Stewarding the Waters of the West: Complex, Collaborative Efforts Yielding Insights

Wednesday, March 4 2009

March 4, 2009

Written by Donna Emert

MOSCOW, Idaho – Students in the University of Idaho’s unique Waters of the West program embrace the complexity of the planet’s greatest challenge—how to use natural resources sustainably.

They are gaining insights into global water use issues by studying local resources. WoW students across disciplines have successfully teamed with the Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee (PBAC), a multi-stakeholder Citizens Advisory Group (CAG), Latah and Whitman counties, and the cities of Moscow and Pullman to research the scientific, environmental, social and legal challenges that complicate water and land use issues in this region, and around the globe.

Lesson one: solutions are not achieved unilaterally.

Several students on the WoW’s Palouse team will present their research on the Palouse Basin Aquifer this April. The WoW program, now two years old, also will produce its first graduates in May.

A second, more recently formed Lapwai Creek team is studying the issues surrounding that resource. Their partners and stakeholders include the Nez Perce Tribe and its leasees, Nez Perce County, the Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District, the Camas Prairie Railroad and private land and home owners. Lapwai Creek also is considered steelhead habitat.

Student Matt Darrington is a member of the Palouse team. He is studying three legal approaches to managing groundwater resources in the Palouse region, which encompasses parts of eastern Washington and North Central Idaho. He is investigating interstate compacts, legal equitable apportionments, and a lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court as possible routes to managing the transboundary aquifer. Darrington earned his juris doctorate last May and will be one of the first graduates of the program this May. WoW students to follow can finish their J.D. and master’s degrees simultaneously.

The Palouse team also includes recent College of Law graduate Luke Marchant, who is studying the water use and management conflicts that arise from the disconnect between state control of water resources and county management of building permits and growth; Engineering student Matt Reeves, who is looking at the role of scientific uncertainty—specifically, the uncertainties about aquifer recharge rates—and how that uncertainty influences the decision-making process; and Katie Bilodeau, whose degree emphasis is social science. Bilodeau is studying the role of public perception in shaping water use policy.

WoW incorporates three interdisciplinary focuses, including water resources engineering and science, water resource science and management, and water resource law, management and policy. The program is taught by faculty representing 13 departments and seven colleges. The University of Idaho WoW program is the only interdisciplinary water resource degree program in the nation to offer a juris doctorate option.

“The WoW program is largely based on the idea that water issues are best considered in the broader context of people, rules and land uses, and not necessarily in the potentially narrow silos of academic study,” said Jerrold Long, who teaches in the program, counsels its law students and helps develop its curriculum. “The program is designed to take a broader approach to solve real problems on the ground.”

Law provides the mechanism for creating and establishing durable water-use policy, and for changing it as conditions evolve, Long explains. “We can’t arrive at sustainable water systems without understanding the law and considering how it might need to be changed to accommodate the purposes and needs emerging from both the actual resource and the resource users,” he said. “That’s why the College of Law is included in WoW.”

Long can empathize with the challenges facing graduate students in the program. He holds a juris doctor from the University of Colorado School of Law and recently completed an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in environment and resources at University of Wisconsin—Madison, which, along with Idaho’s, is among a handful of its kind in the nation. Long’s own dissertation articulated an interdisciplinary methodology, “using the problem to frame the approach, rather than framing the approach with a specific set of assumptions in mind,” he said.

While an interdisciplinary approach is essential to finding solutions to complex problems, it also presents challenges, whether applied to research or to education, Long noted.

“My experience is that an interdisciplinary approach can be an incredibly messy, difficult process to go through,” said Long. “As a graduate student, I had to create my own schedule of courses, build an interdisciplinary committee and figure out how to articulate a research question that integrated disciplines. So when I talk to students, I understand that the process is, in fact, sometimes overwhelming. However, the problems we address are also messy, and our approach allows the students to consider these issues in a way that might yield real, workable solutions on the ground.”

The interdisciplinary approach also acknowledges that students themselves are stakeholders in their own education, involving them directly in several levels of the process. University of Idaho WoW students share some requisite courses, but each helps design their individual degree program.

The interdisciplinary approach also helps build consensus on difficult land use decisions: the process not only acknowledges each participant’s stake in the issue, it also makes clear the relationships between them.

“I often say that every issue is a land use issue,” said Long. “How we use the water is really a matter of how we decide to use the land. This region is a place we all love. I don’t think anyone wants to destroy it. We have to find a way for farmers, ranchers, outdoorsmen, developers and other stakeholders to sit down and find out what are the goals and values that we all share.”

For more information on WoW students’ April Palouse Basin Aquifer presentations, and on Waters of the West degree options, visit or e-mail

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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

Media Contact: Tania Thompson, University Communications, (208) 885-6567,

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit