California Water Rights – In the Beginning

The Central Valley of California is one of the world’s greatest, both in production and in size. Its 50-mile width is tucked between two notable mountain ranges; lengthwise the valley stretches 600 miles north and south, dotting the countryside with farms, towns and cities. As big as England and almost as long as Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey combined the Central Valley produces one third of all the table foods grown and ninety percent of all the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S., thus becoming the bread basket of America. Altogether 269 different crops are grown throughout this fertile land. The value of a single year of agriculture production today is greater than all the gold mined in California.

What is truly startling about this bountiful harvest is the fact that much of the southern half of the valley receives less yearly rainfall than North Africa. Once designated a desert on early California maps, the vast acreage has been transformed into an oasis.

rain map

Map - Lecture: Water in California:

The miracle that caused this transformation of desert into abundant farmland was, and is, simply water. However, prior to 1887 water was not available to most of the farmers in Southern California.

When California was granted statehood in 1850, it adopted the law of “riparian rights”. The rule dictates that the owner of a stream bordering his land had full rights to the use of the water and those owners not contiguous to the stream had no rights at all. Landowners with such water rights could monopolize its use. One such landowner was Henry Miller. He owned over 1,000,000 acres of land and controlled the riparian rights to nearly 100 miles of the San Joaquin River as well as thousands of acres along the Fresno, Kern and King Rivers.

Meanwhile the rush for gold in the late 1840’s ushered in a different concept for water rights known as “prior appropriation”. Water was required in much of the gold mining process and sometimes the water was transported great distances from its source. The thousands of gold miners who poured into California acted on the assumption that natural resources, like gold and water, were free for taking. Prior appropriation refers to the process by which water users acquire ownership of water rights by diverting water from a source and using it. Others could appropriate water from the same stream, but priority went to the first user. In times of drought, latecomers would be the first to lose water.
The appropriator has the right to the water itself, separate from any rights to the land adjacent to the stream from which it is taken.

Prior appropriation allows water users to transfer their water rights without selling the land. It took water rights away from the land making them personal property. In 1859 the California Supreme Court ruled, “The ownership of water as a substantive and valuable property, distinct, sometimes, from the land through which it flows…may be transferred like other property”. The prior appropriation doctrine also allowed users to diminish the flow of a stream or change its course.


Map - Lecture: Water in California:

The conflict between these two principles resulted in the “California Doctrine” of dual water rights, established by the State Supreme Court in the case of Lux v. Haggin in 1886. The case ruled the both sides had rights to the water. Riparian rights prevailed if a person had purchased land along the river first, but appropriation prevailed over riparian if the appropriator was the first user.

After the State Supreme Court’s Lux v. Haggin ruling, irrigation advocates in the Legislature argued for laws to limit riparian rights. In a special session in 1887, lawmakers debated issues of appropriation, riparianism and the role of government. The most significant legislation to come out of the session was sponsored by Assemblyman C.C. Wright of Modesto. This law provided for the creation of “special districts” for irrigation under local public control. Construction, operation, and maintenance of irrigation projects in these public districts were funded with tax dollars, and districts were considered political subdivisions of the state. It did not, however, abolish the “California Doctrine” of dual water rights, which would continue to be defined in the courts.

A steady, dependable supply of water meant the desert could be converted to orchard, vine, and row crops that flourished during the long, hot summer months. In ten years, the Central Valley was transformed into over 7,000 independent farms.

The fundamental controversy surrounding California’s water is one of distribution combined with conflicts between competing interests over the use of available supplies. About 75 percent of the water supply originates in the northern third of the state (north of Sacramento), while 80 percent of the demand occurs in the southern two-thirds of the state. Two-thirds of the state’s residents receive at least a portion of their drinking water from the Delta. Consequently, whatever affects the Delta also affects large portions of northern, central and southern California.

“Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’ over”–Mark Twain

About Kevin

Councilmember - City of Oakley, Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit, Transplan, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority and RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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