As far as water rights go, what is “reasonable and beneficial use”? The California Constitution, Article 10, Section 2, says, in part: “…The right to water or to the use or flow of water in or from any natural stream or water course in this State is and shall be limited to such water as shall be reasonably required for the beneficial use to be served, and such right does not and shall not extend to the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use or unreasonable method of diversion of water….”
That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Use of water has to make sense and we can’t waste it. The question you are probably asking right now is, who defines the good and bad use of water?
In 1849, The Gold Rush! Starting in the year 1849, prior to California becoming a State in 1850, it was reasonable and beneficial to move a lot of gravel, sometimes whole streams, and sometimes considerable portions of mountains to get gold.
Along with ounces, pounds, and tons of gold found, came a whole lot people than there were before. As the proportion of gold miners to State population decreased, the weight of public opinion changed. Wasn’t it a shame to fill up good rivers with so much gravel that a steamboat could not get through? And weren’t the gnawed-out mountains ugly? Use of monitors was the first, biggest use of water declared to be unreasonable.
Over time, the mines played out and water went more and more to ranches and farms. This is definitely reasonable and beneficial. California became the bread basket and salad bowl of the nation. With more people, land was developed faster, and more water was used.
And you know what happened next. Fish populations in streams decreased, and more focus was put on non-farm uses of water. As dams went in, the miles of natural streams decreased. The fight over water went from who gets the first the mostest, to also arguing how much should be left in creeks and rivers.
In these photos, one shows the whole flow of a creek being diverted to irrigated pastures. In 1940, that was the best use of that water in this part of the State, except if it cut into someone else’s diversion right. Today, a lot of people think the natural stream is best, with no use by people.
So “reasonable and beneficial” depends on when and where you were, and how scarce the water is. Scarcity includes what’s left over after everyone else has rights.
“Good” use of water changes as society changes. In 1900, 90% of people in the USA lived on farms, and 10% in cities. In 2000, 10% lived on farms, and 90% in cities. California was more like 7% vs.93% – it is no surprise that this wholesale change in who we are also changed what is “reasonable and beneficial.” More on this later….