Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the water allocation institutions in the arid West?

Institutions are essentially the "rules" of water allocation. In the arid West, these include such legally-defined systems as prior appropriation doctrine, beneficial use, proportional sharing schemes, private ownership and markets, and modifications to rules that have occurred over time. Prior appropriation (PA) and beneficial use are perhaps the most important factors to consider in the region. Under PA, the first person to divert water for a beneficial purpose acquired a "priority date" at that time to use that specific amount of water for the specific beneficial use indefinitely in the future. Successive claims receive a specific amount and use, with the water delivered by priority date. 


Prior appropriation is the predominant institution in all Great Basin states. It facilitated development of irrigated agriculture by a process of permitting changes in place of use (POU) and purpose of use. Landowners can apply for a change in POU while keeping their original quantity and priority of water to irrigate different locations of their land. Water rights can be transferred from irrigation to municipal uses, but transfers are permanent, meaning these rights cannot be transferred back to agriculture. 


What do we know about water flows in the arid West?

Mountain snowpack provides a source of water that augments the most significant stocks of water in the region, groundwater and reservoirs, with a regulated water flow over time. Climate changes have recently caused the timing of that flow from mountain snowpack to occur earlier in the season. The degree of these changes in timing means that senior water rights holders (which are more commonly agricultural producers) actually get less water than junior water rights holders (more commonly non-agriculture or municipalities). Currently, the National Water Model (NWM) estimates flows in the arid West. This project will adapt the NWM to the arid West in collaboration with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in order to be better able to predict future flow changes under different climate projections. 


How does this issue affect people?


Changing timing of peak water flows creates the potential for winners and losers in water systems. Under the current water allocation institutions in much of the arid West, those with higher priority rights may benefit from earlier peak flows, while newer rights holders may not get to exercise their rights. While the existing institutions offer the ability for rights to be exchanged and water uses to change under certain circumstances, this still can potentially lead to permanent loss of agricultural lands, lower agricultural yields, and higher water costs in municipalities. 


Why are economists leading this project?


This project utilizes economic theory and analysis as a lens for understanding the decision makers involved in water allocation. By understanding how water rights holders and managers act to maximize private or social benefit, we can better understand the efficiency or inefficiencies of the current institutions and how alternatives may lead to better overall outcomes. Climate change is leading to more uncertain conditions for water rights holders and managers, which has necessitated improved forecasting and modeling to aid in decision making. In order to address these gaps, economic analysis can build from a foundation of improved hydrologic modeling and greater understanding of the barriers faced by stakeholders and policymakers in taking steps towards adaptation to these new conditions.


Where can I learn more about water law in my state?


Arizona: visit the Arizona Department of Water Resources page on Laws, Rules and Policies.

Colorado: visit the Quick Guide to Water Rights and State Water Resources in Colorado.

Nevada: the Nevada Division of Water Resources Water Law Overview page has information on water law and the role of the state engineers in water allocation.

Utah: the Utah Division of Water Rights page, Water Right Information has a summary of the history of water in the state and current rights.