McGeorge School of Law

Cases & Places Day One

Before sun up, McGeorge students and faculty arrived at the parking lot behind Classroom C loaded up with gear for the four-day adventure. A fleet of large SUVs and a sole mini-van were already there waiting. After checking in and receiving our field guidebooks, complete with student edited versions of the cases we'd be discussing and filled with useful environmental information on the locations we'd be visiting, we loaded into our convoy and hit the road.

The sign at Sutter's Mill
The sign at Sutter's Mill.

Our first stop: Sutter's Mill. With the American River and site of John Marshall's discovery of gold as the backdrop, we learned about how erosion from the nearby mountains produced the gold deposits found in the river. Once the easy gold was found, miners looked for different ways to get to the gold and adopted hydraulic mining. In hydraulic mining, miners used powerful water cannons to blast into the sides of mountains. The sediment slurry this created flowed through sluice boxes, which removed the gold while the rest of the sedimentary debris discharged downstream into the rivers. The huge amounts of sedimentary debris made the waterways less navigable, impacted the salmon population, and caused flooding of downstream agricultural land.

To accomplish hydraulic mining, miners diverted water to where it was needed for mining. Appropriating the water for mining affected the amount of water property owners had flowing through their property, leading to legal conflicts between the property owners who had "riparian" rights to water passing through their property and the "appropriative" rights of those such as miners seeking to put water to use for development purposes. Ultimately, this tension led to amendment of the California Constitution and the requirement that water use in California must be "reasonable" and for a "beneficial purpose."

McGeorge Students unfurl the McGeorge banner in front of some of Mono Lake's tufa towers.
The group of faculty and students unfurled a McGeorge banner in front of some of Mono Lake's tufa towers.

A panoramic image of tufa towers and Mono Lake.
A panoramic image of tufa towers and Mono Lake.

Mono Lake provided our second featured stop. While admiring the wondrous limestone "tufa towers" created by the interaction of calcium rich underwater springs and the carbonate rich lake water, we learned about the emergence of Public Trust Doctrine. Tufa formations develop under water, but in the 19402 diversion of water by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) dramatically lowered the lake level making the tufa visible. In 1983, the lawsuit National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, challenged LADWP's diversion of the water from the five freshwater streams that fed into Mono Lake and resulted in the dramatic lowering of the lake level. Ultimately this case led to the expansion of the Public Trust Doctrine by expanding protection that had existed solely for navigable waterways to tributaries that feed into those waterways. Prior to this decision, the assumption was that DWR should permit LADWP's appropriative use of the water because it was for "domestic purposes." As a result of this suit, the state is now required to consider whether the public trust will be harmed by appropriative rights and protection has broadened to apply to groundwater supplies. After looking at Mono Lake's brine shrimp and alkali fly inhabitants, we loaded back into our vehicles and hit the road and headed for camp.

Brown's Millpond campground
The group set up for the night at Brown's Millpond campground.

A little before sunset, we arrived at Brown's Millpond campground, made camp, and feasted on a fajita dinner before starting a campfire and getting the s'more supplies out. Some brave souls wandered out under crackling power lines to do a bit of star gazing. Back at camp, people sat around the campfire trading jokes and seeing some remarkable shooting stars.

Cases & Places Blog Posts

About the author: Anna Lisa Thomas is a third-year law student at McGeorge. She has a MA in History from UC Davis where she studied Early American and Environmental history. She also has a current National Parks Pass and has road tripped from San Diego to Seattle on the West Coast and from Acadia National Park in Maine to Key West on the East Coast. She has crossed back and forth across the United States by car four times (always different routes) and is looking forward to a fifth trip after graduation in May. She has been to Europe, but she still abides by the advice that her professor of History of the West offered her sophomore year at UCSB which went something like: "this is an amazing and beautiful country, go get in a car and see it."

About the course: The McGeorge course "California Environmental Cases & Places" centers on a four-day field trip that takes students on a camping trip across California, exposing them to a broad range of natural resource issues. The 2018 trip traced a 1,000-mile loop from Sacramento, east over the Sierra Nevada to South Lake Tahoe, then down I-395 to Mono Lake and then southeast to the dustbowl of Owens Dry Lake, Death Valley, and the Mojave Desert, and then finally back to Sacramento via the farmlands of the Central Valley.

Day One Photos