L.A.’s mix of water and hubris

Maie writes*

In his 1974 classic ‘Chinatown,’ Roman Polanski portrayed a spectacular conflict over water in early-twentieth century Southern California – a story of intrigue, corruption, and greed. In fact, Polanski’s movie builds on some real events during the era of William Mulholland as the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), which are hardly less scandalous. Mulholland began a tradition of meeting the rapidly growing city’s thirst with technological fixes. Some of them had dire consequences such as the deadly collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928 and the draining of the Owens Lake – a natural calamity that today compels the LADWP to continuously flood the dry lake bed to prevent toxic dust from blowing into inhabited areas. A more recent technological venture was the covering of the Los Angeles Reservoir with 96 million shade balls to prevent the sun transforming chemical residuals into dangerous byproducts.

The technocratic belief that any human demand can be met by just engineering nature has arguably been taken too far in Los Angeles. Yet, from the consumer side, the city’s water supply has mostly been a story of success and enabled a sixfold population increase within twenty years at the beginning of the twentieth century. From the construction of the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct to the diversion of the Colorado River in the south-east and, more recently, increased groundwater pumping – shortages were quickly countered with solutions and the spirit of progress and unlimited possibilities was never diminished.

The scenic and beautiful Los Angeles River.

Today, the average Angelenos consumes 113 gallons of water per day, which is only possible because Los Angeles is able to import great amounts of water from far away sources. However, due to weather uncertainties such as low precipitation and the premature seasonal melting of snowpacks, the reliability of these sources is falling. A change of thinking is needed, but unfortunately, Los Angeles’ water supply system has grown extremely complex. About one hundred contractors, wholesalers, and retailers operate in the metropolitan region, which makes communication and cooperation extremely complicated. On top of that, shadows of the past keep haunting the city as the conflict between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley has not been reconciled yet. Even though the metropolis erected a $4.6-million monument at the dry lake bed, the valley’s residents can hardly forgive that a faraway metropolis once covertly purchased most of its land and water rights and drained its lake, leaving it exposed to toxic dust, vulnerable to drought, and hampering the valley’s economy to the present day.

Bottom Line: The history of Los Angeles’ water supply is a history of hubris. Only recently has the city started to understand that engineering cannot resolve emerging problems. Other measures like reducing consumption and integrating water flows into a sustainable cycle are needed. However, the city finds itself in a deadlock, with a fragmented infrastructure that makes changing the status quo extremely difficult, and residents that have grown accustomed to cheap and abundant water.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “L.A.’s mix of water and hubris”

  1. Hey Maie!

    I enjoyed reading your web post on the water scarcity issue in Los Angeles. It is interesting how water administrators try to ameliorate the water shortage problem by tackling the supply side problem, instead of trying to decrease the demand. Water is delivered from far away sources to meet the growing demand through complex engineering infrastructures. I wonder if the establishment of new pipes for water delivery from more distant locations has increased the water service price in LA? And if so, did it lead to a decreased water consumption since then?


    1. Hi Khabiba, an important topic that you are raising here! As far as I know, there haven’t been any big infrastructure projects recently that drove up the prices. It’s rather the problem of ageing infrastructure that is causing problems nowadays. The necessary maintenance plus the recent years of drought have driven up customer rates significantly, often by more than 100%. Here, the fragmentation of the water supply system creates huge inequalities: there are more than one hundred different water suppliers in the metropolitan region, and mainly the smaller ones have problems financing the maintenance. That’s why water prices differ a lot across the city. Some residents pay five times as much as others. Furthermore, it’s mainly the small utilities that don’t have any financial assistance programs in place. Consequently, there are many LA residents who struggle to afford their water nowadays.

  2. Hi Maie!

    It was a pleasure to read your blog post and see what water management issues LA has. How unexpected to see that draining a lake does not only exacerbate local water scarcity but can present a danger to health through toxic dust. It might have been nice to see the gallons LA consumes in liters to highlight the frankly startling amount for people not so familiar with the gallon unit.
    Also, it is interesting to compare how while both LA and Prague (my case study city) are able to sustain their water supply through long-distance imports and both have to adjust to the water security threath that climate induced temperatures present, the water conservation and consumption norms in the cities differ so greatly. I wonder how is any new infrastructure or the renovation of the outdated one you mentioned, financed. Who is responsible for the maintenance (the city/service provider) and how are they planning to fix the deteriorating infrastructure? As you said in your comment, many people already are not able to afford to pay their water bills so not just price increase but maybe a change of the system is in order. Overall, it is a very well written post Maie and I am looking forward to see what other issues and recommendations you will provide in your essay.

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