Resource allocation under stress: The Snake River in Idaho


Slaughter, R.  2012. Resource allocation under stress:  The Snake River in Idaho. Climate Impacts Group (CIG), University of Washington, and Idaho Water Resources Research Institute (IWRRI), University of Idaho. A case study of the impact of institutional design on resource allocation and adaptation. IWRRI Report 201203.


The public debate – and academic research – over management of and adaptation to climate change tends to focus on expert regulation vs. private exploitation. A third path is available: an institutional set in which preferred behaviors are automatically encouraged by shared resource ownership. In water, for example, users can be joint owners of a resource rather than customers of a utility or subject to a regulatory agency. User behavior differs markedly between the two situations.

This book is a study of the Snake River as an example of informal, multi-faceted resource governance under conditions of growth, climate variability, and changing social preference. The central thesis is the ownership-based governing principle stemming from the Nobel prize-winning work of R.H. Coase, Douglass C. North, Oliver E. Williamson and Elinor Ostrom. The study views well-defined usufructory property rights as central to a multi-faceted social contract among all Snake River water users, capable of being adjusted over time, by the parties, in response to such pressures as demand growth, new technology, changing social priorities, and climate change. From this perspective, an inefficient judicial system acts to define boundaries and provide motivation, but does not determine allocation. Similarly, expert management under color of State authority enforces the rules but does not allocate the resource.

The book consists of new and previously published papers on Snake River institutional history, theoretical analysis of water markets, Idaho water transfers in practice, and new approaches to the complexities of resource management. These principles are illustrated in two major case studies, the Nez Perce Agreement between the tribe and Snake irrigators over ownership of Snake water, and the Swan Falls Agreement between irrigation interests and Idaho Power over allocation of Idaho Power’s un-subordinated water rights at Swan Falls.