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Climate change and access to water are interrelated concerns for agriculture and other sectors, even in temperate regions. Governance approaches and regulatory frameworks determine who has access to water, for what purpose, and when. In the northeastern United States, water governance has historically been conducted by states through a combination of statutory guidance and common law. However, it is unclear what effect if current governance approaches will be sufficient for achieving resource conservation and equitable allocation in a changing climate. To provide insight into these issues, we conducted the first review of freshwater governance in the 12 states that comprise the U.S. Northeast. Specifically, we examine their heterogeneous approaches to surface and groundwater use, permitting and reporting, and scarcity provisions. Using agriculture as the sector of focus, we show through narrative review and quantitative analysis that change in the proportion of cropland that is irrigated in each state does not differ based on governance approach. We also suggest that future decades may bring regulatory shifts relevant to agriculture, changes in enforcement, increased competition between agriculture and other users, and greater potential competition between states for water resources. This case study raises the question: how should we prepare for the time when competition for, or degradation of, a resource surpasses the ability of existing governance mechanisms to ensure conservation and equitable distribution?

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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