Law School, WRS graduate student Elizabeth Henley sets her sights on agricultural challenges

When Elizabeth Henley graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Juris Doctorate from the Law School spring 2015 and graduates with a master’s degree in Water Resources Sciences (WRS) next spring, she will have come full circle. From romping along the shores of local lakes as a child, to travelling the world learning about global environmental issues, Henley aims to apply her freshly honed skills to water issues here in the Upper Midwest. 

As a child, Henley was always drawn to nature and the outdoors, particularly activities around her neighborhood’s Como Lake.  In high school, when her family moved to a tiny town on the shores of Lake Michigan, she was bowled over by the lake’s sheer size and seemingly pristine character. “I was aware that the region was resource rich, with abundant forests, rivers—although at the time, I never never thought too much about local environmental dynamics,” she says. 

Henley attended Northwestern University where she majored in cultural anthropology, geography, and international studies. In college, she travelled to Bolivia and Mexico and worked abroad in Thailand and Chile as an outdoor and environmental educator. “Traveling really spurred my interest in environmental issues—especially in environmental challenges on a global scale,” she says.

Everywhere Henley travelled she found a common thread: the environmental issues that seemed to be the most pressing always involved water. “It was that realization—and my love of the outdoors—that led me to the University of Minnesota’s graduate program in Water Resources Science.”

“I began graduate school fully intending to work abroad after my graduate studies,” she says. “But after learning about some of the environmental and water issues here in Minnesota and around the country, and becoming more familiar with local environmental projects and initiatives, I’ve become increasingly interested in environmental work right here in the United States.”

As a student in the University’s Joint Degree Program in Law, Science and Technology, Henley divided her graduate studies between the Law School and Water Resources Sciences graduate program.

In addition to a stunningly heavy course load, Henley’s held a powerhouse string of legalclerkships—last summer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington D.C., last fall with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources General Counsel, this spring with The Nature Conservancy and this summer with Smith Partners in Minneapolis. 

In 2013, Henley was awarded WRS’s Smith Partners Sustainability Fellowship, which supports interdisciplinary graduate study of connections between sustainable water resources management, economics, and public policy.  As part of the fellowship, she received a $2,500 cash award and a mentorship opportunity with donor Louis Smith, founder of Smith Partners, a law firm specializing in water resources law and land use management.  In addition to her legal smarts and grasp of environmental issues, Henley speaks fluent Spanish and has spent time as an editorial intern with Northwestern University’s alumni magazine.

The subject that most fascinates Henley is the intersection of agriculture and the environment. “The overlap of agricultural processes and policies and environmental protection strikes me as one the most important water resources related-issues,” she says. “Everyone—farmers, policy makers, scientists, environmentalists, and the general public—has a stake in the discussion.”

Henley intends to combine her knowledge of environmental issues, her communications skills and legal training. “I really enjoy working on collaborative projects geared toward solving a problem,” she says. “I see myself working on environmental challenges—perhaps some of the big agricultural challenges—in a capacity that will incorporate two-way exchanges and be conducive to cooperative forward progress.” 

Henley desert

Globe-hopping WRS graduate student Elizabeth Henley on a trip to Arizona last summer