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

  • Gary D. Libecap
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    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. (JEL N51, Q15, Q25, Q54)

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    File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/aer.101.1.64
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    Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal American Economic Review.

    Volume (Year): 101 (2011)
    Issue (Month): 1 (February)
    Pages: 64-80

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    Handle: RePEc:aea:aecrev:v:101:y:2011:i:1:p:64-80
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    1. Burness, H Stuart & Quirk, James P, 1980. "Water Law, Water Transfers, and Economic Efficiency: The Colorado River," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 23(1), pages 111-34, April.
    2. Hutchins, Wells A., 1931. "Irrigation Districts, Their Organization, Operation and Financing," Technical Bulletins 163085, United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
    3. Libecap, Gary D., 2007. "The Assignment of Property Rights on the Western Frontier: Lessons for Contemporary Environmental and Resource Policy," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 67(02), pages 257-291, June.
    4. Lueck, Dean, 1995. "The Rule of First Possession and the Design of the Law," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 38(2), pages 393-436, October.
    5. Johnson, Ronald N & Libecap, Gary D, 1982. "Contracting Problems and Regulation: The Case of the Fishery," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 72(5), pages 1005-22, December.
    6. Kanazawa, Mark T, 1998. "Efficiency in Western Water Law: The Development of the California Doctrine, 1850-1911," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 27(1), pages 159-85, January.
    7. Michael D. Rosen & Richard J. Sexton, 1993. "Irrigation Districts and Water Markets: An Application of Cooperative Decision-Making Theory," Land Economics, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 69(1), pages 39-53.
    8. Ellen Hanak, 2003. "Who Should Be Allowed to Sell Water in California? Third-Party Issues and the Water Market," PPIC Research Reports, Public Policy Institute of California, number wtrmkt, June.
    9. Gary D. Libecap & James L. Smith, 1999. "The Self-Enforcing Provisions of Oil and Gas Unit Operating Agreements: Theory and Evidence," NBER Working Papers 7142, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. Johnson, Ronald N & Gisser, Micha, 1981. "The Definition of a Surface Water Right and Transferability," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(2), pages 273-88, October.
    11. Rose, Carol M, 1990. "Energy and Efficiency in the Realignment of Common-Law Water Rights," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 19(2), pages 261-96, June.
    12. 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, vol. 21(2), pages 297-326, October.
    13. Burness, H Stuart & Quirk, James P, 1979. "Appropriative Water Rights and the Efficient Allocation of Resources," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 69(1), pages 25-37, March.
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