Who Owns Water?

Who Owns Water?

Watch this brief, video picture of practice that captures everyday classroom life and provides real-life examples of how students learn and think about freshwater topics.


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Earth Science

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.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Ari J. Posner, M.S. Urban Planning
Beth A. Covitt, Ph.D. Environmental Education and Conservation Psychology
Tania T. Hinojosa, M.Ed. Educational Technology
Jose Marcos-Iga, Ph.D. Natural Resources
Marcia S. Matz, M.A. Design
Tara G. Treiber, B.A. Natural Sciences: Ecology
Sandra Postel, National Geographic Fellow
Abraham Miller-Rushing, Ph.D. Biology
Anica Miller-Rushing, M.Ed. Curriculum and Instruction
Lindsey Mohan, Ph.D. Educational Psychology and Technology
Cindy Olson
Kristen Dell, National Geographic Society
Lindsey Mohan, Ph.D.
Chelsea Zillmer
Educator Reviewers
Catie Boarts, Heal the Bay
Beth A. Covitt, University of Montana
Jenny D. Ingber
Meghan E. Marrero, New York State Marine Education
Marcia S. Matz
Sandra Postel, National Geographic Fellow
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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