What does it mean to be in the public interest? Who has authority to define that interest? And how might such definitions emerge or be imposed? This Article offers a novel perspective on those questions, drawing from an ethnographic and historical study of the infamous California “water wars” to elucidate the discourses, logics, and practices through which people lay claim to the public interest. Such claims undergird the operation of environmental governance and inform the legal concepts that drive and authorize its implementation. As we continue to evaluate and reform ways of regulating natural resources, we must recognize the cultural norms and modes that construct the public interest and allow certain ways of governing to persist, even when they perpetuate inequality.

This Article focuses on those processes and explains their implications. It provides building blocks—both theoretical and methodological—necessary to further a more generalizable account of the public interest as concept and practice.