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Exploring New Policies to Curb Pollution in America's Heartland

Leila Darwiche | February 9, 2021
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The Gulf of Mexico is home to over 15,000 species of animals and plants. Its warm water contains diverse habitats, nurturing high levels of biodiversity. The Gulf has other notable titles; for one, it is home to the second largest dead zone in the world. Over 2,000 square miles of the Gulf are uninhabitable due to low levels of oxygen, in large part because of the nutrient runoff from agricultural production along another water system: the Mississippi River Basin. As the second most polluted waterway in the United States, the Mississippi River Basin dumps hundreds of thousands of metric tons of pollutants into the Gulf every year.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global nonprofit focused on land and water conservation, recently partnered with the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law as part of an experiential learning opportunity to search for policy solutions aimed at reducing nutrient run-off like nitrogen and phosphorus in the Mississippi River Basin, one of TNC’s identified priorities. Every year, law students are given the opportunity to pursue such clinical practice through the Environmental Advocacy Clinic course offered through at the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern Law. The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) leads the implementation of the alliance with TNC on behalf of the university, playing an integral role in establishing the connections that make such partnerships possible. Paired with clients and organizations like TNC, law students provide real-world legal assistance under the tutelage of Northwestern legal experts and professors.

Anthony Salzetta
Anthony Salzetta

“TNC has a lot of expertise in the political side of things, but they were looking to see some policies that could contribute to reducing pollution in the Mississippi River Basin,” said Anthony Salzetta, a second-year law student at Northwestern who collaborated with TNC on this project. “I wanted to analyze a few different policies that have been successful and try to re-engineer what made them successful, what made them unsuccessful, and see if they are things that we can replicate elsewhere.” 

In his legal research for TNC, Salzetta specifically looked at a buffer law in Minnesota, nutrient management standards in Wisconsin, and environmental laws in Arkansas that had led to dramatic reduction in river pollution in recent decades. Improving the water quality of the Mississippi River Basin—which includes land in 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces—means protecting a massive amount of biodiversity and safeguarding the health and economic wellbeing of millions of people. Salzetta’s research and recommendations on the topic will help shape the path TNC pursues with respect to water protection and inform the direction of TNC’s future research. 

“The process was equally as important to me as the outcome: the conversation that sparked the thinking process is just as impactful,” said Eleanor Morris, Senior Policy Advisor at TNC who consulted with Salzetta on the project. For her, the regular engagement and dialogue with Salzetta was just as valuable. “Having an outside view come in and dig into different topics has enabled me to advance projects that were sitting on the shelf for a while. It sparks interest and then that project gets picked up.” 

Land conservation has been TNC’s focus for the past 60 years, but collaborations like these allow the organization to grow its reach to new areas of environmental impact. Morris emphasized that with the world’s growing population, clean water will be even more important in the agricultural production process; thus, developing policies that will encourage healthier habits is essential to guaranteeing a sustainable future. 

“The reality is that we're all learning, so help from a law student is a big deal and not some minor thing,” said Morris. “[The students] are delivering something really important to us. It's really meaningful to the law students as well, just for the experience of working with a real-life client in tackling these policy and legal issues.” 

This project gave Salzetta the opportunity to combine his interest in environmental advocacy with his passion for law. Unlike traditional courses, the clinic allowed Salzetta to apply the skills he learned in the classroom to real life projects, something he noted was very different from other experiences as a student. 

“So much of what we do is either litigation or transaction focused or very academic and theoretical.” said Salzetta. “This experience is really practical work with an outside partner in the policy context, and policy work is, of course, a huge part of the legal profession.”

Image by minehart from Pixabay