Repository logo

Valuing water: a normative analysis of prior appropriation




Elbot, Morgan Bradfield, author
Rollin, Bernard, advisor
Rollin, Bernard, committee member
McShane, Katie, committee member
Callahan, Gerald, committee member

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


This thesis aims to provide a normative evaluation of the Western U.S. water law of prior appropriation through a contextual analysis of water value pluralism. The first chapter begins with a preliminary account of the major justificatory arguments made in defense of prior appropriation, followed by two critiques that undermine some proposed advantages of the water policy. The purpose of this analysis is to elucidate the normative claims that underlie many of the arguments within this debate but which fail to be made explicit. It becomes clear that these normative claims assume a utilitarian criterion for resource distribution, according to which water is primarily viewed as an economic good with a monetary value. The second chapter challenges the legitimacy of this assumption by introducing non-monetary water values, with attention to the particular social and cultural contexts in which they emerge. Through a review of four economic proxies, these non-monetary water values are shown to be incommensurable with monetary valuations. Finally, the third chapter offers a theoretical framework for the incorporation of non-monetary water values into resource distribution decisions. From this normative analysis, it is concluded that a necessary condition for achieving just resource distribution decisions is for prior appropriation to incorporate value pluralism by recognizing the legitimacy of non-monetary water values.


Rights Access


water values
Native American
prior appropriation
value pluralism


Associated Publications