Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Environment and Society

Committee Chair(s)

Joanna Endter-Wada


Joanna Endter-Wada


Niel Allen


Karin Kettenring


Jack Schmidt


Lisa Welsh


As drought and a warming climate continue to impact the western United States, balancing the water needs of cities, agriculture, and natural systems is becoming increasingly more complex. One approach commonly promoted to address water supply issues is the transfer of water between users via markets. However, markets for water face multiple obstacles that can often be costly for participants due to constraints inherent in western U.S. water law. Coinciding with issues of cost, water markets must overcome disinterest among water rights holders in releasing their water rights for uses even if temporarily. Moreover, water transfers bring to light the potential impacts to security in access to water for other needs when water is moved between locations and uses.

This research examined key challenges to the establishment and use of market-based transfer arrangements known as water banks. Existing water banks in other states were first analyzed to assess how they have added flexibility to existing water law in order to address specific or broad impacts of water scarcity. Northern Utah’s Bear River Basin then served as a case setting to examine the complexities of establishing water banks through the perspectives of individual water users and others involved in water management. Data were collected through interviews, focus groups, observations of legislative workgroups, and analysis of existing literature.

This research found that the benefits of transfers through water banks are potentially dependent on the scale of interest that the transaction is assessed at and how the consumption of water is managed. Moreover, this work found that the prevailing behaviors and attitudes regarding water transfers are in part rooted in how existing water laws and organizations have controlled allocation and use of the resource. Understanding these social factors is critical to the policy designs of market-based approaches to sharing water that rely on participation of water rights holders to contribute towards rebalancing water supplies and meeting policy objectives at all scales of interest.