Prior to the Industrial Revolution, English common law, which was based on a series of court decisions rather than specific laws, dictated that all landowners had the right to use rivers and the resources found in them. However, they could not prevent the flow of the river. This began to change when mills started cropping up on major rivers. In 1821, the Boston Associates started to build mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. Dams constructed on the Merrimack River were the energy source that powered the mills. Higher dams produced more energy, and allowed the mills to manufacture more cloth, which allowed them to generate a greater profit. To provide energy for their mills, the Boston Association actually bought the land and water rights at Pawtucket Falls. The idea that people could buy water rights was fairly new. When the Boston Associates decided to build more mills south of Lowell in Lawrence, Massachusetts, they had to construct a thirty two foot dam to power the mills. This dam ended spring fish runs which reduced the amount that people could fish.
The Boston Associates did not stop there. Since rainfall is often irregular, it was difficult to consistently power the mills in Lowell and Laurence. The solution to this problem was to purchase the rights to the entire Merrimack River. They also purchased the rights to the river’s origins, Lake Winnipesaukee and Squam Lake. Located in central New Hampshire, Lake Winnipesaukee and Squam Lake are two of New Hampshire’s major lakes. The Boston Associates used their rights to build dams at the lakes that stored water during the winter and spring. That water was used to power the mills between July and October, when water levels were usually lower.
The dams caused much flooding in the Lake Winnipesaukee area, and angered many farmers who could no longer farm on their land. The dams were benefiting distant factories that had no effect on their lives. According to English common law, the mills should not be able to build dams that negatively affect residents of the area. This raised questions about who had the right to use these rivers and lakes, and for what purpose. Ultimately, courts decided that the mills could build dams because of the doctrine of reasonable use. Steinberg writes, “Under this new rule, courts weighed the different interests at stake in the use of water, sacrificing the wishes of some for the larger good of a community” (page 61). The economic prosperity of the mills was considered more beneficial to the community than farming or fishing.
Today, the right to use water in New Hampshire is similar to the right that colonial Americans had. In fact, the concepts used today are based off of English common law. According to the Lakes Management Advisory Committee, property owners are allowed to use water only in ways that do not affect the public or other property owners.
Another similarity between the water rights debate and current politics is the debate over industrial wind farms in New Hampshire. There are plans to build an industrial wind farm in Newfound Lake Region. Many residents do not want a wind farm in their backyards because they believe that the wind farm would negatively impact their community. They claim that the wind farm would eventually lower property values, and generate unwanted noise. However, there is another issue to consider. The energy generated by the wind farm would not be sold to this community exclusively, but rather all over New England. The wind farm would not directly benefit the residents of the community, but they would have to deal with all of the negative consequences of the project. This is exactly what happened to the farmers who lived in close proximity to Lake Winnipesauke during the nineteenth century.
Only through environmental history can society truly understand current environmental issues. Hopefully, background gained in a course like environmental history will generate discussions that will lead to the solutions that society needs.
For more information on the Industrial Revolution, water rights in New Hampshire, or wind farms in New Hampshire, refer to the following resources-
Steinberg, Ted, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, Second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).