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Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman's “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation”

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  • Gary D. Libecap

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 100 years later in face of growing concern about the availability of fresh water worldwide as demand grows and as supplies become more uncertain due to the potential effects of climate change. The central point of this article is that appropriative water rights and irrigation districts that emerged in the American West in the late 19th and early 20th 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 re-allocation 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.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 16324.

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Date of creation: Sep 2010
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Publication status: published as “Institutional Path Dependence in Adaptation to Climate: Coman’s “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” American Economic Review, February 101(1). 2011.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16324

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  1. Zeynep K. Hansen & Gary D. Libecap, 2003. "Small Farms, Externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930's," NBER Working Papers 10055, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Allen, Douglas W & Lueck, Dean, 1998. "The Nature of the Farm," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, University of Chicago Press, vol. 41(2), pages 343-86, October.
  3. Libecap, Gary D & Smith, James L, 1999. "The Self-Enforcing Provisions of Oil and Gas Unit Operating Agreements: Theory and Evidence," Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Oxford University Press, Oxford University Press, vol. 15(2), pages 526-48, July.
  4. Gary D. Libecap & Zeynep Kocabiyik Hansen, 2001. ""Rain Follows the Plow" and Dryfarming Doctrine: The Climate Information Problem and Homestead Failure in the Upper Great Plains, 1890-1925," ICER Working Papers, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research 03-2002, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  5. Gary D. Libecap, 2007. "Open-Access Losses and Delay in the Assignment of Property Rights," NBER Working Papers 13642, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Gary D. Libecap, 2006. "The Assignment of Property Rights on the Western Frontier: Lessons for Contemporary Environmental and Resource Policy," NBER Working Papers 12598, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Jedidiah Brewer & Robert Glennon & Alan Ker & Gary D. Libecap, 2007. "Water Markets in the West: Prices, Trading, and Contractual Forms," NBER Working Papers 13002, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Klein, Benjamin & Crawford, Robert G & Alchian, Armen A, 1978. "Vertical Integration, Appropriable Rents, and the Competitive Contracting Process," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, University of Chicago Press, vol. 21(2), pages 297-326, October.
  9. Hansen, Zeynep K. & Libecap, Gary D., 2004. "The allocation of property rights to land: US land policy and farm failure in the northern great plains," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 41(2), pages 103-129, April.
  10. Robert S. Pindyck, 2011. "Modeling the Impact of Warming in Climate Change Economics," NBER Chapters, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, in: The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present, pages 47-71 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Lueck, Dean, 1995. "The Rule of First Possession and the Design of the Law," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, University of Chicago Press, vol. 38(2), pages 393-436, October.
  12. Wiggins, Steven N & Libecap, Gary D, 1985. "Oil Field Unitization: Contractual Failure in the Presence of Imperfect Information," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, American Economic Association, vol. 75(3), pages 368-85, June.
  13. Johnson, Ronald N & Libecap, Gary D, 1982. "Contracting Problems and Regulation: The Case of the Fishery," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, American Economic Association, vol. 72(5), pages 1005-22, December.
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