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Water Law Reform in a Changing Climate: Australia and the Western United States
MRIC 2015/16

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Water Law Reform in a Changing Climate: Australia and the Western United States

Barbara Cosens

College of Law

Sponsored by the Office of the President and Executive Vice President and the University Honors Program


The presence of water in liquid form is the single most important factor in the search for extraterrestrial life. Here on earth, it has been said that water is the oil of the future. It is not. The fact that water is essential for life and has no substitute means that while its use can be improved and enhanced through technology, careful consideration of socioeconomic factors and governance are of equal importance.

Australia and the western United States share both a legal foundation in British common law and climatic conditions of aridity. This suggests that Australia and the western U.S. might learn from each other as each prepares to adapt to the changes in water demand and supply that are beginning to play out at the intersection of climate change and growth in population.

Australia was the initial ground for experimentation when it responded to the 15-year Millennium Drought with water reform. California is now ground zero. Because Idaho is the second-largest user of water for irrigated agriculture in the United States, the largest user of water for aquaculture and the most reliant on groundwater for domestic and municipal purposes, it may be able to learn from these experiments. This presentation will discuss why and how we allocate water and what that means for response to drought in Australia and the western United States.


Barbara Cosens is a professor in the College of Law and the Waters of the West Graduate Program, which includes options for concurrent J.D./M.S. and J.D./Ph.D. degrees. She teaches Water Law, Water Policy, Law and Science, and a leads a team taught course in Interdisciplinary Methods in Water Resources. Her research interests include the integration of law and science in water resource management and dispute resolution, water management and resilience and the recognition and settlement of Native American water rights. She is co-chair on a project funded through the NSF synthesis center, SESYNC: Adaptive Governance in Regional Water Systems to Manage Resilience in an era of Changing Climate. She is a member of the Universities Consortium on Columbia River Governance. She spent spring 2015 as the Goyder Institute Visiting Professor in Public Sector Policy and Management at Flinders University researching adaptive water governance and water law in South Australia.

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