NBER Publications by Sheila Olmstead

Contact and additional information for this authorAll NBER papers and publicationsNBER Working Papers only

Working Papers and Chapters

August 2014Damming the Commons: An Empirical Analysis of International Cooperation and Conflict in Dam Location
with Hilary Sigman: w20389
This paper examines whether countries consider the welfare of other nations when they make water development decisions. We estimate econometric models of the location of major dams around the world as a function of the degree of international sharing of rivers. We find that dams are more prevalent in areas of river basins upstream of foreign countries, supporting the view that countries free ride in exploiting water resources. We find weak evidence that international water management institutions reduce the extent of such free-riding.
June 2008Comparing Price and Non-Price Approaches to Urban Water Conservation
with Robert N. Stavins: w14147
Urban water conservation is typically achieved through prescriptive regulations, including the rationing of water for particular uses and requirements for the installation of particular technologies. A significant shift has occurred in pollution control regulations toward market-based policies in recent decades. We offer an analysis of the relative merits of market-based and prescriptive approaches to water conservation, where prices have rarely been used to allocate scarce supplies. The analysis emphasizes the emerging theoretical and empirical evidence that using prices to manage water demand is more cost-effective than implementing non-price conservation programs, similar to results for pollution control in earlier decades. Price-based approaches also have advantages in terms of mon...
November 2007Water Demand Under Alternative Price Structures
with W. Michael Hanemann, Robert N. Stavins: w13573
We estimate the price elasticity of water demand with household-level data, structurally modeling the piecewise-linear budget constraints imposed by increasing-block pricing. We develop a mathematical expression for the unconditional price elasticity of demand under increasing-block prices and compare conditional and unconditional elasticities analytically and empirically. We test the hypothesis that price elasticity may depend on price structure, beyond technical differences in elasticity concepts. Due to the possibility of endogenous utility price structure choice, observed differences in elasticity across price structures may be due either to a behavioral response to price structure, or to underlying heterogeneity among water utility service areas.

Published: Olmstead, Sheila M. & Michael Hanemann, W. & Stavins, Robert N., 2007. "Water demand under alternative price structures," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 54(2), pages 181-198, September. citation courtesy of

October 2007The Value of Scarce Water: Measuring the Inefficiency of Municipal Regulations
with Erin T. Mansur: w13513
Rather than allowing water prices to reflect scarcity rents during periods of drought-induced excess demand, policy makers have mandated command-and-control approaches, like the curtailment of certain uses, primarily outdoor watering. Using unique panel data on residential end-uses of water, we examine the welfare implications of typical drought policies. Using price variation across and within markets, we identify end-use specific price elasticities. Our results suggest that current policies target water uses that households, themselves, are most willing to forgo. Nevertheless, we find that use restrictions have costly welfare implications, primarily due to household heterogeneity in willingness-to-pay for scarce water.

Published: Mansur, Erin T. & Olmstead, Sheila M., 2012. "The value of scarce water: Measuring the inefficiency of municipal regulations," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 71(3), pages 332-346. citation courtesy of

Contact and additional information for this authorAll NBER papers and publicationsNBER Working Papers only

NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us