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Stories from the valley

Half a Miner’s Inch

Contributed by Tim Johnson

Growing up, I often heard my grandfather talk about half a miner’s inch of water. This was the amount of water he received from the ditch above the house to irrigate the sheep pasture and serve the house. In Sonora, where he lived this was an everyday occurrence. For me it was not. We got our water out of a pipe from the city.

So what is a miner’s inch? Come to find out, it’s the amount of water that flows through a hole an inch in diameter. The hole, drilled in a board, is used to direct water out of a ditch. The board is placed in a weir with the hole six inches underwater. Water flows out at about 11 gallons a minute.

Miners Inch 1

The miner part is fairly straightforward, since it was the miners that developed this inventive manner to allocate water. The demand for water for mining energized the miners to build the state’s first water systems. Once built, at great cost and manpower, the question of how to fairly allocate the water and charge for it arose.  The solution was a simple and effective way to distribute the water in the ditch or canal.

Here is a great YouTube video of how the system works

If miners and how they allocated water were simply history, it would be interesting. Since this same foundation is used today, it ‘s extremely relevant.

You will often hear that today’s water rights system is based on laws 150 years old. On the surface, this seems like a negative. Dig a little deeper and you realize that it may in fact be a huge plus.

In reality, water rights and later water quality laws were among the first things considered by the courts soon after California became a state in 1850. By 1853, the California courts were ruling on water use by miners. Within a little more than three decades water rights for the entire state were argued and the structure was in place.

In 1884, the courts considered the first water quality laws aimed at protecting water quality for use by farmers. The significant dredging in Sierra foothills was washing sediment into the rivers and valley farmland. The courts ruled against this practice and the first water quality law in the state was established.

Why is this important? Simply put, with water rights clearly established, it allowed all the towns, businesses and farms that followed to have a clear road map of the water that was available and what to expect when using it.

As many will attest, old law is good law. Arguments have been heard. The rights of individuals considered and the courts have ruled. Old law provides certainty and, through that certainty, you can build an entire state of 38 million people and a $2.3 trillion economy.

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