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Cornell University



Louis Sears awarded Cornell Dyson Graduate Student -- Research Excellence Award


Cornell University TREESPEAR Graduate Research Associate Louis Sears was awarded the 2022 Cornell Dyson Graduate Student -- Research Excellence Award for his research on groundwater management.

Louis is an outstanding student and an exceptionally productive researcher in natural resource economics, agricultural economics, and environmental economics. Louis already has 7 peer-reviewed publications, numerous outreach and other publications, and multiple working papers; and has received several prestigious awards and honors for his research.

For his Ph.D. research, Louis is tackling an important issue: that of sustainable groundwater management. Water is one of our world's most essential natural resources, but it is also a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. The sustainable management of groundwater resources for use is a critical issue in California, and a critical issue worldwide. Louis is analyzing multiple dimensions of this critical issue using sophisticated and frontier theoretical and empirical methods in natural resource economics, optimal control theory, dynamic programming, game theory, contract theory, structural econometrics, spatial econometrics, hydrology, agronomy, and legal and institutional analysis.

The sustainable management of common pool resources has posed a challenge to natural resource management throughout history and around the world. Groundwater is a critical natural resource whose management is often considered a classic example of a common pool resource problem; in addition, its partially nonrenewable nature further confounds sustainable management. In his dissertation research, Louis is conducting spatial dynamic analyses of groundwater resource extraction in California, where groundwater resources have operated under a de-facto open access environment for much of the state's history. He considers groundwater management from a number of perspectives, including profit maximizing farmers and recreational businesses; municipal water districts with mixed objectives; and regional regulators or water managers. He examines how the institutional arrangements that commonly govern groundwater in California interact with the economic drivers of groundwater usage as well as the hydrology and climate of California to produce socially inefficient groundwater extraction. He explains the factors that lead to the development of these particular institutions, by examining who these institutions have benefited in practice, and how they can be refined to better serve society as a whole.

In one paper, Louis analyzes groundwater extraction decisions under an open access regime by estimating a structural econometric model of the dynamic game among agricultural, recreational, and municipal groundwater users in the Beaumont Basin in Southern California during a period of open access. He uses his parameter estimates to simulate a counterfactual scenario of continued open access, and compares his open access counterfactual with the actual extraction decisions of players after the institution of quantified property rights. Results show that groundwater provides large but concentrated economic benefits to users in the Beaumont Basin. While imposing property rights on the previously open-access groundwater resource did not deliver significant economic benefits on groundwater users, the joint effect of the property rights system and the introduction of artificial recharge of imported water prevented a significant decline in the basin's stock of groundwater. Furthermore, by preventing a shift in groundwater extraction to wells outside of Beaumont, these policies also had a positive spillover effect on the level of groundwater stocks at neighboring basins. Finally, he finds that municipal water districts tend to value the interests of their customers more than water sale profits.

When designing groundwater management policies, it is important to account for spatial externalities that result from the common pool nature of the resource. Spatial externalities may arise not only among individual groundwater users sharing the same aquifer, but also among water managers whose separate jurisdictions do not each cover an entire aquifer. In another paper, Louis develops a model of interjurisdictional spatial externalities in groundwater management, and applies his model to a detailed spatial panel data set covering the 57 years from 1960 to 2016 that he has collected and constructed from historical records in California. His econometric analysis of the effects of partial coordination shows that, consistent with the theory, wells that were more interior to their jurisdiction better internalized spatial externalities, while wells that were hydrologically connected to other jurisdictions either through rivers or across a purely political boundary faced interjurisdictional spatial externalities that they did not internalize. His spatial econometric models show that the split groundwater management mandated under the 1969 Western Judgment did little to correct the effects of these interjurisdictional spatial externalities on groundwater pumping behavior. His results provide empirical evidence for the presence of interjurisdictional spatial externalities that should be accounted for in the optimal design of groundwater management in California.

Louis has already published several peer-reviewed papers. In one peer-reviewed publication that was featured in the Cornell Chronicle, Louis develops a game theory model to analyze regional spatial externalities among farmers sharing an aquifer. In another peer-reviewed publication, Louis is analyzing possible perverse consequences from California's groundwater management policies.

Louis's peer-reviewed publications also include a paper on Jevons' Paradox and efficient irrigation technology in Sustainability, in its Special Issue of the journal Sustainability on "Sustainable Agriculture: The State of the Great Debates"; a book chapter on water management and economics in The Routledge Handbook of Agricultural Economics; and an outreach publication that has generated much media attention .

Louis has presented his research at several prestigious conferences, including the North American Meetings of the Regional Science Association International (NARSC) in Vancouver; the Canadian Resource and Environmental Economics (CREE) Study Group Annual Conference; a conference celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Douglass North's Nobel Prize in Economics; the Annual Meeting of the Society for Environmental Law and Economics at Notre Dame Law School in Chicago; the Mid-Continent Regional Science Association (MCRSA) 50th Annual Conference; the Northeastern Agricultural and Resource Economics Association (NAREA) Annual Meeting; the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) Annual Meeting; an Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE) session at the Western Economic Association International (WEAI) Annual Conference; and the 67th North American Meetings of the Regional Science Association International (NARSC) Virtual Conference. Louis was also one of the speakers selected by Cornell Undergraduate Research Board (CURB) to present at their lecture on 'In Your Own Backyard: Innovative Perspectives on the Environment', to an audience of Cornell undergraduate students interested in learning about research and his research.

Louis has received several prestigious awards for his research. In addition to the 2022 Dyson Graduate Student -- Research Excellence Award, he has won the 2019 Chester O. McCorkle, Jr. Student Scholarship; the 2020 Northeastern Agricultural and Resource Economics Association (NAREA) Best Student Paper Award; and the George F. Warren Award for Outstanding Paper, Second Place. He has also been awarded 3 separate Cornell University Graduate School Conference Grants, the Cornell University Ching Endowment Summer Fellowship, and the Robert R. Dyson Fellowship.




For further reading:

  • Sears, Louis, and C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell. (2019). Water management and economics. In Gail L. Cramer, Krishna P. Paudel, and Andrew Schmitz (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Agricultural Economics (pp. 269-284). London: Routledge.
    [Manuscript] [Publication]
  • Sears, Louis, C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell, and M. Todd Walter. (2022). Groundwater under open access: A structural model of the dynamic common pool extraction game. Working paper, Cornell University.
    [Working paper]
  • Sears, Louis, C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell, Gerald Torres, and M. Todd Walter. (2022). Moment-based Markov equilibrium estimation of high-dimension dynamic games: An application to groundwater management in California. Working paper, Cornell University.
    [Working paper]
  • Sears, Louis, and C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell. (2022). Dual rights to groundwater: Theory and application to California. Working paper, Cornell University.
    [Working paper]
  • Sears, Louis, David Lim, and C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell. (2019). Spatial groundwater management: A dynamic game framework and application to California. Water Economics and Policy, 5 (1), 1850019.
    [Working paper] [Published paper]
  • Sears, Louis, David Lim, and C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell. (2017). Agricultural groundwater management in California: Possible perverse consequences? Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, 20 (3), 1-3.
    [Publication]
  • Sears, Louis, C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell, David Lim, Gerald Torres, and M. Todd Walter. (2022). Interjurisdictional spatial externalities in groundwater management. Working paper, Cornell University.
    [Working paper]
  • Sears, Louis, David Lim, and C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell. (2018). The economics of agricultural groundwater management institutions: The case of California. Water Economics and Policy, 4 (3), 1850003.
    [Manuscript] [Published paper]
  • Sears, Louis, Joseph Caparelli, Clouse Lee, Devon Pan, Gillian Strandberg, Linh Vuu, and C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell. (2018). Jevons' Paradox and efficient irrigation technology. Sustainability, 10 (5), 1590.
    [Manuscript] [Published paper]
  • Sears, Louis, C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell, Gerald Torres, and M. Todd Walter. (2022). Adjudicated groundwater property rights: A structural model of the dynamic game among groundwater users in California. Working paper, Cornell University.
    [Working paper]
  • Sears, Louis, C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell, Gerald Torres, and M. Todd Walter. (2022). Managing common pool resources: Lessons from groundwater resource extraction in California. Working paper, Cornell University.
    [Working paper]
  • Sears, Louis, Ernst Bertone Oehninger, David Lim, and C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell. (2022). The economics of sustainable agricultural groundwater management: Recent findings. Working paper, Cornell University.
    [Working paper]