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Water UCI Colloquium Series Collective Action by Contract: Prior Appropriation Property Rights and the Development of Irrigation in the Western United States

featuring Gary Libecap, Ph.D., Professor of Environmental Science and Economics, UC Santa Barbara


Date: Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Time: 12:30 – 2:00p.m.

Light lunch served at 12:00 p.m.

Location: Bren Hall, room 6011, UCI. Event is free and open to the public. Parking is $10 in the Anteater Parking Structure (Directions).

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Dr. Gary Libecap analyzes the economic determinants and effects of prior appropriation water rights that were voluntarily implemented across a vast area of the US West, abruptly replacing common-law riparian water rights. We build upon Ostrom and Gardner (1993) and model irrigation as a coordination problem to show how the features of prior appropriation were necessary to support welfare-increasing contracts for securing and sharing water and financing irrigation infrastructure among numerous, heterogeneous agents. We construct novel dataset of 7,800 rights in Colorado, established between 1852 and 2013 including location, date, size, infrastructure investment, irrigated acreage, crops, topography, stream flow, soil quality, and precipitation to test the predictions of the model. Prior appropriation doubled infrastructure investment and raised the value of agricultural output beyond baseline riparian rights.  The analysis reveals institutional innovation that informs both our understanding of the development of property rights, prior appropriation, and contemporary water policy.


Gary D. Libecap is Professor, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and Department of Economics, University of California, Santa Barbara; Research Associate, NBER; and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution Stanford. His Ph.D. is from the University of Pennsylvania and his research focuses on when property rights to natural and environmental resources can be defined and enforced to address the problems of open access. His work encompasses economics and law, economic history, natural resource economics, and economic geography.