Date of Award

Fall 12-21-2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Environmental Studies

First Advisor

Krister Andersson

Second Advisor

Douglas Kenney

Third Advisor

Lisa Dilling

Fourth Advisor

Tanya Heikkila

Fifth Advisor

Michael Cox

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Self-governed irrigation systems cover about three quarters of global irrigated cropland, are essential to meeting global food security, and are threatened by climate change. Maintaining and improving irrigation performance depends on institutions, the rules, norms, and strategies used to organize economic behavior. However, the influence of institutions on irrigation performance is ambiguous and context dependent, as the shortcomings of decades of “panaceas” have shown. Therefore, for the benefit of academics, policy-makers, water managers, and irrigators alike, this dissertation asks the question: how do rules interact with context – specifically, biophysical context, other rules, and cultural norms – to influence irrigation performance in self-governing irrigation systems under climate change? To answer this question, the following chapters investigate three essential institutional features of irrigation systems and other long-lived common pool resource regimes: de facto access rights, allocation and distribution rules, and monitoring rules. The empirical chapters use original data to investigate the Upper Rio Grande Basin of North America, where Spanish and American self-governing irrigation systems have been adapting snowmelt-driven irrigation to a high desert valley for over 350 and 150 years, respectively, and have recently faced signals of climate change. Following the Institutional Analysis and Development framework and Common Pool Resource theory, this dissertation develops three arguments. First, de facto Prior Appropriation water rights are a reliably strong influence on irrigation performance, but they significantly interact with biophysical context such that de facto water rights have little to no influence. Second, during water scarcity, rules for flexible water allocation and rotational water distribution interact with each other and with water availability to influence irrigation performance differently at different locations within an irrigation system, with implications for inequality and continued collective action. Third, historical selection pressures are associated with institutional and technological features of irrigation systems and internalized norms. These norms interact with monitoring rules to influence the amount and equality of crop production and can conflict with water allocation rules in ways that harm performance in scarcity. Collectively, these arguments highlight the importance of a contextual, diagnostic approach to policy change and the need for further investigation into self-governing irrigation systems under long-term and accelerating climate change.