Water Law and Institutions


A variety of laws, customs and contractual agreements govern water use, water quality, the management of aquatic species and land use in floodplains and watersheds. These institutions play a significant role in determining the environmental and societal consequences of any variations in runoff –– i.e., droughts, floods, or changes in long–term water availability.

Dr. Miller's research has concentrated on the allocation of water among competing uses under alternative systems of water law in the United States. Much of her work has focused on the western states, where prior appropriation is the predominant system of water law. Under that system, the oldest water uses have first priority during times of shortage.

Population growth and economic expansion in the western states have created mismatches between the value of water and way it is used. This problem is gradually being addressed by the development of water markets and by policy reforms. These developments, in turn, are likely to facilitate adaptation to the effects of long–term climate change.

More Information

Kathleen Miller and Steven Gloss, "Climate Variability, Social, Policy and Institutional Issues," Chapter 15 – pp. 251–269 in William Lewis (ed.), Water and Climate in the Western United States. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, CO, 2003.

Kathleen A. Miller, Steven L. Rhodes and Lawrence J. MacDonnell, Water Allocation in a Changing Climate: Institutions and Adaptation, Climatic Change, 35: 157–177, 1997.

(Reprinted in K. D. Frederick (ed.) 2002. Water Resources and Climate Change. Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, MA)

This paper examines the likely effects of water allocation institutions on society's adaptability to prospective climate change. Such institutions include basic systems of water law, specific statutes, systems of administration and enforcement, and social norms regarding acceptable water–use practices. Both climate and the changing nature of demands on the resource have affected the development and evolution of water allocation institutions in the United States. Water laws and administrative arrangements, for example, have adapted to changing circumstances, but the process of adaptation can be costly and subject to conflict. Analysis of past and ongoing institutional change is used to identify factors that may have a bearing on the costliness of adaptation to the uncertain impacts of global warming on water availability and water demands. Several elements are identified that should be incorporated in the design of future water policies to reduce the potential for disputes and resource degradation that might otherwise result if climate change alters regional hydrology.

Kathleen A. Miller, "Climate and Water Resources in the West: Past and Future," Journal of the West, 40(3): 39–47, 2001.

The climate of the West continues to play a role in the developing western economy. Much of the West is arid, and climate is one factor attracting a new wave of migration into the region. However, limited water supplies create tensions between the "old West" that was built on irrigated agriculture and the "new urban West." This paper discusses the role of climate and streamflow characteristics in the historical development of water resources in the western United States, and the challenges presented by changing demands and by the possible impacts of climate change. 

S.J. Cohen, K.A. Miller A. F. Hamlet and W. Avis, "Climate Change and Resource Management in the Columbia River Basin," Water International, 25(2): 253–272, 2000.

The Columbia River, which is shared by the United States and Canada, is one of the most valuable transboundary water resources in North America. It has been heavily developed for hydropower production, irrigation, navigation, and flood production. These uses are imperfectly coordinated with one another and conflict with the maintenance of fisheries and other ecosystem services from the system. This paper examines the potential impacts of a set of climate change scenarios on Columbia Basin water resources and draws on interviews with water managers and other stakeholders to assess the implications of those scenarios for bi–national water management. The paper stresses that the potential impacts of future climate changes can only be understood in the context of the evolving stresses and conflicts among the multiple uses of the basin's resources.


Please direct questions/comments about this page to:

Kathleen Miller

Sr Res Assoc