Left High and Dry? Climate Change, Common-Pool Resource Theory, and the Adaptability of Western Water Compacts


Edella Schlager is a professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on common-pool resources and comparative analyses of institutions for governing water. She is the coauthor of two books: Common Waters, Diverging Streams (Resources for the Future, 2004), a study of conjunctive water management practices in the Western United States, and Embracing Watershed Politics (University Press of Colorado, 2008), an examination of polycentric governance of watersheds. She also is the lead editor of a forthcoming volume on U.S. federalism and climate change.

Tanya Heikkila is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado - Denver. Her current research focuses on institutions governing water resources, particularly in transboundary and regional settings, as well as how institutions relate to the emergence and resolution of water conflicts.


Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are falling far short of what a consensus of scientists argues is necessary to avoid potentially catastrophic increases in the mean global temperature. Increasingly, attention is devoted to understanding the vulnerability and adaptability of social and ecological systems to climate change in particular areas of the world. In the Western United States and other semi-arid regions of the world, possibly the most immediate, direct impacts of climate change involve the availability of water resources. Scientific evidence suggests that the West is likely to become hotter and drier and will experience greater variability in precipitation. These changes will affect tens of millions of residents in Western states, and nearly every sector of the economy, especially agriculture. The logic of common-pool resource theory is applied in this Theory to Practice essay to assess the vulnerability and adaptability to climate change of interstate river compacts and to offer recommendations for coping with climate change. Future areas of research on this critical topic are also outlined.

Expert e-commentaries by Richard Kashmanian and Roger Gorke of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and by Elisabeth Graffy of the U.S. Geological Survey, can be found on the PAR website (go to aspanet.org, click on the link to PAR, and then on the Theory to Practice link).