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Water Equity Project Workshop

Steve Vanderheiden

Water governance is perhaps the least explored contemporary environmental policy domain to which the equity lens has thus far been minimally applied, with the result that equity criteria are not well understood in and have yet to be systematically applied to this institutional context. Unlike the oceans or climate system, which involve resources in the global commons, require cooperation in their sustainable management, and have undergone significant recent international regime building, territorial water systems have avoided these features of resource management regimes that generate equity norms, and transboundary water systems have largely confined equity norms to interstate allocation issues, rather than mapping them across levels of analysis. But equity remains an important and under-researched objective within the governance of water systems across scales, and poses an increasingly urgent challenge in domestic and transboundary contexts. Increasing demand for water resources combined with decreasingly flows places growing stress on antiquated systems of riparian law, raising issues of prioritization among water right holders under drought conditions that call for equity analyses. Adaptation planning likewise may involve long-term water rationing criteria as well as necessitating the development of conservation programs and flood and drought resilience programs. Controversies around the transfer of water rights among users and uses involve equity concerns, and can best be resolved by considering them as such. Finally, as equity principles suitable for informing water allocation decisions are most legitimately derived through stakeholder participation in water governance, equitable procedures as well as outcomes will drive and be driven by innovative processes in the governance of water resources, as democratic institutions must also be equitable ones.

This project will seed a research program to be based at CSTPR around equity norms in water governance at multiple scales. The project’s empirical components include the development of new case studies on equity conflicts in water allocation or the transfer of water rights within the Colorado river basin, from archival materials as well as field data collection (interviews, survey research, etc.), and the development of an innovative game-based participatory allocation tool that will allow for collection of data on stakeholder equity preferences. Theories of institutional effectiveness from environmental governance literature anchor the framework, which also relies upon a normative framework for assessing water equity. Expected outputs include publications in interdisciplinary environmental policy and governance journals, a research report designed to inform policymakers and stakeholders, and the public presentation of findings in various fora.