Water Law: Water Law and Policy Initiative

General information

The Marquette University Law School Water Law and Policy Initiative seeks 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 seeks, 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 the public to become better informed on legal and policy aspects of critical water-related issues.

Interested in learning more? Please see this article from Marquette Lawyer magazine, or contact Professor David Strifling, Director of the Water Law and Policy Initiative.  

Current and Recent Conferences, Events, and Projects

  • The Water (Re)Cycle. Existing drinking water sources are under increasing strain from overuse and climate change, among other pressures. Drinking-water providers in some parts of the country are turning to new sources of water that traditionally were dismissed as infeasible because of cost or other difficulties. Among these new sources is, ironically, an old source—the direct or indirect reuse of treated wastewater, long avoided due to the “yuck factor.”
  • In 2024 the Water Law and Policy Initiative hosted a conference to explore the possibilities of water reuse. Noted author Peter Annin discussed his new book, Purified: How Recycled Sewage Is Transforming Our Water, and Professor David Strifling, director of Marquette Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative, led a conversation with a panel of thought leaders on potential reuse applications. If you missed it, watch the recording here.

  • In Defense of Water. Professor Strifling and several law student researchers are part of an interdisciplinary, university-wide team working to develop novel, sustainable technologies to protect human health and the environment funded by a series of significant grant awards from the U.S. Department of Defense. The latest award aims to improve water security and efficiency on military installations to reduce negative readiness and operational impacts due to water shortages and employ innovative water management technologies. Furthermore, the work addresses cleanup related to PFAS at current and former military installations, including many in Wisconsin. The project entails seven areas of focus and encompasses 11 faculty members from six departments across five colleges and schools. Read more here.

  • Marquette Law Students Contribute to Regional Study of Chloride Pollution. Chloride pollution of surface water and groundwater is an intractable problem. On one hand, sodium chloride (salt) is an important component of winter maintenance efforts that keep roads and other traveled surfaces free of snow and ice. On the other hand, many scientific studies have examined the potential risks to human health and natural resources associated with excess chloride in the environment. Yet little of that scientific work has been directed toward developing legal and policy strategies to address the chloride issue. Building on the proposed framework for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s comprehensive Chloride Impact Study for the Southeastern Wisconsin Region, and working closely with Commission staff, two law students led the effort to develop a report examining a menu of responsive legal and policy options available to decision-makers in the Region. These include limiting slip-and-fall liability, relying on direct regulatory authority such as the Clean Water Act or corresponding state regulations and municipal ordinances, disseminating relevant information to stakeholders and the public, using alternatives to chloride where feasible, leveraging new policy strategies such as water quality trading, investigating integrated watershed management across jurisdictions, and leveraging economic measures and assistance. A draft of the report is available here on the Commission’s Chloride Impact Study website.

  • A Federal Perspective on Wisconsin's Lead Pipe Problem. On April 5, 2023, the Water Law and Policy Initiative welcomed Congresswoman Gwen Moore to Eckstein Hall's Lubar Center. Prof. Strifling and Congresswoman Moore explored the problem of lead service lines in Wisconsin’s water distribution systems and the possibility of federal involvement and funding to help address the issue.  Law students, along with Strifling, also presented the findings from their recent survey of public water systems on various approaches to Wisconsin’s lead pipe problem. Watch the recorded event here.
  • Environmental Law and Environmental Justice. On October 26, 2022 the Water Law and Policy Initiative and the Faculty Diversity Committee co-sponsored another installment in the Law School’s “Race and the Law” series. The event focused on environmental law and environmental justice. The conversation explored traditional environmental justice concerns such as unequal exposure to pollution, as well as emerging issues of “resilience justice” and “energy justice” interwoven with systemic racism, structural income and wealth disparities, and other forms of marginalization and oppression that worsen environmental and health inequalities in Milwaukee and beyond. Participants included Brenda Coley and Kirsten Shead, Co-Executive Directors, Milwaukee Water Commons; and Pamela Ritger de la Rosa, Environmental Sustainability Program Manager, City of Milwaukee Environmental Collaboration Office. Watch the recorded event here.
  • A Federal-State Conversation on Environmental Issues. On June 15, 2022, the Water Law and Policy Initiative hosted a conversation exploring top-priority issues of environmental policy with Preston Cole, the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Debra Shore, the Regional Administrator for the United States Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 (serving Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and 35 Tribes). The conversation covered PFAS regulation and management, climate change and the Great Lakes, water infrastructure needs and budgeting, federal and state environmental justice efforts, the EPA—DNR working relationship, and more. View the recorded event here.
  • Water Policy in the Chicago Megacity: Past, Present, and Future. On October 14, 2021, the Water Law and Policy Initiative hosted an online event titled “Water Policy in the Chicago Megacity: Past, Present, and Future.” As the title implies, the event focused on aspects of the past, present, and future of water policy in the “Chicago Megacity”—the region stretching from the Milwaukee area, across metropolitan Chicago, and into northwest Indiana. The event was presented in partnership with Current’s Chicago Water Week 2021 and built on past Marquette Law School conferences about the Chicago Megacity, across a range of issues including water, transportation, education, and economic development. It covered some of the issues that Milwaukee, Chicago, and other cities in the Megacity will face together, including an exploration of the history of the internationally acclaimed Chicago lakefront, an examination of the Megacity region's water infrastructure crisis, and a discussion of the Megacity region's readiness for incoming migration due to climate change. To view the recorded event, please click here.
  • Milwaukee 2025: Water, Jobs, and the Way Forward. Ten years ago, Marquette University Law School convened a conference titled “Milwaukee 2015: Water, Jobs, and the Way Forward.” Participants mapped a pathway for Milwaukee to emerge as a worldwide water hub. As one local leader put it: “My dream is that by 2015, when people think water, they think Milwaukee.” A decade later, we reconvene to examine how far the region has come toward achieving that goal. The conference will also look forward to the next decade and consider the next stage of the region’s development in the face of competition from other parts of the country that have the same objective. View the recorded event online here.
  • Evaluating the Great Lakes Compact on its Tenth Anniversary. On Tuesday, October 2, 2018, we welcomed former Wisconsin governor James Doyle, noted author Peter Annin, and other experts to evaluate the Great Lakes Compact on its tenth anniversary. On October 3, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Great Lakes Compact into law. Since then, southeastern Wisconsin has proved to be a hotbed for controversy involving exceptions to the Compact’s general ban on diversions of water from the Great Lakes basin. In September 2017, the Compact Council began the process of drafting updates to the procedures, guidance, and rules used to implement the Compact. Ten years after it became law, this event will evaluate how successful the Compact has been to date, will explore current controversies and proposed revisions to the Compact, and will consider what may be in store in the second decade. The conference is another in a series of events presented by Marquette Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative. Registration will open at 8:30 a.m. and the event will conclude with a light “to-go” lunch at 11:45 a.m. in the Law School’s Zilber Forum. This is a free event, but registration is required. View the recorded event online here.
  • Lake Michigan and the Chicago Megacity in the 21st Century. Marquette Law School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have previously explored together the “Chicago Megacity”—the region stretching from the Milwaukee area, across metropolitan Chicago, and into northwest Indiana—on a range of issues including economic development, transportation, and education. On April 17, 2018 we expanded that focus to water. A 2012 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on the Chicago Megacity found that some of the region’s greatest advantages lie in its access to and expertise in water, as it is home to the top water-related cluster in the United States. But in the years since, water-related competition or outright disagreement has sometimes prevailed over cooperation, and the resource is under increasing strain. This conference explored the future of the Chicago Megacity’s relationship with water, including the challenges and opportunities the region faces. This required a special focus on interactions with Lake Michigan, the dominant geographic feature of the region. Participants from a variety of disciplines discussed topics such as the Chicago Megacity's responsibility to protect Lake Michigan from various threats, whether and how Lake Michigan should be used as a tool for economic development in the region, and the challenge of delivering a safe and reliable water supply. View the event podcast at this link.
  • Designing Governance Mechanisms to Facilitiate Effective Intergovernmental Cooperation on Watershed Issues - Recent studies have advocated management of water resources using an integrated approach at the watershed level, necessarily crossing traditional geopolitical and agency boundaries.  Generally, this “integrated watershed management” methodology aims to coordinate development and management of water and related resources so as to maximize economic and social welfare without compromising environmental sustainability.  Although its precise scope and content remains unclear, implementation of the approach requires innovative and cooperative governance mechanisms.  This project aims to better define and evaluate specifics for its use in two areas: 1) Controlling nonpoint pollution from agricultural sources; and 2) Overcoming legal and policy barriers to adoption of green infrastructure.  Effective intergovernmental cooperation in these areas could lead to environmental and technological advances.
  • Innovation at the Food-Energy-Water Nexus - In May 2017, he Law School hosted an interdisciplinary workshop, Innovation at the Food-Energy-Water Nexus, drawing from engineering, legal, scientific, and policy spheres to offer a unique perspective on the food-energy-water nexus. The workshop format and accompanying discussions (1) provoked conversations about overcoming barriers to the implementation of innovative water solutions, (2) stimulated ideas for focused academic research in the nexus, and (3) drove the development of organizational policy and technology roadmaps. The event incorporated sessions on energy use, recovery, and minimization at water and wastewater utilities; on groundwater; on agricultural sustainability and food waste; and on ethical considerations for stakeholders, a topic often absent from similar events. A working lunch and roundtable discussion as well as breakout sessions invited and encouraged broad-based attendee participation. Attendees also had numerous opportunities to network with experts, researchers, and students. This event is sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center for Water Equipment and Policy. View the recorded event online here.
  • Public Policy and American Drinking Water - As part of its core mission, the Water Law and Policy Initiative seeks to provide opportunities for public engagement and education on legal and policy aspects of critical water-related issues.  Amid great concern about the future of water quality and quantity, Marquette Law School hosted a major conference titled “Public Policy and American Drinking Water.”  The conference took an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the legal, scientific, engineering, and environmental water issues that fill today’s news and touch all of our lives.  Leading figures from a variety of disciplines – including Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech – discussed topics such as lead and aging infrastructure, privatization of water systems, public perceptions of water quality issues, the (under)valuation of water, and quantity and quality concerns related to groundwater.  View the entire conference online here.
  • Creating Policy Options to Reduce Chloride Discharges to Area Waterways - This project, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation Industry/University Collaborative Research Center for Water Equipment and Policy, created and evaluated a menu of legal and policy options for policymakers to address high chloride concentrations in area waterways likely caused by the excess application of salt for winter deicing, in combination with other sources such as water softeners. The resulting interdisciplinary paper, available for download here, examines the underlying causes of unsustainable chloride pollution from a scientific and engineering perspective. It explores the relative strengths of options such as incentivized self-governance at the community or individual levels; informational strategies to encourage optimal chloride use levels for deicing and in water softening applications; direct legal and regulatory mechanisms or mandated best practices issued pursuant to the Clean Water Act, state regulations, or municipal ordinances; use of chloride alternatives such as green infrastructure and substitute deicing substances; integrated watershed management; and direct economic measures. The paper does not suggest that all these options are appropriate in every context, nor does it rank them from most to least useful. Those decisions are left to affected stakeholders. Instead, the paper examines the technical and legal contours of each option, and links the scientific underpinnings to the legal and policy dimensions. This approach increases the likelihood that ultimate policy decisions can be both legally defensible and scientifically sound.  Professor Strifling also serves on the Technical Advisory Committee for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s Chloride Impact Study for the Southeastern Wisconsin Region.
  • Transboundary Waters and Societal Destinies – This project evaluates governance and legal structures at the international, national, and state levels that – intended or not - have the effect of incentivizing state actors to “take”  transboundary waters for individual gain.  This research will evaluate whether the overwhelming need to maintain access to transboundary resources has caused states to instrumentally select and interpret legal doctrines to ensure that outcome. 
  • Energy and Manufacturing Competitiveness Partnership - Marquette University and A. O. Smith Corporation led a top-level national initiative aimed at ensuring the continued global competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing.  Focusing on water and manufacturing, the resulting report is a sector study that evaluates the use and re-use of water, the energy-water nexus, identifying water-use related risk and highlighting new technologies for water use efficiency, in addition to exploring policies for water-manufacturing and energy across the United States.  Click here for details.

Other Past Events