Timeline of California Water History

Pre-US Spanish Rule

  • The Crown owned all water rights
  • Populations small but water in short supply
  • Rule of prior appropriation (priority rights to those who first use a water source for beneficial means)
  • Water usage was heavily restricted (e.g. only allowed to irrigate 10% of land)
  • Spanish law reflected in current laws, which are blend of prior appropriation and riparian (equal) rights

US takes control of California in 1848 with the Gold Rush

  • US Bureau of Reclamation established (1902) under Department of Interior
  • Populations small but water in short supply
  • Federal entity to manage water and carry out federal projects
  • 1906 Congress funds dam to provide electricity

Northern California

  • Main water source: the Sierras
  • Water needs: irrigation (for gold mining) and provision to San Francisco
  • Initially prior appropriation and "use it or lose it" water rights prevailed with little government intervention (in contrast to riparian system used in most of United States)
  • 1855 appropriative rights upheld and the first market for water was set up with the sale of water to miners
  • Riparian and prior appropriation rights clashed in 1886 legal conflict (Lux vs. Haggin) resulting in a mixture of the two methods being recognized
    • Big water/land grab by major land owners
    • Move to establish irrigation districts by small land owners
  • Desert Land Act 1877 and Casey Act 1894
    • Meant to strength small farmers but back-fired
    • Effectively strengthened land barons
  • 1878 John Wesley Powell of the US Geological Survey produced "Report on the Lands of the Arid Region for the United States" claiming insufficient water for irrigation in California
  • Wright Act 1887 created public irrigation districts

San Francisco

  • Built on area with little naturally available fresh water
  • When growth began to exceed naturally available water supply, the city turned to private supplier Spring Valley Water Works (SVWW)
  • SVWW had long-term contract to supply water to the city but took advantage of monopoly and charged high prices, while providing poor service
  • San Francisco wanted to buyout SVWW but needed a cheap source of water to lower the buyout price
  • San Francisco applied to congress for construction of the O'Shaughnessy dam and water rights to the dammed water in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park Project was approved and the water rights granted by Raker Act of 1913

Southern California

  • Southern California is a desert with virtually no water
  • Water needed for irrigation and growth of Los Angeles and San Diego
  • William Mulholland and Fred Eaton largely responsible for bringing water to LA through the Owens Valley Water Project and LA aqueduct
    • Heavily opposed by Owens Valley residents and farmers to the east of LA
    • Project approved in 1906 brought water to LA from 235 miles away; Owens Valley residents eventually compensated
  • The Construction of the LA aqueduct lead to the eastward expansion of LA, partly to secure access to more water
  • Bureau of Reclamation wanted to build large water project on Colorado River to supply the Imperial Valley with water
    • Imperial irrigation district set up in 1911
    • Opposition from the seven other states that lie on the Colorado River
    • Interstate agreement that guaranteed California 4.4 million acre feet of water from the Colorado
  • Metropolitan Water District (MWD) formed in 1928 to manage and distribute water to 26 southern California cities including LA and San Diego
    • Competed for California's allocation of water from the Colorado
    • Guaranteed water for expanding populations in the future
  • Water shortages and rapidly increasing population of southern California lead MWD to focus on system reliability and water market markets rather than new projects
  • Central Valley of California fed water from the Sierra Mountains but distribution of water throughout Central Valley was uneven, with occasional floods
    • Central Valley Project (CVP) meant to alleviate some of these problems
    • Lacked widespread support in California
    • Federal government grew tired of funding California's water projects
    • Project shrunk and finally passed. CVP completed in 1952
  • CVP did not provide Western San Joaquin Valley with water. Proposition of the State Water Project (SWP) to deliver water to San Joaquin Valley, as well as Sacramento and San Francisco
    • Building of dam at Oroville proposed in 1951
    • Eventually extended to southern California and San Diego
    • SWP provided southern California with enough water to fuel growth
    • Expansion of the SWP through the Peripheral Canal to improve distribution and water quality still being debated today