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Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight

The Influence of Climate Change on the Functioning of Water Rights

Center Managing Director Bobbie Klein, along with Center Research Affiliate Doug Kenney, Chris Goemans of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University, and Christina Alvord of the Western Water Assessment (WWA), are participating in a recently launched WWA study titled “The Influence of Climate Change on the Functioning of Water Rights.”  The following is a description of the project:

Most surface water in the western states is allocated under the prior appropriation system.  Water rights under this system are generally defined by the quantity of water to be diverted or consumed; the type of use (e.g., irrigation, municipal, etc.); the priority date (i.e., the date of the first diversion); and the point of diversion. Additionally, there is often some description—either implicit or explicit—of the time frame (e.g., season) associated with use of the right. The extent to which these water right details have been formally established and adjudicated varies greatly; many long-established rights—especially those where no changes have been made regarding the parameters outlined above and/or where no controversies or shortages typically exist—have not been fully quantified or otherwise precisely defined.  Local administrators frequently make these determinations as part of day-to-day and year-to-year operation of water systems.

In most settings, surface water rights are sustained directly by spring snowmelt, or by pulling water from reservoirs replenished during this period of spring snowmelt. Since many characteristics of the spring snowmelt are governed by weather and climate, long-term climate change may impact the functioning of water rights in the western states. In this investigation, we are interested in the impacts of earlier snowmelt which can affect water rights in at least 2 significant ways: (1) by modifying the date upon which rightsholders wish to divert, store and/or use water; and (2) by increasing water demand through a lengthening of the growing season.

This project will try to ascertain the extent to which the mismatch between hydrographs and temporal elements of water rights is occurring in several western states, the extent to which it is problematic, and the mechanisms available to remedy any observed problems.

For more information visit the project homepage.

Comments are welcome!  bklein@colorado.edu.