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Water Conflicts and Resolution: Economy vs. Environment?
RFF First Wednesday Seminar
Wednesday, March 1, 2011

In many parts of the United States, water has become a source of increasing conflict. Current policies are failing to meet demands for water supply reliability, water quality, and flood protection. Meanwhile, freshwater aquatic ecosystems are in sharp decline despite several decades of well-intentioned but insufficient and poorly coordinated policies designed to protect them. Climate warming is expected to increase these challenges in the coming decades.

California—with its many diverse native ecosystems—is at the forefront of many of these conflicts. Drawing on a new in-depth report from the Public Policy Institute of California, Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation, this panel explored new approaches to balancing economic and environmental goals for water management. What are the emerging lessons from ecological science about how to achieve greater environmental success? How can available management tools, such as markets for water supply and quality, improve performance and reduce costs? And what kinds of changes in water management institutions and regulations are needed to facilitate these transitions?

Water development projects in the American West were among the earliest subjects of cost-benefit analysis by environmental economists, and much of that work was done at Resources for the Future. Today, this area of research is now being carried out by RFF’s Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth, which works with natural and social scientists, policymakers, and public and private sector experts to incorporate ecological science into solutions that recognize the social and economic benefits arising from natural systems.

Audio and Video
Event Audio (mp3) click to stream and right-click to download ​



Jim Boyd
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth


Sheila Olmstead is a fellow at Resources for the Future and focuses her research on natural resource management and pollution control, with a particular emphasis on water resource economics, including urban water demand management, market-based approaches to water conservation, drinking water quality regulation, access to drinking water among low-income populations, and the efficient allocation of water across sectors. Her current work investigates the impacts of information disclosure on drinking water quality violations, regulatory avoidance under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act, the influence of federal fire suppression policy on land development in the American West, free-riding in dam placement and water withdrawals from international river basins, and key components of a post-2012 international climate policy architecture. Olmstead’s research has been published in numerous leading journals and with Nathaniel Keohane, she is the author of the 2007 book Markets and the Environment. Before coming to RFF in 2010, Olmstead was an associate professor (2007­–2010) and assistant professor (2002–2007) of environmental economics at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.



Ellen Hanak is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Her career has centered on the economics of natural resource management and agricultural development. At PPIC, she launched a research program on water policy and has published reports and articles on water marketing, water and land use planning, water conservation, and management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Other areas of expertise include infrastructure finance and climate change. Before joining PPIC in 2001, she held positions with the French agricultural research system, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and the World Bank. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Maryland.


Letty Belin has been counselor to Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes since May 2009. In that capacity, she has principal responsibility for oversight and coordination of the department’s actions relating to California water issues, particularly the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Before coming to the Interior Department, Belin spent 25 years practicing environmental, natural resource, water, and energy law in New Mexico, 6 years of which she spent as the director of the Environmental, Energy, and Telecommunications Division of the New Mexico Attorney General’s office. In 2002, Belin teamed up with hydrologist Frank Titus and water expert Consuelo Bokum to write Taking Charge of our Water Destiny: A Water Management Policy Guide for New Mexico in the 21st Century, a modest report that touched on some of the themes articulated and substantiated in the Public Policy Institute of California’s recent volume, Managing California’s Water.

Lynn Scarlett is a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future and has extensive experience in both government and academia on issues related to effective stewardship of land, water, and wildlife resources. As deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2005 to 2009 (a post she took on after four years as the Department's assistant secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget), she had broad responsibilities for federal land management, wetlands, and ecosystem oversight. She was named acting secretary of the Department for two months in 2006, and chaired the Department’s Climate Change Task Force. From 1982 through 2001, she held a variety of positions at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. After leaving government, she was an independent consultant with the Environmental Defense Fund on issues pertaining to climate, ecosystem services, and stewardship of open lands. She is a member of the national Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests and was chair of the federal Wildland Fire Leadership Council. She serves on the boards of the American Hiking Society and the Continental Divide Trail Alliance and is a trustee emeritus of the Udall Foundation.

Jay Lund is director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and Ray B. Krone Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis. He has served as president of the Universities Council on Water Resources, on advisory committees for the 1998 and 2005 California Water Plans, as convener of the California Water and Environment Modeling Forum, and editor of the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management. Lund is a member of the International Water Academy and has won awards for water-related research and service from the American Society of Civil Engineers. He is the principal developer of the CALVIN economic-engineering optimization model of California’s inter-tied water supply system, which is used to explore water markets, conjunctive use, integrated water management, climate change, and environmental restoration. He also has had a major role in policy analysis and science for California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and engaged in many other applications of systems analysis around the world. He is author or co-author of over 250 publications, and his principal specialties are simulation, optimization, and management of large-scale water and environmental systems; the application of economic ideas and methods; reservoir operation theory; and water demand theory and methods.


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