Looking to the past to assist in water policy decisions of the future

November 17, 2010

Times change, people change, environmental conditions change and so does the legislation that is affected by all of them. Water is a coveted resource in the western United States and Colorado policy has ebbed and flowed with the currents for the past 100 years. While water policy scholars have begun to assess current state-level water policies, few researchers have taken a historical look to understand how these policies have evolved.

“The western United States, which has some of the fastest growing cities and counties in the United States, faces important water policy challenges,” explains Tanya Heikkila, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs. “To address these current challenges, it is important to know how policymakers have created laws and institutions in the past, what drives those policy changes and how the path of legislation might constrain future policy change.”

Colorado is considered semi-arid, with less than 20 inches of rainfall per year on average. Precipitation is highly variable intra-annually – most precipitation coming in the winter in the form of mountain snow pack – and inter-annually, with multi-year droughts being common. 

Heikkila is conducting an empirical analysis of water policy in Colorado with the assistance of two second-year master’s students and a grant from the Center for Faculty Development. She is undertaking longitudinal and quantitative research to understand how state level policies have emerged throughout time and is comparing trends against other documented policy histories of Colorado water. The data for this project come from a larger study Heikkila conducted with Edella Schlager at the University of Arizona on water governance in the western United States.

“Analyzing how policymakers have addressed water management dilemmas in the past can be useful for informing the mechanisms and types of conditions that can prompt policy change,” she says. The research can affect policy responses ranging from new research programs to new infrastructure, changes in water rights, new markets or new administrative powers. “This project will provide useful insights to water practitioners interested in understanding institutional capacity at the state level.”