Centuries ago, water rights in the United States were not an issue. There was abundant, clean water for people to use. As the population of the United States expanded, this changed. Native Americans believed that water was a sacred gift and that altering a local environment could upset the balance within the larger ecosystem. European settlers started making claims on water, following traditional Riparian Doctrine. Those that had water on their land had rights to water, and could not impede water of other landowners. In the dry areas of the American West, water was an incredible asset for ranches and mining operations, although many of the people using water did not necessarily own the land on which it flowed. During the California Gold Rush, water was the key to gold mining, so miners worked out a system of "first dibs" in order to protect their rights. Nowadays, much of the American West follows the "first dibs" rules (appropriative rights), while much of the American East still follows traditional riparian rights. California follows both. Discussing water rights and talking through different scenarios can help break down the complexity of the topic for students.
Watch this video of 6th grade students in San Diego, California—a coastal community. The purpose of this classroom video is to hear students' ideas about who owns water, as well as the challenge of learning about water rights.
For additional classroom context, video analysis, and reflection opportunities, read the Picture of Practice page for "Who Owns Water?" in the Earth's Freshwater Environmental Literacy Teacher Guide, page 117.