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Stakeholder Perceptions of Water Rights Transfer Programs and Prior Appropriation in the Western United States: Case Study of the Walker River Basin
AuthorHockaday, Shelby Emily
AdvisorOrmerod, Kerri J.
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The doctrine of prior appropriation, which allocates water by priority as a means for distribution to water users, is the legal framework for water management in the western United States (U.S.). As the region increasingly faces challenges including periods of drought, shifts in streamflow timing and quantities altering peak flows for use, and changing social values of water, water rights transfers – the sale and leasing of established water rights – have emerged as a possible solution to redistribute water resources. Nevertheless, in most cases, it is unknown how stakeholders perceive water rights transfers or the legal framework of prior appropriation. A federal program in the Walker River Basin, a bi-state basin in northeastern California and west-central Nevada, allows for permanent and temporary water transfers in the interest of environmental restoration, thus addressing spatial and temporal challenges of historical water allocation. Through interviews with 33 stakeholders from diverse water use sectors, this research analyzed perceptions of water rights transfer programs and prior appropriation in the Walker River Basin. The Walker River Basin is illustrative of the dynamics of western water resources with influences of agricultural, tribal, and environmental users in a drought-prone and overallocated snow-dependent basin. Results indicate that stakeholders have differences of opinion on the utility of existing water rights transfer programs; however, most agricultural and environmental stakeholders perceive that current mechanisms for water rights transfers in the basin may not equitably apportion water across competing users and uses, and that modifications to prior appropriation through amendment of the Walker River Decree may further hinder water security across water use sectors.