Lesson 7: The Future of Water – Crisis or Cooperation?

Activity:  The Pearl River – Water In or Water Out?

Download Lesson 7 Activity:  Teacher Guide, Handouts, Visuals (.doc file)


  • Scarcity, choices and opportunity cost
  • Cooperation through markets
  • Property rights
  • Institutions shape incentives

Content Standards:

Standard 4:  People respond predictably to positive and negative incentives.

Standard 5: Voluntary exchange occurs only when all participating parties expect to gain.

Standard 10:  Institutions evolve in market economies to help individuals and groups accomplish their goals. . . . [C]learly defined and well-enforced property rights, [are] essential to a market economy.


This lesson is designed to introduce students to the possibility for cooperative, win-win solutions to water disputes through water markets.


  • 1 – 1.5 class periods 


  • Visuals 
  • Role cards: 
  • Handouts
  • (See all activities materials in download file linked above.)


  1. Display or hand out the “Pearl River Scenario.”  Explain the seniority list of Oyster Valley farmers’ water rights and the chart showing the value of the water to each of the farmers. Then, turn students’ attention to the Pearl River flow rate data chart.
  2. Distribute the “Allocation by Prior Appropriation” handout and explain the entries that have been filled in for 1980.  Then, with the class as a whole, demonstrate how to use the seniority and flow rate information to fill in the 1982 row on the chart.
  3. Give students time to fill in the rest of the chart, either individually or in pairs.
  4. When students have completed the chart, review which farmers received water during the drought years.  Remind students that the prior appropriation system developed to prevent conflict during the mining and ranching frontier days.  (See earlier lesson on water rights law.) Discuss:
    • Is the outcome of allocation by prior appropriation fair? (Accept a variety of answers, noting that fairness is a perception that may change with time and circumstance.)
    • Is the outcome of prior appropriation desirable? (to farmers? to consumers of farm products?  to society as a whole?) (Note that prior appropriation doesn’t take into account which farmers are most productive and that affects food consumers as well as the individual farmers, themselves.)
    • Can you think of a more desirable outcome? (Accept a variety of answers, but emphasize that in a world of scarcity, it would make sense to figure out a way to get the water to the most valuable use – the farmer who can produce the most with the 10AF of water.)
    • What is preventing farmers from reallocating water among themselves to the highest valued use? (Prior appropriation and “use it or lose it” water law prevents farmers from transferring water rights and use. )
    • Is there another method of water allocation that could help increase the sum of total revenues to all farmers? (If farmers could transfer rights of use to those receiving the greatest revenues in low water years total revenues would increase.
    • How could we change the rules of the game so that they would be both “fair” and would lead to the greatest benefit?  (Students should propose doing away with the restrictions on transferring rights – the use it or lose it rules.)
  5. Divide students into groups of 5.  Instruct students in each group to draw one of the farmer role cards, and after reading it, to place it face down in front of them.  (Instruct students to keep their roles anonymous for now.  Later, they may choose to reveal which roles they have.) Use the “What’s the Water Worth to You?” visual to help students determine how much the water is worth to them in their assigned farmer roles.
  6. Display the “Water Allocation by Trade” chart and explain how trades are noted on the chart using the 1984 example that has been provided. 
  7. Distribute a prize to each group and explain that each will be assigned a year on the chart and challenged to solve the water-use problem in a way that provides the most benefit.  They will be allowed to keep the prize IF you can’t come up with a better solution than theirs.
  8. Assign each group one of the 3 remaining years on the chart:  1986, 1988, or 1990. (It’s ok – and even beneficial for the debriefing – to have more than one group assigned to each year.)  Give groups time to work out a solution, reminding them to stay in their roles.
  9. Debrief:
    • Who benefitted from the water trades?  (Because no one was forced to trade, both parties to any trade that took place must have benefitted – or they wouldn’t have agreed to the trade.)
    • Did some parties benefit more than others?  Does that matter? (It depends on the groups, but in all probability the gains from trade were not equal.  Students should see, however, that because the trades were voluntary, it doesn’t matter if one party benefitted more than the other.)
    • Is the trading system fair? (Accept a variety of answers, but emphasize that the trades are voluntary. If inequality is an objection, note the inequality of the initial distribution.)
    • How does allowing water trades impact scarcity? (By allocating the water to those who value it most – shown by their willingness to pay – the trading of water reduces scarcity. Note that the total farmer income indicates greater total production, from which consumers will benefit.)
  10. Display “New Demanders for Pearl River Water” and explain that during the 1990s, a new group of water users entered the picture – the recreationalists, environmentalists, and conservationists who valued having the water in the stream. Discuss:
    • Suppose that the minimum flow recommendation of 20AF become law. Who will benefit and who will bear the cost of that legislation in any year where stream flow falls below 70AF? (Students should be able to identify the losers from the chart. Farmer Smith will be the first one in any scenario below 70AF flow, because he has the junior rights.  Note that under this type of legislation, he receives no compensation for his loss.  His property rights are simply taken from him by the regulation.)
    • Ask students to brainstorm other ways in which the demand for in-stream flows could have been met at lower cost – or perhaps more “fairly”, and help them to articulate how water law at that time prevented win-win solutions. 
  11. Display the visual, “Methods of Providing In-stream Flows” and explain the options.  Discuss:
    • Who pays to provide the water under a 20 acre feet minimum in-stream flow requirement? (Any farmer who loses his right to water because of the legislation.)
    • Who gains? (The beneficiaries are the recreationists and those that benefit from increased recreation and fish and wildlife habitat.  Note that under the regulatory solution, these beneficiaries pay nothing for what they gain.)
    • How might farmers be compensated for leaving their water in-stream? (Accept a variety of answers, but guide the discussion to the importance of changing the law to allow transferrable water rights for in-stream and diversionary uses.)   
  12. For the next round of the activity, rearrange the students into groups of 8.  Again, have them draw from the face down pile of role cards.  5 will be farmers and 3 will be non-farmers who value in-stream uses.
    • Ask the students who are farmers to identify themselves, by name, to the rest of the group members. 
    • Remind the farmers how to figure out how much 10 AF of water is worth to them. 
    • The remaining 3 group members are non-farmers who value in-stream uses of the water like conservation and recreation. Instruct them to introduce themselves to the group, but not to share the information about their discretionary income.
  13. Display or handout “New Demanders of Pearl River Water” chart.  Point out the 1982 row that has already been filled in. Emphasize that water is fully allocated and there is no remaining in-stream flow.  Note the following re the state’s water law:
    • The farmers still have the senior rights by prior appropriation.
    • The use-it-or-lose it restrictions have been removed from water law in the state.
    • Diversion of water is no longer required to maintain a water right, as long as the water is being kept in the stream for conservation or recreational purposes.
  14. Distribute a prize and explain that the challenge is the same as in the last round: Display the rules:  Come up with a solution that can’t be improved upon and keep the prize.  If there’s a better solution, forfeit the prize.
  15. Allow groups time to work on the problem.
  16. Reconvene and have groups report their solutions.  Determine which groups may keep and which must forfeit their prizes.  Debrief.
    • Who gains from the water transfers? (Everyone who traded.  Both parties to a trade must perceive that they will benefit or the trade would not be made). 
    • Is everyone better off by allowing for the water transfers? Is anyone worse off?  (Farmers that previously bought water will now have competition for that water and may no longer receive water through trade or may have to pay a higher price. The market, however, will move the water to the user that is willing to pay the most for it.) 
    • Is everyone better off by allowing for the water transfers? Is there anyone that may be opposed? (Farmers that previously bought water will now have competition for that water and may no longer receive water through trade or may have to pay a higher price. The market, however, will move the water to the user that is willing to pay the most for it.) 
    • Is there anyone who might oppose water marketing and prefer that the legislation just impose a 20AF minimum flow requirement? (Environmental groups or others who don’t want to have to bear the cost may prefer the legislated solution because it imposes the costs on others. Political allocation of property rights can shift ownership.) 
    • How does the water market compare to the minimum in-stream flow regulation? (Under the regulation farmers lost a previously existing right. Those that desired the in-stream flow received it at no personal cost. The water market compensates farmers for the lost water.) 
    • Are profits (net revenues) bad for the environment? (Profits, or net revenues in the example here, helped society realize the value of water for the various competing uses. It is those profits that helped signal the highest valued uses of water.)   
    • Who benefited from allowing water trades for in-stream use? Was anyone hurt? Who? (There were overall gains from trade and gains to society by moving water to its highest valued use. Farmers with the most junior rights, however, lost rights in low flow years when increased scarcity and high demand led to high water prices.)
    • What are some other areas that have increasing demands for water (municipal use for residential water, industrial uses, etc)? Could trade through water markets help alleviate some of the scarcity in these areas? (Yes. Price, that includes the scarcity value of water, will help move water toward the highest valued use. It also motivates conservation and increased efficiency). 


    Water is a scarce resource. There is not as much as we desire freely available to us. Therefore water must be allocated among the competing uses for it. In the western United States that allocation system is historically based on the prior appropriation system. Until recently that system allowed only for diversionary water use. In the last several decades it has been realized that there are many additional valuable uses for water. Some states have relied on regulation for alternative uses, such as in-stream flow. This often means that an existing rights holder lose rights. A political reallocation of rights provides benefits to new users at the expense of the previous right holders. Water markets, on the other hand, help compensate existing right holders for reducing their own water use and transferring rights to alternative uses. Water markets help put a price on water based on its value for alternative uses. That price helps motivate water conservation and increased efficiency. This simulation has focused on moving water from irrigation to in-stream use but could have allowed for trades to increase municipal or industrial uses as well. 

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