Who Owns It?— Property Rights Through a Study of Water Rights

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Lesson At A Glance

This lesson addresses the development of property rights through the Constitution through the application of current laws surrounding property rights disputes.  This lesson seeks to have students define property rights clearly, recognize the characteristics of ownership, and analyze problems that arise over ownership and use of water.

  • Students will understand how property rights are defined using clear, observable data.
  • Students will understand that property rights have limits that are defined by our laws.
  • Students will clarify the concept of ownership, and be able to explain how the rights associated with ownership vary, depending on the type of property.
  • Students will understand that disputes arise over differing views on property rights, and these disputes often must be mediated by a court who will apply an objective standard of ownership based on Constitutional guidelines.

Standards Addressed: 


12.2.2  Explain how economic rights are secured and their importance to the individual and to society (e.g., the right to acquire, use, transfer, and dispose of property; right to choose one's work; right to join or not join labor unions; copyright and patent).

12.3.1.  Explain how civil society provides opportunities for individuals to associate for social, cultural, religious, economic, and political purposes.


12.1.4  Evaluate the role of private property as an incentive in conserving and improving scarce resources, including renewable and nonrenewable natural resources.

12.1.5   Analyze the role of a market economy in establishing and preserving political and personal liberty (e.g., through the works of Adam Smith).

12.2.3 Explain the roles of property rights, competition, and profit in a market economy

12.3.1   Understand how the role of government in a market economy often includes providing for national defense, addressing environmental concerns, defining and enforcing property rights, attempting to make markets more competitive, and protecting consumer’s rights.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects Grades 11-12  Students:

Key Ideas and Details

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account.

2. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.

3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

7. Evaluate the hypotheses, data, analysis, and conclusions in a science or technical text, verifying the data when possible and corroborating or challenging conclusions with other sources of information.

Essential Questions/Issues:

  • How are property rights defined?
  • Identify various characteristics of property rights as they apply to different types of property.
  • Explain the responsibilities and actions of the U.S. Government in protecting economic freedom.


Student will be evaluated informally by teacher observation of participation and contribution to group effort.  In addition, student will perform an authentic task (GRASPS) evaluated by a rubric.

Click here to download assessment tools

Activity Steps:

Click here to download activity steps

  Teacher Steps  Student Expectations

5-10 minutes 

Show clip from movie “Rango” in which the town mayor explains to Rango that whoever controls the water controls everything.  In large group discussion, ask students:  Can any person really OWN water?  Under what conditions?

Discuss the various situations where water can clearly be seen as personal property and situations where it is not clear, such as water in the ocean or a lake.

Students should recognize that water rights are fairly clear when it is packaged, but ownership is harder to define if it is in a lake or stream. 


10 minutes

Hold up pictures of several items; a Disneyland season pass; a bicycle; and a gun. 

For each item, students will follow along on handout #1 that identifies the rights associated with each item.

Through class discussion, students will understand the privileges and limitations associated with ownership, use and transfer of each item.

Students will recognize that rights of ownership vary from item to item, but that the rights associated with various items can be identified by their characteristics.

15 minutes 

Divide class into small working groups and give each group a set of pictures (a library book, a hamburger, a garden, a can of paint, and a stream).

Within each group, have students discuss each item and answer the following questions:

  • Who is the likely owner of the item?
  • What are the owner's privileges and limitations?
  • How is ownership of this item the same as, or, different from other items in the group of pictures?

After discussing each item, students will complete the chart in handout #1, identifying the characteristics of property rights for the items in the pictures. 

After group discussion, have each group prepare a one-sentence generalization about property rights based on their discussion.  

Student understanding should focus on the variety of ways that ownership is defined, and the range of privileges attached to different types of property.
Class Discussion

10 minutes

Put a copy of handout 1 on an overhead display and discuss with the class the property rights and privileges associated with each of the items they discussed in their groups. For each item, have the class consider the following:
  • Are the property rights well-defined?
  • Are the property rights exclusive?
  • Are the property rights transferable?
  • Are the property rights enforceable?

For further discussion, as the class to consider what happens to the transferability, exclusivity, and enforceability of property rights that aren't or can't be clearly defined. (Without clear property rights, the characteristics that define ownership are very difficult to identify.)

Students should be able to recognize that there are different rights attached to the different types of property and provide examples of limitations that they have experienced with regard to types of property similar to the pictures.

5 minutes 

Have students return to their small groups and add 3 more items to their charts in handout #1 – bottled water on the grocery store shelf; water in a lake, and water flowing in a stream

Have each group identify the privileges and limitations of ownership for each of the three types of water. 

Students should recognize that the property rights for water in the bottle are much easier to define than the rights for water in lakes or flowing in streams. 
Class Discussion

Ask the class group to discuss the following:

  • Are property rights to water always the same?
  • Which is more likely to create a conflict; ownership of water in a bottle, or ownership of water in a stream or lake?  Why?

Distribute handout #2 – The Impact of Water Law on People's choices

Discuss with class the different types of water law that are applied when water rights are not clearly defined and a conflict arises.

Students should be able to give examples about limits to water rights that they have experienced.

Students should recognize that since property rights to bottled water are clearly defined, there is not likely to be conflict over ownership; however, since property rights to water in a lake or stream are not well defined, it is common for people to have disputes over ownership and use of water.


Discussion Point out to students that when property rights are clearly defined, there is less conflict about how property is to be used by people.

Problems arise when there are no clear property rights, or the rights of two people are in opposition. 

In the case of disputes over the ownership of water without clearly defined  property rights, different types of water rights law are applied which help to resolve issues of unclear rights of ownership. 

 Assessment   Authentic Assessment – GRASPS Activity   

Special Needs of students are considered in this lesson: 

All students should have the ability to recognize the items used in the lesson, and should be able to relate to the different uses of each item.  Group discussion, sharing out and completing the grid worksheet are all activities that engage learners of all levels and abilities. 

Materials and Resources Needed:

  • Handout #1 – The characteristics of property rights
  • Handout #2  - The Impact of Water Law of People’s choices
  • Handout #3 - Case Studies 1-6
  • Pictures of various items with different rules of ownership; (a ski lift ticket, a gun, a hamburger, a library book, a view of a garden, a bald eagle, a can of pain, water in a stream)Video Clip – Making Economics
  • Come Alive with John Stossel – Part I Economics of Property Rights; Clip 1 Private Ownership and Conservation (3:15)
  • Video Clip - “Rango” scene – Mayor introduces Rango to community of Dirt


  • California Council on Economic Education – www.ccee.org
  • Foundation for Teaching Economics – www.fte.org
  • John Stossel – Making Economics Come Alive Video Segment “Private Ownership and Conservation”

Student Handouts:

Download student handouts here

Outline of Unit Plan: 

How Much Government is too Much?