Legal and Policy Aspects of the Water-Energy Nexus

Modern systems of water and energy are tightly intertwined.  Significant amounts of water are expended during the phases of energy production, from resource extraction to final generation.  In turn, energy powers the equipment that extracts groundwater or surface water, purifies water to the EWNstandards required for human consumption, pumps water to our communities and businesses, and finally treats wastewater before releasing it to the environment.  That relationship was the focus of a joint meeting held here at Marquette University earlier this month between The Water Council and the Mid-west Energy Research Consortium.  The two organizations plan to design a joint roadmap to advance local efforts, including academic research, in the “energy-water nexus.”

To date, significantly less attention has been paid to the legal and policy aspects of this “nexus.”  Policy strategies surrounding the “nexus” have generally focused on efficiency measures to limit demand for both water and energy, especially in sectors that use both such as agriculture and power generation.  More innovation solutions might include sustainability index measurements, pricing corrections, and alternative decisional frameworks that include broader groups of stakeholders.

The conceptual “nexus” model is not without its critics, however.

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When Public Safety and Water Quality Collide

Greater environmental protection and increased public safety are often believed to be synonymous, or at least to go hand-in-hand.  Sometimes, though, those goals are arguably in tension.  The application of salt to de-ice roads, parking lots, and sidewalks for safe travel is one such case.  Those who have lived and worked in northern climates are no doubt familiar with the sensation of excess de-icing salt crunching underfoot during the winter months, and have probably lamented the imStrifling blog photopact of excess salt on shoes, clothes, and vehicles.  Recent studies have shown that disproportionate application of deicing salt also has a significant and negative impact on water quality in the form of elevated chloride concentrations.

Not much attention has been paid to this problem from a legal or policy standpoint, and it’s unlikely that it can be addressed with traditional regulatory tools providing only limited authority over so-called “non-point sources,” such as farm fields and – as relevant to the problem of excess de-icing salt – roads and parking lots.  Alternative policy tools to address the issue might include a salt tax, green infrastructure, integrated watershed assessment and management, and self-governance at the community or individual levels incentivized by regulators or demanded by customers and the public. 

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An Expanded Water Law and Policy Initiative

We frequently say that Marquette Law School hopes to be a place of which the community remarks,“That’s where you take the hard problems, the ones that affect us all.” As we observe the course of events in California and other parts of the world, it seems difficult to imagine a problem more intractable or more universal—a problem harder—than ensuring the availability of fresh water for domestic, medical, agricultural, and industrial uses. Indeed, Pope Francis recently cautioned in an encyclical that water, which is “indispensable for human life,” is “a fundamental right,” and he called for all interested parties to engage in “an open and respectful dialogue” about relevant policies and laws. Closer to home, with Associate Dean Matt Parlow’s leadership, the Law School has been actively engaged in the Milwaukee regional water initiative since its creation last decade; more recently, the Law School has sought to respond to President Michael R. Lovell’s call for greater engagement by Marquette University with matters involving water.

In these circumstances, it is a great pleasure to announce an expanded Water Law and Policy Initiative which will seek to help establish the Law School and, more broadly, Marquette University as a center for study, exploration, discussion, and education concerning water issues. Using an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach, the initiative will seek, among other things, to assess the legal and regulatory aspects of water policy, to pursue opportunities for information exchange and collaboration within and outside the University, and to provide the means for those involved in Milwaukee’s water initiative to become better informed on legal and policy aspects of critical water-related issues.image001

I am also pleased to announce the appointment of David Strifling as the Initiative’s inaugural director. Dave is a Marquette lawyer (L’04) and Marquette engineer (L’00) with a Harvard master’s. He has served as an adjunct professor here for several years, practiced at Quarles & Brady, and previously taught at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. He has extensive practical experience in both environmental law and environmental engineering and holds active licenses in both disciplines, making him almost uniquely qualified to move this project forward in an interdisciplinary way; further background about Dave is available here. We are able to pursue this initiative because of support from the University’s Strategic Innovation Fund and from the Law School’s Annual Fund. Welcome, Dave.

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