Crafting Institutions and the Determination of Their Hierarchy in Environmental Policymaking: The Platte River as a Case Study

By Yang, Youngseok | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Crafting Institutions and the Determination of Their Hierarchy in Environmental Policymaking: The Platte River as a Case Study


Yang, Youngseok, Journal of Economic Issues


This paper deals with resource exploitation and changing relationships among users with a shared interest in common management issues. The particular focus is on conflicts among users of the waters of the Platte River; conflicts that have frequently been difficult to resolve because of common property laws.(1) This paper has two integrated purposes. The first is comparison of the history of utilization of the Platte River in two periods. The second is to discuss how the water resource governing system has been transformed.(2)

From 1902 to 1963 - the Reclamation and Development Period - development of the river as a source of water for reclamation projects was the focus of policy. Projects included dams, changing the instream water channel, and pumping groundwater. Consequences included the reduction of available surface water flows and groundwater reservoirs. In particular, the reduction of instream flow in the lower basin area of the Platte River was significant for the rivers in two states. Colorado excessively exploited water in the South Platte River basin, while Wyoming did the same in the North Platte River basin. The reduced flows brought significant ecological destruction and degraded the water quality of municipal groundwater well-fields along these lower basin areas of the Platte.(3)

Public concerns increased dramatically through the 1960s and 1970s about the reduction of water flow and its ecological impacts on the Platte River Basin. These environmental and municipal concerns received increasing attention from federal and state governments. Many legal protections were enacted. The changed focus of policy empowered environmental and municipal interests, whose concerns differed from those of the developers. Thus, competition among Platte River users, which had centered on competition among developers, was broadened to incorporate the environmental and municipal interests [University of Nebraska at Lincoln 1993]. The year 1963 is selected as the beginning date for what I call the Environmental Period because that is when the municipal groundwater act was enacted by the state of Nebraska.

The different interests confronted each other in many legal disputes. In particular, water developers and environmental interests have clashed with one another in Nebraska [Aiken 1987], and these conflicts have affected the stability of the water management system in the state [University of Nebraska at Lincoln 1993]. Since the late 1970s, confrontations between water developers and environmental interests have slowed and even threatened the eventual completion of the Grayrocks Project in Wyoming, Two Forks Project in Colorado, Catherland Project in Nebraska, and the relicensing of the Kingsley Dam along the Platte River [University of Nebraska at Lincoln 1993; Aiken 1987]. The federal and state environment protection acts passed late in the 1960s required every water development project to meet stringent environmental standards before it could proceed.(4)

Environmental impact assessment requirements attached to federal funding further restrained water development projects. Under these new state and federal requirements, conflicts between competing interests became more complex because both the federal government and Nebraska had enacted new environmental laws.5 Yet, development projects did not disappear during the Environmental Period; small-scale reclamation projects proceeded under federal and state authorizations. The different pieces of the policy mix were not always consistent with one another. In implementing public water policies, regulatory authorities increasingly engaged in legal disputes with each other. Examples included lawsuits pitting the Rural Electrification Administration against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District against the Grayrocks Project [Aiken 1987, 32-40].

"Tragedy of the Commons" vs. "The Common Management System"

Have the resources of the Platte River been overexploited? …

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