ASU researchers exploring how changes in snowpack impact water rights, policy

Snowy mountain with forest

Mountain snowpack is melting earlier, leaving water regulators searching for new approaches and farmers concerned about the risk to their crops. To help stakeholders find solutions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday awarded $4.9 million to an interdisciplinary team of researchers from five institutions in three states, including Arizona State University.

Mountain snowpack and rainfall are the primary sources of water for the arid western United States, and water allocation rules determine how that water gets distributed among competing uses. But earlier melting of mountain snowpack is altering the timing of runoff, putting additional pressure on reservoirs to meet the needs of agricultural water rights holders.

Over the next five years, scientists from ASU will join researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno; Desert Research Institute; Colorado State University and Northern Arizona University to use a new $4.97 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore different aspects of this issue:

  • How changes in mountain snowpack affect available water.
  • Which basins in the arid West are most at risk.
  • How existing water allocation laws and regulations compare to proposed modifications in managing these changes.
  • How changes in available water, and laws and regulations, affect the economic well-being of various groups in society.

Co-investigators Abigail York and Bryan Leonard, both senior sustainability scientists with ASU's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, will lend their expertise in collaborative resource management and resource economics, respectively, to the project.

"This presents a governance challenge to adapt existing policies to the changing conditions," said York, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. "Yet, there are few empirical studies on how changes in mountain snowpack and snowmelt timing will impact agricultural water availablity, or on the ability of states, irrigation districts and water users to manage the economic impacts on agriculture and food production."

"Changing allocation rules and property rights to better suit new climate conditions will involve costs that are not evenly borne by affected agricultural users and communities," said Bryan Leonard, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability. "Studying the the distribution of benefits and costs under current and proposed property rights and governance institutions is crucial for identifying ways to address potential opposition to more efficient allocation rules."

The project will aim to inform stakeholders at all levels, from federal policymakers to individual farmers, so that together they can better adapt to fluctuating water availability, manage agricultural risk and create policies that lead to more resilient food systems.