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Golden Rules

The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush

Fresh water has become scarce and will become even more so in the coming years, as continued population growth places ever greater demands on the supply of fresh water. At the same time, options for increasing that supply look to be ever more limited. No longer can we rely on technological solutions to meet growing demand. What we need is better management of the available water supply to ensure it goes further toward meeting basic human needs. But better management requires that we both understand the history underlying our current water regulation regime and think seriously about what changes to the law could be beneficial.

For Golden Rules, Mark Kanazawa draws on previously untapped historical sources to trace the emergence of the current framework for resolving water-rights issues to California in the 1850s, when Gold Rush miners flooded the newly formed state. The need to circumscribe water use on private property in support of broader societal objectives brought to light a number of fundamental issues about how water rights ought to be defined and enforced through a system of laws. Many of these issues reverberate in today’s contentious debates about the relative merits of government and market regulation. By understanding how these laws developed across California’s mining camps and common-law courts, we can also gain a better sense of the challenges associated with adopting new property-rights regimes in the twenty-first century.

336 pages | 17 halftones, 21 line drawings, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Markets and Governments in Economic History

Economics and Business: Economics--Agriculture and Natural Resources, Economics--History

History: Environmental History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History


“There has not been much new in the property rights literature for some time, and Kanazawa’s book, based on analysis of newspapers, nineteenth-century court cases, and early mining camp rules and company records, is a wonderful addition. It will have broad appeal among legal scholars, historians and students of the American West, political scientists studying local common pool resource management, and economists interested in the development and modification of property institutions and the role of transaction costs in influencing outcomes.”

Gary D. Libecap, University of California, Santa Barbara

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Gold Rush to property rights theorists, economists, and historians, and The Golden Rules tackles this important subject seamlessly, providing what will be the definitive analysis of this episode in American history.”

Henry E. Smith, Harvard Law School

“Kanazawa has been doing yeoman service in the study of water rights for a long time, especially in the context of nineteenth-century California. It is only fitting that he should bring his scholarship together in this well-written book. . . . Scholars interested in gold or water rights will find much to like in his detailed analysis.”

“Kanazawa has written a thoroughly researched, highly focused study of the beginnings of the prior appropriation doctrine in California water law. He situates his examination within the considerable economic history literature on the Gold Rush, and expands our knowledge of the era with a detailed examination of miners' codes, trial and appellate court rulings, and water company records.”

Law Library Journal

“ The value of Kanazawa’s interpretation lies in its unique interpretation of contemporary events.  Where economic historians emphasize water scarcity as the primary driver of law, Kanazawa argues that a sort of dialectical process of court-based legal rules emerged and shaped legislation. . . . This is an invaluable addition to the literature on water rights and the economics of law. . . . Highly recommended.”


"Wallace Stegner once observed that 'the Gold Rush was universal mass trespass, and soon invented laws to legitimize itself.' Kanazawa validates that poignant assessment but with a rich detail heretofore missing."

Pacific Historical Review

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Economic Theory and the Evolution of Water Law
Chapter 3: Water and the Technologies of Mining
Chapter 4: Watering the Diggings: The Development of the Ditch Industry
Chapter 5: The Informal Law of the Mining Camps
Chapter 6: Origins of the Common Law of Mining and Water Rights
Chapter 7: The Origins of Prior Appropriation
Chapter 8: Water Quality and the Law of Nuisance
Appendix A
Chapter 9: Bursting Dams and the Law of Nuisance
Appendix B
Chapter 10: Conclusions

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