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Reflecting on Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation

by Shawn Regan

The American Economic Review has republished an article on “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” by Katharine Coman for its 100th anniversary along with reflections on Coman’s article by contemporary economists. Among them is PERC’s Gary Libecap. His abstract:

Katharine Coman’s “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation,” published in March  1911 in the first issue of the American Economic Review, addressed issues of water supply, rights, and organization. These same issues have relevance today, in the face of growing concern about the availability of fresh water worldwide. The central point of this article is that appropriative water rights and irrigation districts that emerged in the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in response to aridity to facilitate agricultural water delivery, use, and trade raise the transaction costs today of water markets. These markets are vital for smooth reallocation of water to higher-valued uses elsewhere in the economy and for flexible response to greater hydrological uncertainty. This institutional path dependence illustrates how past arrangements to meet conditions of the time constrain contemporary economic opportunities. They cannot be easily significantly modified or replaced ex post.

Libecap’s full article is available here. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom’s reflection is also online.

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