Societal Dimensions: Current Research

Snake River Case Study: Institutions, Adaptation, the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, and the Development of Water Markets

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The Columbia Basin, consisting of the Snake and Columbia rivers and their tributaries (Figure 1), has come to support intensive utilization for irrigated agriculture and hydropower. One major feature of the Columbia, and more specifically the Snake, is that snowpack is historically significant in relation to total flow. Snowpack provides at least three major benefits:

  1. it feeds underground water courses resulting in springs and continuous summer flow in the river;
  2. it extends the availability of water over the summer for plants throughout the region; and
  3. it provides storage for the irrigation and hydro systems built during the 19th and 20th centuries.

click image to enlarge

Topo Map of the Columbia River Basin

Figure 1 Columbia River Basin

Climate change is expected to result in a progressively smaller snowpack, and earlier runoff. In addition to biological and hydrologic effects, because the Snake does not have sufficient storage for total annual flow, earlier runoff will reduce water availability during the summer as well as increasing hydropower production at the time of year when it is least valuable.

Climate change is not the first challenge faced by human users of the Snake River in the last 150 years. Public policy has evolved during that period, from development of the West to protection of fish and habitat. In implementation of established policy, state and Federal governments have experimented with institutional forms to support desired economic and demographic activity. Many of these experiments took the form of enabling realization of scale economies; others dealt with effects of drought, growth, and, later, conflicting uses. The legal basis for water allocation has been grounded in the doctrine of Prior Appropriation.

This project consists of a series of undertakings designed to determine what institutional forms have developed to govern the Snake River since 1850, which have been successful, and what common threads can be found in the successful and unsuccessful adaptations over that period. The project also includes examination of the Klamath River in Oregon for purposes of comparing Snake River institutions with those of the Klamath and examining the degree to which issues of water allocation have become subject to political - as opposed to legal, regulatory, or market - decisions.

Research Questions

The project is expected to produce, among other outputs, papers on the following topics:

  1. Snake River institutional history, tracing uses and institutional innovation from 1850 to present. This paper focuses on development of irrigated agriculture and on institutional adaptation to stress induced by drought and growth. It also examines the basic linkage between most of the institutional forms and Prior Appropriation, which became part of the Idaho Constitution on statehood in 1889. (Slaughter 2004)
  2. A closer examination of the cycle of development, drought, innovation, and growth on the Snake. This study examines interactions among institutional forms, evolving technology, demand growth, and changing public policy preferences, including changes in the basic allocative law, Prior Appropriation, and the emergence of market structures. (Slaughter 2004)
  3. Comparison of the institutional forms prevalent on the Snake with those prevalent on the Klamath River. That comparison will be based in the inability of Klamath institutions to handle the drought stress of 2001, together with the relatively different experience on the Snake. (Slaughter and Wiener 2007)
  4. The dynamics of institutional adaptation under Prior Appropriation. Many commentators have written on Prior Appropriation, most either to condemn it or to suggest revisions to facilitate emergence of genuine water markets. This paper will examine Prior Appropriation as providing the required legal rights to own, buy, and sell, without which markets cannot exist. The analysis extends to the generic problem of how a resource-based economy shifts from one base to another. (Slaughter, in review)
  5. Idaho water markets. Water markets have existed in Idaho since the early 1900s. They developed originally to deal with agriculture water shortages during drought. These water markets were tightly controlled as to price and distribution. Recently there have been significant changes in driving forces behind water markets, which have resulted in several different markets being formed. This analysis examines the factors behind these changes and describes the changes in water market structure. (Reading, in review)
  6. Conjunctive management of water on the Snake River. The management of ground and surface water together (conjunctive management) is currently being practiced in Idaho. The Idaho Department of Water Resources is developing techniques to deal with complexities of conjunctive water management, in response to legal actions taken to enforce surface water rights. Models have been developed that can facilitate the transfer of ground water rights, under which the purchaser is required to internalize many of the externalities that usually accompany such transfers. The analysis shows how this approach makes for a more efficient water market by reducing transactions costs. (Slaughter 2004)

Related Links

Selected References

For publications on the societal dimensions of climate impacts and adaptation in the PNW, please see CIG Publications.

Dreher, K. J., and N. C. Young. 2002. Eastern Snake River Plain Water Right Transfer Processing Procedures. Idaho Department of Water Resources.

Fiege, M. 1999. Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West. University of Washington Press.

Gertsch, W. D. 1974. The Upper Snake River Project: A Historical Study of Reclamation and Regional Development, 1890 – 1930. Dissertation, University of Washington.

Hamilton, J. R. 2001. “Pacific Northwest Water Markets, Promise and Problems,” Appendix B to Economics of Water Acquisition Projects, Independent Economic Analysis Board, Northwest Power Planning Council.

Huffaker, R, N. K. Whittlesey, and J. R. Hamilton. 2000. The Role of Prior Appropriation in Allocating Water Resources into the 21st Century, International Water Resources Development June.

Miles, E. L, A. K. Snover and the Climate Impacts Group. (in review). Rhythms of Change: An Integrated Assessment of Climate Impacts on the Pacific Northwest.

Mote, P. W., E. A. Parson, A. F. Hamlet, K. G. Ideker, W. S. Keeton, D. P. Lettenmaier, N. Mantua, E. L. Miles, D. W. Peterson, D. L. Peterson, R. Slaughter, A. K. Snover. 2003. Preparing for Climatic Change: the Water, Salmon, and Forests of the Pacific Northwest. Climatic Change 61:45-88.

North, D. C. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge University Press.

Pisani, D. J. 1992. To Reclaim a Divided West: Water, Law, and Public Policy 1848-1902. University of New Mexico Press.

Pisani, D. J. 1996. Water, Land, and Law in the West. University Press of Kansas.

Slaughter, R. 2004. Institutional history of the Snake River, 1850-2004. Background paper prepared for the Climate Impacts Group.

Slaughter, R., A.F. Hamlet, D. Huppert, J. Hamilton, and P. Mote. (in review). Regulation vs. Markets: A Dialogue on Over-Allocation of Pacific Northwest River Basins. To be submitted to the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, winter 2005.

Young, O. R. 2002. The Institutional Dimensions of Environmental Change. MIT Press.