California and Water

A visit to the verdant beauty of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco would persuade the visitor that this fabled city had abundant water. In fact, the area of Golden Gate Park was once an immense sand dune.

E. Robert Scrofani, 1992


California Dreamin’

Water and the emergence of a “new civilization” touted, “making the desert bloom” (Starr 170), fulfilling the words of the prophet:

For waters break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

(Isaiah 35:6)




The necessary element for civilization to take root

Cf. Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India

Two great rivers of the Central Valley

Sacramento River

San Joaquin River

Two other great river sources:

The Owens River

The Colorado River

William Hammond Hall: Hydraulic engineer who wrote on developing California’s water needs

California becomes a landmark instance in world history of water procurement and implementation

Establishment of water districts

Based on Wright Act response to Lux v. Haggin decision



Water Rights (and in California, it’s all about the water)

First became important with the discovery of gold in 1848

Recall the water flumes for finding gold

Incorporated into state law following the admission of California into the United States in 1850.



Who Owns the Water?

The State of California owns all of the water in the state

Individual water rights are usufructuary

One uses the water; one does not own it

Rights to its use revert to the owner (California) when given up



Federally Reserved Rights

Because the United States reserves public domain land for national parks and forests, it thereby reserves the right to the water to support these areas.

These rights are senior or paramount to all state claims.


Forms of Water Rights

Two historical forms of water rights:

Appropriative rights

First come, first served; early bird gets the water

Enacted in California as part of the Gold Rush and mining district laws

Entitlement is secured by use

Use it, or lose it

Recall, these were public lands in the case of the Gold Rush

Riparian rights

Based on English Common Law

Water access comes with the land abutting a river

Entitlement is secured by land ownership

In cases where the two forms come into conflict, riparian rights trump appropriative rights




Battle of the Titans: Lux v. Haggin (1886)

Henry Miller (Lux was his agent)

Claimed monopolistic control of the Kern River in the Central Valley by virtue of riparian rights

James Haggin

Owned a large chunk of Kern County, thanks to his Southern Pacific RR friends and exploitation of the Desert Land Act (1877), and claimed control of the Kern River by virtue of appropriative rights

The Court decided in favor of Miller (Lux), based on riparian rights as superior

California Doctrine of water rights resulted from Lux v. Haggin



California Doctrine (of water rights)

The state adopted the riparian principle but accepted appropriation rights in certain cases:

Where an individual had previously purchased state land or a Mexican grant, the water rights were declared to be riparian;

Where an individual had claimed water from the public domain before 1866, he had a right of prior appropriation that could be exercised or sold as personal property.

All grants after 1866, state or federal, came under the riparian rule.



Dual Rights (California Doctrine)

Blending of Appropriative and Riparian Rights

Pueblo Rights

Based on Mexican law

Paramount to all other rights.

Only affects a few towns in southern California.



Wright Irrigation Act 1887

California Doctrine after Lux vs. Haggin put farmers who needed water at a disadvantage.

A man named C. C. Wright made the case for the farmers in Sacramento.

Wright was influenced by the current arguments of newspaperman Henry George, who argued that land ought to be taxed, thereby discouraging unproductive, monopolizing land-grabbing.

The adopted Wright Act allowed for the formation of communities based on water-interests (special districts).

Following passage of the Wright Act, irrigation projects in California more than doubled.

Henry Miller’s triumph was thus short-lived.



The outcome of the Wright Act is that communities formed water-interest “districts,” which were enclaves that acted as conduits of the State of California’s ownership of the water, thus having preeminence even over riparian rights.

Financing of water-related infrastructure (e.g., irrigation canals) came through bonds backed by land-value taxation.

As a result, individual small farmers had to contribute little money for water-related infrastructure, while land barons, such as Henry Miller, were taxed on their vast land holdings, regardless of whether they were using the water.

See the paper given be E. Robert Scrofani, “The Greening of the California Desert,” Georgist Scholars Conference, Lafayette College, 1992.



Local examples

The Metropolitan Water District

The largest in the United States (19 million people served)

Main source: Colorado River Aqueduct (b. 1933-1939)

Lake Havasu (Parker Dam) to Lake Mathews in Riverside

Some water also comes from northern California

Riverside, founded in 1870, was early on known as the Riverside Land and Irrigation Company

1873: L.C. Tibbets and Eliza Tibbets planted the first navel orange seedlings in the country, the small beginning of an incredible future.

1875: Magnolia Avenue constructed.

1882-1886: Canadian-born Mathew Gage built the Gage Canal, bringing water from the ancient San Bernardino underground aquifer, allowing Riverside’s citrus industry to further grow.



Los Angeles Aqueduct (watch Cadillac Desert)

The Los Angeles Aqueduct was finished in 1913

It brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles

The water rights were subversively secured

The agricultural vitality of the Owens Valley was compromised

Some of the offended resorted to vandalizing the aqueduct

Eventually, Mono Lake, a key place for migratory birds, was nearly destroyed

With the waters from the aqueduct, the Los Angeles basin became the land of green lawns and swimming pools beneath a golden sun, and, culturally, became the national trendsetter of the good, suburban life.


William Mulholland

Leader of the Los Angeles Aqueduct project

Head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the “DWP.”

Later advised on the Panama Canal, Boulder Dam, and the Colorado River Aqueduct

Disgraced with the catastrophic failure of the St. Francis Dam


Mulholland and O’Shaughnessey

Water to San Francisco from Tuolumne River

Engineer: Michael O’Shaughnessy

Environmental impact: inundation and destruction of Hetch-Hetchy canyon

Water to Los Angeles from the Owens River

Engineer: William Mulholland

Water enters L.A. at the north end of the San Fernando Valley

Environmental impact: compromise of Owens Valley agriculture.

A case of the few sacrificed for the many