California's water problems stretch back to the 1850's when argonauts began diverting from rivers to get a placer deposits in stream-beds or to conduct hydraulic mining. Mining remained the most important economic use of water for two decades. In the meantime, farms, cities, and factories became important to users of water, and these "interests" were joined by those committed to the maintenance of river navigation and the reclamation of "swamp" lands. By the 20th century, when mining no longer represented a significant use of water, hydroelectric power companies filed new claims to the State's limited water supply and the problems of storing and controlling "flood water" began to receive serious attention from the State.
Though the State's participation in water planning increased enormously in the 20th century--particularly after World Water I--the earlier period was significant for many reasons. State government played an active, if limited, role almost from the beginning. Not only did it publicize the State's water problems and gather water use information to aid private interests, it provided the legal framework necessary to use the resources. The well-known conflict between riparian and appropriative rights has overshadowed the Legislature's attempts to provide laws regulating water use by private interests. Even in the 19th century the State occasionally intervened directly to tackle a problem, as in 1880 by constructing restraining dams on the Yuba River to trap debris from hydraulic mining.
From 1850 to 1930, when a comprehensive State water plan was presented to the public, the State's role in planning changed dramatically. This study provides a chronological overview of State involvement with a focus on two themes: the evolution of legislative (as opposed to "court made") water law, and the development of the multiple-use concept of water planning.