Water Law Expert Leon Szeptycki Rejoins Faculty

Leon Szeptycki

Leon Szeptycki is associate director of UVA’s Environmental Resilience Institute. Photo by Julia Davis

December 9, 2019

Leon Szeptycki, an expert in water law and policy, has rejoined the University of Virginia School of Law faculty.

Szeptycki most recently served as executive director of Water in the West, a program at the Stanford University Woods Institute for the Environment. In that role, he oversaw an interdisciplinary research program focused on water scarcity problems in the American West.

He was a member of the UVA Law faculty from 2006-12, when he directed the Environmental Law and Conservation Clinic (now offered as the Environmental and Regulatory Law Clinic).

In his return to UVA, Szeptycki is serving as a professor of law, general faculty, and associate director of UVA’s Environmental Resilience Institute. He will teach Water Law and Policy in the spring at the Law School and plans to lead a course on Natural Resources Law as well.

“We are so pleased to have Leon back at the Law School. He will add to the rich diversity of scholars in our Environmental and Land Use Law Program as well as deepen our interdisciplinary connections on environmental issues across Grounds,” said Dean Risa Goluboff. “He is on the forefront of water issues in a part of the country where policy and planning are critical to both preserving the environment and providing for people.”

At Stanford, Szeptycki’s work focused on issues related to stream flow restoration in the context of the Western appropriative rights system, which developed during the settlement of the West in the context of mining and irrigation. The legal doctrine says the first person to take a quantity of water from the source for “beneficial use” has the right to continue to use that water for that purpose. This system of property rights makes reallocation of water for new uses and for the environment difficult.

“Water is essential for life, and yet we all take it for granted,” he said. “If you ask most people where their water comes from, they are likely to say ‘the tap.’ Getting that water to the tap involves a range of technical, legal and governance challenges that I find endlessly fascinating.”

Climate represents a particularly pressing challenge for water law and policy.

“Over the last five or six years, it’s become clear that the climate is affecting the availability of water resources on a very rapid time frame, and we need to move more quickly than we are.”

Early in his career, he served as the Eastern conservation director and general counsel for Trout Unlimited, a national conservation organization devoted to the protection and restoration of trout and salmon rivers. He also worked for McGuireWoods and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Szeptycki earned his J.D. from Yale Law School, and his B.A. with highest distinction from the University of Kansas. Following law school, he clerked for Judge Stephanie K. Seymour of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

As associate director of the Environmental Resilience Institute, a pan-University institute, Szeptycki will foster interdisciplinary research across Grounds. Szeptycki said his role at Stanford allowed him to become deeply involved in interdisciplinary work, which he is convinced is essential to advancing ideas on how to ameliorate climate change and other sustainability challenges.

He’s also staying connected to his work in the West. He is wrapping up a paper on a new statute governing groundwater pumping in California, and is participating in another project, funded by the Walton Family Foundation, related to environmental water markets in the Colorado River Basin. Szeptycki continues to serve on the board of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit corporation created to implement a settlement agreement to take down four hydropower dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon in order to restore salmon runs.

Szeptycki, who is married to UVA Provost and Executive Vice President Liz Magill ’95, said he turned from litigation to exploring his passion for preserving rivers after several years of practicing law.

“I’ve always loved rivers and streams — I liked to canoe, I liked to fish,” he said. “I wanted to work on something I care about more.”

He began consulting for Trout Unlimited and eventually became their general counsel.

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