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  • InsideTrack
  • November 05, 2014

    Water Law in Wisconsin: Are You Ready for the Global Demand and Economic Opportunities?

    The Great Lakes Region, at about 20 percent the world’s surface fresh water, stands to play an important role in the world’s global water market. Jenny Zook suggests this future demand for water is an opportunity for lawyers to effect policy and help safeguard Wisconsin’s natural resource. Here are some resources to get you started.

    Genevieve Zook


    Nov. 5, 2014 – Water is said to be the “blue gold” of the 21st century, and in anticipation of the global demand for water, financial markets have begun to offer products in water equities and water as a commodity. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney summarized the economic opportunities of water in its 2011 report, Peak Water: The Preeminent 21st Century Commodity Story, stating that “Water may turn out to be the critical commodity story of the 21st century as declining supply and increasing demand combine to create a “perfect storm.”

    The increased demand for our planet’s water will have an economic impact on industries and government, create new business opportunities, and affect policy decisions for a variety of actors competing for water in the global market. These demands include aging infrastructures, increased population growth, deep-well drilling, farm irrigation, food security, and environmental challenges.

    Water Issues in the News

    Within the past five years there has been increased water news in Wisconsin as well as nationally – think long-term droughts in the western states and higher global temperatures – that indicates the “perfect storm” draws nearer:

    In examining news stories across our state, I found:

    • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announced in 2011 that Waukesha’s “Lake Michigan water plan would more than double Waukesha’s water bills … from an average of $261 to $600 between 2011 and 2021.” This plan was predicted to be the least costly water source for the city. More than four years ago, the Waukesha Common Council submitted an application with the DNR to tap into Lake Michigan water, in what is called the first test of the Great Lakes Compact. In 2012,Waukesha reached a deal to pay Oak Creek for water, estimating about $183 million in construction costs. In 2013, the DNR requested additional information regarding Waukesha’s application.

    • In 2013, Fox6 News covered freshwater and Milwaukee’s economy, see, Look to the Lake: Milwaukee’s Economy Depends on Freshwater Technology.

    • On Oct. 20, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen announced that his attorneys won an $80,000 judgment against Alpine Sand LLC for violating its stormwater pollution discharge permit (Wisconsin v. Alpine Sand LLC, Wis. Cir. Ct., No. 14-04, 10/14/14). According to an article in the Water Law & Policy Monitor, “it was one of the largest enforcement actions in the country targeting an industrial sand mining operation.”

    • Only a few days after the Attorney General’s announcement, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Madison Water Utility is asking to for a 30 percent revenue hike to improve water quality and to replace aging water mains. The Milwaukee Water Utility has requested its second rate increase since 2014.

    • At the national level, economic opportunities for the country was a topic at President Obama’s signing of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (Pub. L. 113-121). The new law authorizes 34 infrastructure projects by the U.S. Corp of Engineers, including dams, levees, locks, navigation channels, and restoration projects. It’s estimated at $5.4 billion between 2015 and 2019. The President said the law would, "put Americans to work modernizing our water infrastructure and restoring some of our most vital ecosystems."

    • And if you’re following Twitter, a recent tweet from the U.S. Water Alliance, “It's time to price water in a way that is equitable to its importance. @Forbes takes a look at “Of Course Water Should Be Properly Priced: How Else Should We Ration Things?”

    Wisconsin, the Great Lakes, and Economic Opportunities

    The economic growth of water is gaining attention, and the Great Lakes Region, with about 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water, which provides drinking water for more than 40 million, stands to play an important role in the world’s global water market. Wisconsin could benefit from the demand, because unlike oil and gas which are transportable, water is a local resource.

    The eight states bordering the Great Lakes could find industries seeking water the way they once sought cheap labor, and it will become increasingly important for our policy makers and those with expertise in water law to safeguard and manage Wisconsin’s natural resource as the demand of business and complex legal documents grows.

    Learning More about Water Law

    For those who study water law in Wisconsin, there are two online guides that may prove useful. The Water Resource Guide, mainly developed for University of Wisconsin faculty, staff, and students who pursue water research, includes books, journals, and scholarly articles on water science as well as recent news and a water science blog.

    Genevieve ZookGenevieve (Jenny) Zook is the reference and instructional services librarian for the University of Wisconsin.

    The Water Law Guide was developed at the U.W. Law Library with legal professionals in mind. This guide includes links to the Great Lakes Compact as well as state, federal, and international law resources.

    Both guides, and the resources available at university libraries at the U.W. campus, including Steenbock Library (agricultural and life sciences) and Wendt Library (engineering), provide assistance for researchers and useful information on the topic of water.

    If you are interested in taking a course in water law, Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin law schools offer water law classes. Marquette began its water law curriculum in 2009. For more information on the program, view Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Associate Professor Matthew Parlow’s online video. At the U.W. Law School, Water Law Rights is taught by Professor Richard Monette. He will speak at a Nov. 7-8 workshop, “Land, Water and the Environment: The Politics of Rights,” at the U.W. Law School.

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