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Water rights and sustainable water use are emerging as major environmental law issues, yet many lawyers are never schooled in the scientific, social and cultural aspects of water resources that some say are needed to achieve viable solutions.

The University of Idaho is trying to change that with its Waters of the West program, which allows law students to receive an additional post-graduate degree in water resource management.

The program is apparently the first of its kind, says Idaho law professor Barbara Cosens. While other interdisciplinary water resource programs exist, none has a JD associated with it. So far two law students have enrolled in the program, and both are expected to complete their master’s degrees this year.

“Water resource issues require a much broader range of understanding of the problem than what is offered in law school,” says Idaho law professor Jerrold Long. “Water touches a whole host of other things—policy, history. It requires knowledge of fish and wildlife, hydrology. If the goal is to solve problems, if the goal is to reach better solutions and to learn from past experience and apply those to new conditions, then just doing the legal component isn’t going to be sufficient.”

To graduate, students will be required to prepare a thesis or dissertation involving specific scientific, environmental, social and legal issues like those tied to the Palouse Basin Aquifer in Idaho. “They understand the problem as it exists on the ground,” Long says.

After all, Cosens adds, “If you are looking at environmental and natural resource issues, the line people use is that water is the next oil.”

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