News Archive

Symposium Tackles Reform of California Water Laws

Symposium co-chairs
Nell Green Nylen, Carlos Mejia, and Elizabeth Sarine

By Andrew Cohen

It’s fitting that the California Water Law Symposium has required endless planning and extensive collaboration. The issues involved, after all, are unwieldy, largely interconnected, and increasingly vital to the state’s welfare.

“Making sure we address the key areas effectively and responsibly is no small task,” said Nell Green Nylen ’12, a symposium co-chair along with classmates Carlos Mejia ’12 and Elizabeth Sarine ’12. “Many of our panelists are top practitioners who can potentially change how California’s water policies are created and implemented.”

The annual symposium takes place Saturday, Jan. 21, mainly in the law school’s Booth Auditorium. It is a joint effort by students from Berkeley Law, Golden Gate University School of Law, UC Davis School of Law, UC Hastings College of the Law, and University of San Francisco School of Law.

Eight panels—reflecting the diverse viewpoints of government officials, non-profits, legal scholars, consultants, water stakeholders, and private law firms—will dissect a series of thorny issues. Topics include water subsidies and conservation, water sustainability in a changing climate, groundwater monitoring and management, and clean water as a human right.

Berkeley Law professor emeritus Joseph Sax will present a lunchtime talk on the public trust doctrine in California. Environmental law professor Holly Doremus will kick off the symposium, while Frances Spivy-Weber, Vice-Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, will deliver the keynote address.

“This symposium is really remarkable,” Doremus said. “First, this is a completely student-organized event. Second, it’s a major undertaking coordinating this among five law schools year after year. Our co-chairs have done a wonderful job.”

Green Nylen, Mejia, and Sarine brought strong experience to their co-chair positions. All three have worked in the California Attorney General’s Office on environmental law issues.

Back in Berkeley

It’s been five years since Berkeley Law last hosted the symposium, and the co-chairs have implemented two new features: a “Water Law 101” session led by San Francisco attorney Tom Hicks, co-chair of the 2005 inaugural symposium; and morning and afternoon panels that meet concurrently in different classrooms.

“The concurrent sessions allow us to touch upon a greater number of relevant issues and to accept more attendees,” Mejia said. “I’m excited about the depth and breadth of this year’s symposium. It’s important, because how California manages its water resources is critical to its future, and the legal questions affecting that system of management are constantly evolving.”

Registration has reached the limit of 350, and Sarine expects audience members to witness some lively sessions.

“Our panels draw from the most informed and influential actors in California water law and it’s fascinating to watch them in action,” she said. “Everyone knows each other, some of them have sued each other, but they’re all working to achieve solutions.”

Panel participants include former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission General Manager Susan Neal, Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Policy Analyst Barry Nelson, and Steven Weissman, energy program director at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE).

CLEE—which is donating stainless steel water bottles—and the Henderson Center for Social Justice are Berkeley Law sponsors of the high-profile event. In 2010, the symposium received the Law Student Program of the Year Award from the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources.

“California’s economy and the maintenance of its population and environment all depend on sharply limited and highly variable supplies of water,” Doremus said. “This is looking like a remarkably dry year, which means these issues will get more attention unless the rains come fast. These are problems that can’t be solved, just managed and managed carefully.”