Date of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Deserai A. Crow
Douglas S. Kenney
Throughout the American West, voluntary transfers of water rights from agricultural users to municipal utilities have become more common as a strategy to meet the water needs of a growing population within a limited supply. These transfers are economically efficient transactions between willing buyers and willing sellers. However, experience suggests that water transfers can have significant local effects on agricultural regions: public and private economic losses, social fracturing, and ecological disasters on dried-up farmlands. In an effort to meet municipal needs while avoiding these undesirable impacts, planners have devised an alternative form of water transfer known as lease-fallowing, where farmland stays in production and farmers stay in business.
This study examines two neighboring cases: one, a traditional water transfer and the other, a lease-fallowing project, in southeastern Colorado, through semi-structured interviews with municipal staffers, farmers, and community leaders in the area. These interviews addressed the impacts of water transfers in the subjects’ communities, their motivations for buying, selling and leasing water, and the potential for compensation of undesirable burdens. The results suggest that traditional water transfers can create long-lasting damages in rural areas that are not capable of being adequately compensated by buyers of water, who benefit from the transaction in the form of drought avoidance and economic growth. Meanwhile, motivations for buying and selling water in the region indicate that certain agricultural locales are far more likely to be subject to the practice than others, further exaggerating the undesirable effects and making the future of water reallocation highly concerning. Finally, the study finds that replacing objectionable transfers with leases faces some municipal opposition as well as systemic challenges, and that involving intermediaries in the local leasing market has played an unclear role in facilitating reallocation. The study closes with some broad lessons for the future management of water in the West as population grows and water supplies do not.
Devine, Brian, "Moving Waters: The Legacy of Buy-and-Dry and the Challenge of Lease-Fallowing in Colorado’s Arkansas River Basin" (2015). Environmental Studies Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 27.