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Idaho’s Waters of the West program

MOSCOW, Idaho – The University of Idaho started a graduate program called Waters of the West with the first class graduating this spring. It’s an interdisciplinary approach to solving water problems and involves six of the nine different colleges on campus with more than 50 faculty members participating.

It’s a major commitment of time and manpower at the university. “The water resource issues are going to be exponentially more critical to everybody, Native American tribes or not,” said Professor Jan Boll, WOW director.

“The great issue of the 21st century in the western United States is going to be water,” College of Law Dean Don Burnett said. “Tribes are in a position to make the best planning for water.”

All students will receive either a Master’s Degree or a Ph.D. in water resource management and some students will also add a law degree. “The students who get the JD degree and a master’s or Ph.D. will really be writing their own ticket for the future because there will be tribes, state agencies, federal agencies and private firms who need those folks with that combination of law and science,” Burnett said.

Barbara Cosens is an associate professor in the College of Law and has been involved in the program since it was first proposed several years ago. She also worked on Native water rights issues for 19 years in Montana and as a mediator for the Walker River Paiute Tribe.

“Water resource problems are more complex than can be solved by any one discipline. We need to be training students and doing research that looks at the complexity of the problem and tries to solve some of those problems. All students take a course in interdisciplinary methods where they work on problem solving of various water resource problems and then take curriculum more focused in their area. We have three tracts within water resources: Law policy and management, science and management, and engineering and science. This allows them to focus the rest of their courses more narrowly for greater depth.”

Another change from traditional teaching is the involvement of faculty. “When students do a project they do it as a team and the faculty join them on the team to round out the different disciplines,” Boll said.

One such project involves the Lapwai Creek Watershed which is a steelhead spawning area within the Nez Perce Reservation where collaboration is taking place with fisheries and water resource agencies from the tribe.

One of the students heavily involved in that project is James Holt, a Nez Perce member. He is an undergraduate but has been accepted into the graduate program this fall; and has considerable experience in tribal work having served on the tribal council and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

“Most of what I’ve witnessed as a student in the program and helping is the commitment to help the tribe. From the tribal side I’ve seen the resources change over time. It represents a good opportunity to get back to some of those conditions I’ve grown up with along Lapwai Creek. The university is working closely with the tribe and providing science and technical support where enough knowledge might not exist. As a tribal member I see a lot of value in the relationship that I see as getting stronger and stronger between the university and the tribe.”

Holt was able to sit on the planning team with Cosens and other faculty. His background as a former policy maker for the tribe was valuable in helping direct some of the planning, urging caution in some cases or strengthening other areas. “It’s been a valuable experience to see things from a planning perspective,” Holt said, who plans to focus his graduate work in the law management and policy tract.

Another Native student in WOW, Dillon Heddon-Nicely, is working toward a law degree and graduate degree in water resource management. This coming fall there will be upwards of 30 students in the WOW program, but only two Native Americans. Those numbers are expected to improve in the future.

“We’ve done quite a bit of outreach to Native communities in order to recruit people into the program,” Cosens said.

Native Americans have the additional involvement of historic reliance on fish for sustenance and spiritual reasons which should be included as part of the interdisciplinary discussions. Idaho adds the uniqueness of having the College of Law integrated into the program providing additional value.

Boll doesn’t know of any other school where law and water resources work together. Currently, eight of the WOW students are working on a graduate degree in water resources and a law degree.