Skip to page contents.
Alumni Short

Cornell Law School: Water Law

Water Law in Theory and Practice

Water Law I, and Water Law II are offered in the fall and spring consecutively. The clinic is open to second and third year students. Water Law I must be taken prior to Water Law II.



The overall purpose of the clinic is to provide each student experience in applying theory in practice to problems and key issues in water law.

This involves:

  • Selecting a topic that has local, regional or national importance
  • Working with leaders and experts with knowledge or involvement in the issues of the project
  • Developing a meaningful and useful product

Students will use the resources of the New York State Water Resources Institute based at Cornell University. The Institute is part of an extensive network of agencies, constituencies and individuals and its staff are centrally involved in major water resource programs.


Under faculty supervision, each student will:

  • Select and carry out a project on a legal topic of theoretical and practical importance for water resource managers.
  • Consult and work with attorneys, professional staff and stakeholders engaged in work to which the project applies.
  • Become part of a team engaged in an aspect of water resources.
  • Consult and work with knowledgeable and experienced individuals having relevance to the project.
  • Occasionally travel for off-campus meetings, consultations and field trips.
  • As helpfully relevant, seek the assistance of faculty and staff in the various Colleges and Departments at Cornell University. (Cornell University is nationally and internationally eminent in its faculty and staff resources with interests in the multiple aspects of water resource management.)
  • Present ongoing progress and results of their project on a timely basis to interested groups, and to the class.
  • Be encouraged to develop publishable articles or professional papers from their project.

As a result, each student will gain practical experience in formulating, drafting, and communicating verbally and in writing, a significant topic of water law by:

  • Identifying and describing the issues of water law posed by the topic
  • Critically assessing the legal context or background of the issues
  • Drafting legal options to address or resolve the issues

Classes will be conducted through lectures, presentations from senior individuals relevant to the topics of the projects, and class reports on projects in progress.


Potential topics for projects can have national or international aspects. Previous projects have included Chinese and European water law, and the water rights of indigenous Americans. However, the Eastern US is especially rich in water issues. New York State is particularly endowed with major water resources. Examples are:

  • New York City Watershed Program. This program has national significance as the leading example of a protected watershed for water supply purposes. Management of the watershed to ensure the continued integrity of the water supply for 9 million persons in South East New York poses multiple legal questions (What? How? and Who?). Currently, New York City is investing over $1.5 billion in this watershed program. If the program fails, the City will be compelled under federal law to treat the water at a cost of $8.0 billion.
  • Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program. The headwaters of the Susquehanna River, the largest river draining to the Chesapeake Bay, lie within New York State. Continued contamination of this Bay, and resultant degradation of its highly valued biological resources and amenities, means that New York State faces drastic measures to reduce pollution, especially at the local land use level. The total costs of the measures for the entire multi-state watershed are expected to exceed $15.0 billion.
  • Great Lakes Program. New York State includes a major part of the Great Lakes of St Lawrence system and hence is party to the Great Lakes Program with Canada. The challenges of this Program include issues of critical regional, national and international importance.
  • Long Island. Suffolk and Nassau Counties are nationally pre-eminent with respect to groundwater issues. Communities and agencies generally struggle to protect their groundwater resources. They are not assisted by the balkanized status of groundwater law as land development causes increased stresses on the underlying resource.
  • Hudson River. The Hudson and its valley have unique historical, cultural and ecological character. Water resources are the foundation for this character. However, these resources are threatened by land development, increased demands for water supplies, recreation and other water uses. The challenges require a more effective balance of federal, state and local water laws.

Water law is challenged in application and practice. This offers excellent opportunities for students in the Water Law Clinic. The New York State Water Resources Institute works closely with federal, state, and local partners in addressing the multiple problems of water resource management. For example, Institute staff members are integral to the Hudson River Program. A particularly relevant partner is the Pace University Land Use Law Center. Such operational contacts provide for students in the Water Law Clinic the means for selecting meaningful and interesting projects that can be pursued with the assistance of the agencies, staff and individuals who have an interest in their outcome. The projects will provide experience in legal public service promoting the sustainability of our critical water resources.