Western Ag: Researchers Look at How Snowpack Changes Will Affect Water Rights

Photo: Almond Board of California

Mountain snowpack is melting earlier, leaving water regulators searching for new approaches and farmers concerned about the risk to their crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday awarded $4.9 million to an interdisciplinary team of researchers from five institutions in three states, to help stakeholders find solutions.

Mountain snowpack and rainfall are the primary sources of water for the arid western United States, and water allocation rules determine how that water gets distributed among competing uses. But earlier melting of mountain snowpack is altering the timing of runoff, putting additional pressure on reservoirs to meet the needs of agricultural water rights holders.

Over the next five years, researchers from University of Nevada, Reno; Desert Research Institute; Colorado State University; Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University will use a new $4.97 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore different aspects of this issue:

  • How changes in mountain snowpack affect available water.
  • Which basins in the arid West are most at risk.
  • How existing water allocation laws and regulations compare to proposed modifications in managing these changes.
  • How changes in available water, and laws and regulations, affect the economic well-being of various groups in society.

“The impacts of changing mountain snowmelt on water rights users are profound,” said Kimberly Rollins, professor at University of Nevada, Reno and project director for the grant. “Increased risk affects private decisions to sell irrigation water rights, potentially causing permanent losses in the capacity for food production in the arid West.”

Co-investigators Abigail York and Bryan Leonard, both senior sustainability scientists with ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, will lend their expertise in collaborative resource management and resource economics, respectively, to the project.

“This presents a governance challenge to adapt existing policies to the changing conditions,” said York, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “Yet, there are few empirical studies on how changes in mountain snowpack and snowmelt timing will impact agricultural water availablity, or on the ability of states, irrigation districts and water users to manage the economic impacts on agriculture and food production.”

“Changing allocation rules and property rights to better suit new climate conditions will involve costs that are not evenly borne by affected agricultural users and communities,” said Bryan Leonard, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability.

“Studying the the distribution of benefits and costs under current and proposed property rights and governance institutions is crucial for identifying ways to address potential opposition to more efficient allocation rules.”

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The project will aim to inform stakeholders at all levels, from federal policymakers to individual farmers, so that together they can better adapt to fluctuating water availability, manage agricultural risk and create policies that lead to more resilient food systems.

The research team also includes:

  • Loretta Singletary, interdisciplinary outreach liaison, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics
  • Adrian Harpold, assistant professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources; Global Water Center
  • Michael Taylor, assistant professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics and state specialist in agricultural and resource, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
  • Gi-Eu Lee, postdoctoral fellow, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics
  • Seshadri Rajagopal, assistant research professor, Desert Research Institute, Division of Hydrologic Sciences
  • Greg Pohll, professor, Desert Research Institute, Division of Hydrologic Sciences
  • Dale Manning, assistant professor, Colorado State University, College of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural and Resource Economics Department
  • Christopher Goemans, associate professor, Colorado State University, College of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural and Resource Economics Department
  • Benjamin Ruddel, associate professor, Northern Arizona University, School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems

Source: EurekAlert!, the online, global news service operated by AAAS, the science society. www.eurekalert.org


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