By Mike McCoy
Kern County Museum
Mark Twain once famously said, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” With the increasing urbanization of California, especially in the Central Valley, water rights for agricultural use and cities have become very contentious. This has been exacerbated by an off-again and on-again drought cycle that is making another appearance in 2020. As cities scramble to secure water to serve urban usage, farmers are also locked into a century old struggle to support the state’s largest industry.
The greatest conflict in California history regarding water use and water rights can be seen in the famous 1886 lawsuit Lux Vs. Haggin. This case had long legs and became the cornerstone of most California water law for another century. It triggered landmark legislation and had ripple effects both nationally and internationally.
The legal case had its genesis with two wealthy San Francisco butchers who moved into ranching. After the national Swamp Act was passed in 1851, the two shrewd businessmen, Charles Lux and Henry Miller, saw an opportunity for a fire sale on California land. They quickly saw the value of buying up swampy, useless land for pennies on the dollar for the promise to make capital improvements. Moving up and down the Central Valley where rivers seasonally flooded the valley from the Sierra snow melt, soon the two partners owned more than a reported million acres of land. They assumed the land also held the water rights from the rivers. For a twenty year time period, they raised huge herds of cattle, sheep, swine and horses.
Three other wealthy California businessmen, William Carr, James Ben Ali Haggin, and Lloyd Tevis also began to look at the San Joaquin Valley for investment opportunities. There was a farming boom on in California post-gold rush, and fruit, vegetables and livestock were the next way to find sudden wealth. The three Sacramento focused capitalists began buying up land in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1870s and then water rights and water systems in the 1880s. These water rights included the Kern River watershed around the new town of Bakersfield. The value of these water rights and water systems became shockingly evident when the Great Drought of 1877 hit the entire state of California. Tevis, Haggin, and Carr were found to be holding the winning cards, and Miller and Lux incurred huge losses of life stock when the water dried up.
Soon, the Land Barons faced off against the Water Barons in a long drawn out court case that ended up in the California Supreme Court in 1886. The supreme court ruled in favor of Miller and Lux in that their assumed water rights came before the later claims of Haggin, Tevis, and Carr. After the court case was settled and the parties agreed to split water rights based on a prior agreement, the State legislature created the long reaching Irrigation Act of 1887.
The final outcome of the lawsuit and resulting legislation was that farmers could work together to create “Irrigation Districts.” They could create associations, tax themselves, duly elect officers of the district and have water rights. The federal government moved off the sideline in the war for water and agreed to pay for the cost of dams and canals. The individual water districts could repay for these beneficial improvements over a long time period at very favorable rates. The federal government saw the long-term value of investing in agricultural development in the west and saw the key to success was in supporting irrigation. Initially the 1902 legislation focused on small family farms, but this changed as California farming changed.
This history lesson again became relevant when President Trump’s recent visit to Bakersfield was focused on the topic of water and water rights with Central Valley agriculture professionals. Water rights and control of these rights are still seen as the foundation for California’s economy and future growth. And as we move into another drought year, the conflicts will sharpen, and the battle lines will again form up.