsel to the Foulston Siefkin law firm in Wichita and Overland Park. He has advised countless clients on real-world issues relating to obtaining, changing, defending, and enforcing their water rights

John is recognized as the pre-eminent authority on Kansas water law, being widely considered “the expert in Kansas water law since the 1970s”.   Anyone researching virtually any aspect of Kansas water law has no doubt benefitted from the numerous law review articles and scholarly papers authored by Professor Peck.  All of his articles, if taken together, would provide a comprehensive treatment of all aspects of Kansas water law.  His expertise has taken John across the globe to consult and make presentations on an international level.  

In addition to his monumental contributions to water law jurisprudence, John was, above all, a highly regarded teacher.  His welcoming nature, good humor and easy manner made him a favorite among law students.  You always felt a bit more relaxed in his classroom because he never buttoned his shirt sleeves; those sleeves were always rolled up over his forearms like you were about to sit together after a hard day’s work and have a chat.  Many of us who were fortunate enough to have him as a water law teacher grew to know him as a mentor, as well.  Professor Peck treated his former students with respect and dignity and often provided opportunities to join him in authoring articles, thereby helping to boost the junior lawyer’s career.   

Not surprisingly, John earned many awards for teaching.  He was named a Connell Teaching Professor of Law in 1999, and he received both the Dean Frederick J. Moreau Award and the Immel Award for Teaching Excellence in 1998. In 2004, the university awarded him a W.T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence. In 2018, he was awarded the Clyde O. Martz Teaching Award by the trustees of the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation.  

John was also an active member of a number of professional associations, sharing his time and talents with other lawyers across the country.  For many years, John provided the water law chapter for the Kansas Bar Association’s annual update of the law, helping to keep water law practitioners up to speed on the latest developments.

After 41 years of teaching at KU Law, he retired in 2019.  

Throughout all aspects of his career, John demonstrated unfailing integrity, humility and compassion. His work has fundamentally shaped today’s interpretation of Kansas water law and regulation, and he has nearly single-handedly trained and influenced a generation of water law practitioners, a number of whom are in this room.