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Paper Water, Wet Water, and the Recognition of Indigenous Property Rights


Restoring natural resource access for Indigenous groups has become a recent policy focus. We combine satellite data and robust difference-in-difference methods to estimate the causal effect of Native American water rights settlements on land and water use on reservations in the western United States from 1974 to 2012. We find that settlements increase cultivated agricultural land use (crops and hay/pasture) by 8.7 percent. Our estimates of tribal water use indicate that, even after accounting for water leased off reservation, many tribes are utilizing only a fraction of their entitlements, forgoing as much as $938M-$1.8B in revenue. We provide evidence suggesting that this gap is driven, in part, by land tenure constraints and a lack of irrigation infrastructure.

Written By
  • Leslie Sanchez
    • Graduate Fellow

    Leslie Sanchez is a PhD candidate in the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Friedman School at Tufts University. Her dissertation research tests for determinants of Native American reserved water right adjudication in the Western U.S. and measures subsequent impacts on reservation agriculture in the Colorado River Basin. She has worked for four years as an independent consultant researching water markets, water rights, agriculture, and streamflow restoration in the Southwest. Prior to pursuing a PhD, Leslie managed the Sustainable Water Markets Program at the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara. In addition to work on western water policy, Leslie has led USAID and other international field research on irrigation systems, agriculture, and food security in the Middle East, West Africa, and Central America. 

  • Bryan Leonard
    • Fellowship Director,
    • Senior Fellow

    Bryan Leonard is an associate professor of environmental and natural resource economics in the School of Sustainability and a faculty affiliate in the Economics Department and the Center for Behavior, Institutions, and the Environment at Arizona State University. He is also a senior fellow at PERC, a PERC fellowship director, and a 2017 and 2018 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow. 

  • Eric Edwards
    Eric Edwards
    • Fellowship Director,
    • Senior Research Fellow
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