Paper Water, Wet Water, and the Recognition of Indigenous Property Rights

Restoring natural resource access for Indigenous groups has become a recent policy focus. We combine satellite data and robust difference-in-difference methods to estimate the causal effect of Native American water right settlements on land and water use on reservations in the western United States over 1974-2012. We find that settlements increase cultivated agricultural land use (crops and hay/pasture) by 8.7%. Our estimates of tribal water use indicate that, even after accounting for water leased off reservation, many tribes are utilizing only a fraction of their entitlements, forgoing as much as $938M-$1.813 in revenue. We provide evidence suggesting that this gap is driven, in part, by land tenure constraints and a lack of irrigation infrastructure.

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