Sophia Borgias

About Sophia Borgias

Current Work

I study water issues from a social science perspective, drawing on political ecology and legal geography and using archival, ethnographic, and participatory research methods. My current research focuses on the ongoing water conflict in the Owens Valley of California, a rural area in the Eastern Sierra from which the City of Los Angeles sources much of its water supply.

The conflict between L.A. and Owens Valley is widely known as a tale of ranchers cheated out of their land and water rights in a beautiful valley sucked dry by a distant metropolis. However, popular narratives emphasizing L.A.'s "theft" and lawlessness have overlooked how this dispossession was in fact authorized under the law and justified by the federal government as promoting, in the words of President Roosevelt, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Popular narratives have also tended to neglect the perspective of the Owens Valley Paiute, whose story of dispossession perhaps most clearly demonstrates the complex role of the government. From 1930 to 1940, the federal government withdrew tens of thousands of acres of Paiute territory as watershed protection for L.A. and then traded remaining tribal lands to the city in exchange for small reservations reliant on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for delivery of irrigation water. To this day, the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Paiute tribes do not have federally-reserved water rights attached to their reservations. They continue to fight to reclaim these rights as a critical aspect of tribal sovereignty in an increasingly water scarce future. But, while evolving notions of public interest have given environmental concerns increasing traction under the law, the federal government’s legal trust responsibility to protect tribal interests has done little to advance tribal water rights. 

My dissertation research seeks to understand how public, private, and tribal rights been used to authorize, reconcile, and resist Los Angeles’ resource control in the Owens Valley. This entails tracing how different appeals to "public interest" (both within and outside of the valley) have shaped the politics of water allocation over time, as well as how the federal government has reconciled its often conflicting obligations to the public and to tribes in its legal role as trustee for both. I am also interestsed in how this plays into the politics of resistance to L.A.'s resource control in the valley, which many residents consider a form of "colonial rule." How does this articulate with other forms of struggle for water and sovereignty, particularly that of the Owens Valley Paiute? And what opportunities and limitations does the legal system pose for these different actors in their efforts to restore water to the valley?

Previous Research Projects 

My master's thesis research (2014-2016) examined water governance in the Maipo River basin in central Chile, with an emphasis on legal and institutional frameworks, climate change and water scarcity, and social mobilization. In particular, the thesis examined 1) the legal policy of "river sectioning" and its impacts on water governance, 2) the role of social movement actors in an entrenched hydropower conflict, and 3) the implications of drought and climate change discourses for communities struggling with long-standing issues of water scarcity. I collaborated on a photo story about the Maipo River basin that can be found here. My previous research in Chile (2011-2012) examined the development of the Patagonia Sin Represas anti-dam social movement in southern Chile. 


I currently work as the field coordinator for the Community and School Garden Program. During Summer 2017 Session II, I taught Environment and Society (GEOG 150c1) online. From 2014-2016, I worked as a Graduate Research Assistant in the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, collaborating with project partners from six countries across the arid Amerias on a water security project funded by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research.

Research Interests

Water conflicts, law, indigenous rights, resource governance, social movements, political ecology, legal geography, Western U.S. - California, Latin America - Chile.  



Selected Publications

Borgias, Sophia L. 2017. La gobernanza del agua en la cuenca del Río Maipo (policy brief). Disseminated to stakeholders and officials in Santiago, Chile in February of 2017.

Mills-Novoa, Megan, Sophia L. Borgias, Arica Crootof, Bhuwan Thapa, Christopher Scott, Rafael DeGranade. 2016. “Bringing the Hydro-social Cycle into Climate Change Adaptation Planning: Lessons From Two Andean Mountain Water Towers.” The Annals of the American Association of Geographers.

Borgias, Sophia L. 2016. “Law, Scarcity, and Social Movements: Water governance in Chile’s Maipo River basin.” University of Arizona.

Borgias, Sophia L. 2013. “Patagonia Without Dams: Framing, Democracy and Social Transformation in Chile.” University of Oregon Robert D. Clark Honors College. 


Sophia Borgias's picture

Contact Information

Sophia Borgias
PhD Student/Graduate Teaching Assistant
Office: ENR2 S570-DD
Office Hours: By appointment only


M.A. Geography, University of Arizona, May 2016

B.A. International Studies, University of Oregon, June 2013

B.A. Spanish, University of Oregon, June 2013    (Minor: Latin American Studies)

Robert D. Clark Honors College, Summa Cum Laude



Courses Taught

Environment and Society (GEOG 150c1) - Summer 2017 Session II - online 

Environment and Society (GEOG 150c1) - Winter 2017 - online