Heirlooms by David Mas Masamoto

David Mas Masumoto is an author and a farmer in California’s Central Valley. These posts are excerpted from his book Heirlooms.

Who owns a river?

Everyone does

July 18, 2008

Dear John,

While we were floating the lower Kings River in kayaks, I got to thinking: who owns this river?

You love this river and live along a beautiful section where the current snakes gracefully past farmlands. You have spent many hours on the water and now devote energy to forming an organization, the Kings River Conservancy, to protect and open the river to the public.

But who owns this water and its rapids and gentle currents, the rocks and boulders, the trees and grassy banks, the fish and flora? Who claims the sounds of rushing water, bird calls, and the silence that lingers around a slow bend in the river? We all do.

Certainly landowners along the river can claim that their property line extends to the middle of the waterway. However, many rivers, including the Kings, do allow for recreational use. I am not trespassing as I ride the river’s current past the shade of cottonwoods or awkwardly bounce over and through part of a fallen tree. Landowners certainly have property rights; I’d be wrong if I pulled up on the bank and on to land, but that’s not the purpose of floating the Kings, is it? Staying in the water seems fine to me.

Who owns a river?

Yet few speak about the responsibility river landowners have: the majority of property is zoned agricultural, and I believe they should leave the bank along the river in its natural state.

As a farmer, I know you can’t farm those few yards along a river without major headaches: equipment gets stuck; tractors work at dangerously steep angles; farm fertilizers and chemicals threaten to contaminate a natural waterway; or the high water table drowns most farm crops. I don’t think that’s asking too much, to keep a river natural.

John, this may sound crazy, but floating the Kings made me think of the Information Age we live in. A river, with its natural splendor and powerful current of history etched into the banks, can be part of the new knowledge economy. We can own a river not necessarily by purchasing land but rather by knowing the story of that waterway and claiming that story as ours.

In this age of technology and information systems, knowledge becomes a product and the use of that knowledge can produce value. The more people know about a natural resource, like a river, the more connections they have and the more they acquire a type of ownership.

A broad view of the Kings River acknowledges the upper Kings, with its whitewater rafters and fly fishermen; Pine Flat Dam, with its assorted recreational users; and those that fish, float, or boat the lower Kings. We welcome the large network of participants. We share this river with thousands of others every year.

Add to that, those who directly benefit and take something away from the Kings. I remember fishing with buddies catching and eating trout (we also caught sucker and squawfish, but no one bragged about that). We acted as if the river was home to “our” fish (including the “ones that got away”).

In addition, thousands of farmers across the valley take precious water from the Kings, a life-giving resource that makes this valley green and generates billions of dollars’ worth of produce. How long could we farm just by pumping groundwater? The added economic expense and the tapping of a limited supply would have created a very different system: communities would have died long ago when the water dried up. We owe the river much, just as much as we take from her.

Finally, the story of the Kings is incomplete unless we include the story of those who have used it. We have floated the Kings on tire tubes, canoes, kayaks, and rafts. We have boated the Kings on powerboats, fishing boats, and party boats. We have played on beaches (yes beaches, albeit small, but still a place where the water and land gently meet) in numerous spots, some known only to a few. We own the Kings because we have memory.

We have memories of family and friends on the river, of parties and long lazy afternoons and evenings, of cold crisp mornings when the fish were biting, or scorching summer days when the snowmelt water from the mountains rushed down riverbeds and cooled our overheated bodies. We remember floating the Kings as high-school kids, a fond time of innocence that seemed to match the slower pace of the river. We can recall the smell and taste of the river, the sounds of water and critters, the lightheaded daze of too much sun and beverages while on the water. Many own a history with this river.

We are connected to the Kings by stories, tales from our past and present. We own the river through the shares of information we have gathered as if we’re all limited partners working together as a larger entity. By knowing and sharing our personal stories, we can claim a river to be ours.

A question looms for the future: how do we develop “our” river? How do we make it more accessible, encouraging more usage for all, and creating another generation of memories? Is it possible to balance the needs of property owners with us “shareholders” who use and enjoy the river, all the while keeping it as natural as possible, to ensure that the river remains a river?

You and others are working towards that goal, contributing to the growing story of a river and her people, helping generations to see what a river can be. Thanks for helping “my” river.

Mas Masumoto

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1. by Farmer de Ville on Jul 20, 2008 at 5:43 PM PDT

As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time fishing and floating on large rivers and small creeks over the years, this question has always been important to me.

I think that there is a huge question waiting to be answered with regard to who can use the water and how the banks and riparian zones are managed. My own personal hope is that some day all waterways more big enough to be floated in an innertube are considered public domain and all banks to flood level as well.

Unrealistic? Probably. But then again there are many who didn’t think that the concept of public beach ownership was realistic...


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