Prior Appropriation and Water Planning Reform in Montana’s Yellowstone River Basin: Path Dependency or Boundary Object?

Authors: Matthew Anderson*, Eastern Washington University, Lucas Ward, Rocky Mountain College, Susan J Gilbertz, Montana State University, Billings, Jamie McEvoy, Montana State University, Damon Hall, Saint Louis University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Water Resources and Hydrology, Political Geography
Keywords: Water, governance, resource management, political ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Studio 5, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This study deepens our understanding of the legal and institutional limitations of participatory water planning in the western USA. Based on an analysis of a participatory planning effort in Montana, USA, we examine the ways in which prior appropriation, a long-standing legal doctrine based on privatized water rights, both constrains and enables the effective functioning of this mode of governance to enhance water conservation practices. The purpose of this effort was to address projected futures of increased water scarcity and instances of pro-longed drought. In one situation, a state-led proposal to require water-use measuring was effectively undermined by strong libertarian resistance to governmental regulation and an unwavering embrace of the existing water management system, prior appropriation. As an expression of path dependency, prior appropriation redirected the deliberations back to the status quo. Yet, in another state-led proposal, prior appropriation functioned as a boundary object that helped garner consensual support for what is effectively an alternative water sharing plan based on the commons. In this second case, prior appropriation functioned as a pragmatic means to facilitate conservation practices that address future projections of growing water scarcity and drought. The study empirically examines the discursive framework of both policy recommendations and the mechanisms that led to their seemingly divergent receptions from planning participants. The research team both observed and participated in the planning process, with evidence drawn from a systematic content analysis of video recording transcriptions, ethnographic notes taken during meetings, and key interactions observed among planning participants and the research team.

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