Karrigan’ Börk’s Award-Winning Water Rights Solution

Law Professor Wins Morrison Prize for Most Impactful Sustainability-Related Legal Paper in North America

Aerial of Colorado River running through sandtone canyon
The Colorado River supplies water to seven U.S. states for more than 35 million people and irrigates more than 5 million acres of crops. (Getty)

Karrigan Börk, UC Davis professor of law and Associate Director at the Center for Watershed Sciences, has been awarded the prestigious $10,000 Morrison Prize for his paper on water rights. The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University recognizes Börk’s paper as “the most impactful sustainability-related legal academic paper published in North America” for 2023. 

Börk’s winning paper, “Water Exaction Rights,” published in the Harvard Environmental Law Review, proposes a solution to address current and future water crises in the US: an exactions framework. 

“When you turn on your tap and you get water, you pay for the delivery of that water, for the infrastructure, and for the business to run. But there's no cost associated with the actual water itself,” said Börk. “We don't pay for the damage that water use does to public resources.”

 It's not fair for the public to have to pay the real cost of water use, and water users would make more efficient water use-decisions if they had to consider the real cost of water. —Karrigan Börk

Headshot of Karrigan Bork
Karrigan Börk

An exactions framework imposes more of the “real” costs of water on those who withdraw and use water. These costs can include damage done to downstream ecosystems, riparian habitat, beaches fed by river sediment, other instream water uses, and to all those that rely on these services. The exactions framework would use these new water payments to provide dedicated money toward restoring and protecting ecosystems. 

Exact cost

“The idea of the exactions is that you tie all the public costs of water use directly to the decision to use water,” said Börk. “For example, if you’re withdrawing water and it’s going to have negative impacts on native Colorado River fishes, you would pay a cost per acre-foot that is going to go towards mitigation of those impacts.” 

Currently, there are no required exactions for damaged ecosystem services. Because people aren’t paying for these public costs, people don’t realize the real cost of their water use, and so they use too much. 

“A goal is also just to help people make smarter decisions about how much water they use and how they get that water, without having to resort to regulation,” said Börk. “This approach uses the economic signals based on the true costs of water to help people make better decisions on their own.”

“A goal is also just to help people make smarter decisions about how much water they use and how they get that water, without having to resort to regulation.”

Most costs would be associated with big water uses, such as agriculture. For household charges, Börk said the cost would be very little, and could be adjusted based on income. 

“There’s definitely going to be costs associated with paying for water," said Börk. "But that’s the point: Internalizing these costs will reduce water use.”

The framework would also recognize and reward farmers who use their land to help species, like flooding their farms for migratory birds. 

“It’s a tool that might put our ecosystems in a better place,” said Börk. “It’ll help give them better odds of surviving current and future climate change.”

Troy Rule, faculty director of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, said the exactions framework Börk’s paper presents is a creative and intriguing idea.

“In an age of unprecedented pressure on watershed—especially in the Western United States — policies built upon Börk’s vision could be instrumental in addressing chronic and growing conflicts over rivers and other freshwate

Malia Reiss is a science news intern with UC Davis Strategic Communications. She studies environmental science and management at UC Davis.

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Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-750-9195, kekerlin@ucdavis.edu 

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