Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Publication Date
29 May 2020

Come Hell or High-Water: Challenges for Adapting Pacific Northwest Water Law

Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana all have water allocation systems grounded in history, yet all are working to adapt to present day challenges driven by climate change, reallocation of rights, and need for better data about water use.
Print / PDF
Powerpoint Slide

As we worked to integrate the human dimensions of water management into models that look at flow of water, it became clear that a deep understanding of how the water rights systems in states chosen for a pilot project was necessary. This paper derives from close examination of each state’s systems, and then compares between them.


Although the presence and flow of water is dictated by hydrology and changes in the hydraulic system, governance and water allocation systems have fundamentally altered the “natural” flow of water through the system. As we seek to model and understand changes wrought by climate and other dynamics, incorporating the governance and allocation of water in these four states into coupled multi-sector models is critical to bettering our understanding of how water actually flows through the system.


Although the Pacific Northwest has a reputation of having plentiful water, this obscures the challenges of water governance in this region. The Pacific Northwest includes the more arid states of Montana and Idaho, along with the wet and dry regions of Oregon and Washington. Despite the appearance of water abundance, even the wetter parts of these states are seeing water stress. For example, in 2016, the Washington Supreme Court ruled groundwater wells exempt from permit requirements in Whatcom County, eliminating drilling opportunities because of water supply concerns, even though the county is in the wetter, western region of Washington. Dynamics that greatly affect water management and allocation in these states are shifting quickly, including the need for instream flow protection, meeting tribal rights, increasing populations and new uses, and a changing climate. Despite these challenges—or perhaps because of them— these states need to adapt their water law and governance to address future needs. Cooperative and integrated approaches to managing water are providing a way forward as well. 

Point of Contact
John Weyant
Stanford University
Funding Program Area(s)