It’s been 40 years since the June 20, 1974, opening of “Chinatown,” the fictionalized drama about power, corruption and what is arguably L.A.'s most crucial resource: water. The iconic film was Hollywood’s make-believe version of an undying reality: In L.A., you have to follow the water.
Water in the West has been something of a fantasy since the first wagon trains. It’s a drink mixed from equal parts Manifest Destiny, hubris and engineering derring-do. Aspiration would find a way to trump aridity; water would inevitably flow to our will, not nature’s. Now the make-believe at the heart of Western water is withering, as the reality of drought and global warming take hold.
The myths began in the late 19th century when land speculators, civic boosters and scientists proclaimed settlement and agriculture would create cloudbursts over dry land, transforming desert to garden. The notion that “rain follows the plow” was soon discredited, but not until it helped populate the Great Plains in particular and the West in general with promises of abundant water.
Illusion continued into the 1920s, when the water of the Colorado River was allocated among seven Western states, including California, all sharing 16.4 million acre-feet annually. Except the assumption was wrong; there wasn’t that much water in the river. In fact, the average annual flow has proved to be about two-thirds of what the compact allocated, rendering the Colorado the most oversubscribed river in the world.
Today, water fantasies continue. California developers, real estate agents and homeowners prefer grassy turf with curb appeal: big, soggy green sponges that along with other thirsty landscaping account for up to 60% of a household’s water use. In the irrigated Coachella Valley in the Colorado Desert, one grassy golf course follows the next. The whole thirsty state has about 900 golf courses, second only to Florida. Central Valley farmers want freedom to grow cash crops, including water-intensive alfalfa, cotton and rice, on arid land. Agriculture uses about 75% of California’s developed water resources.
These fantasies cut across party lines. Republicans and their agriculture allies want more dams and infrastructure. Yet, with more than 75,000 dams installed across the United States already, including about 1,400 in California, plus hundreds of miles of what’s called conveyance — aqueducts, pumps and canals — we have yet to build a solution that will work long term. Democrats want more conservation, but what’s the inducement to conserve? Water is so cheap that there’s little incentive to save it.
Residential customers are paying about half a cent per gallon for first-tier water in the city of Los Angeles. At the Metropolitan Water District, the wholesaler that provides about 60% of Southern California’s water, the top-tier rate for a gallon is about one-third of a penny. What other commodity is seemingly as worthless as water?
Throughout the state, water purveyors have so successfully fulfilled their mission statements to provide abundant, reliable and inexpensive water for all that scarcity hardly seems real because water is nearly untethered from the economics of supply and demand. It’s true that Angelenos have proved to be responsible water conservers, but it’s still a tall order to persuade people to treat water as the precious resource it is.
California’s history of water mirages, along with north-south water wars and the cynicism engendered by the kind of water politics portrayed in “Chinatown,” help explain the skepticism that has greeted statewide water proposals in recent decades.
Consider the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a proposed $25-billion project aimed at improving the San Joaquin -Sacramento River Delta ecosystem and safeguarding water supplies for Central and Southern California. It calls for building two 40-foot diameter tunnels 35 miles long to divert part of the Sacramento River. The Legislature has twice postponed water bond votes to pay for such infrastructure fixes, fearing the bonds would fail. It’s uncertain whether lawmakers will try to place the latest version on the November ballot.
As the fight over a delta conveyance stretches on, very little else is being done statewide to address California’s underlying water problem. The state has experienced below-normal rainfall in all but a few years since an El Niño soaker in 1997-98. Severe drought grips the state, big reservoirs across the West sport high-and-dry bathtub rings, some San Joaquin Valley farmland lies fallow and a few cities face steep water cuts or rationing.
Worse, scientists know that California and the Southwest have experienced mega-droughts, lasting for decades. Today, no one has a plan should such droughts recur. And yet recur they almost certainly will. UCLA researchers found that such “perfect droughts” coincide with periods of warming temperatures. And the climate models and data point to one consistent conclusion: The Southwest will be much warmer and drier in the near future. State officials expect the Sierra snowpack to diminish by 25% in 35 years.
Unless we stop playing make-believe, the words of the fictional L.A. politician in the opening scene of “Chinatown” will prove prescient: “We live next door to the ocean, but we also live on the edge of a desert. Los Angeles is a desert community; beneath this building, beneath every street there’s a desert, and without water, the dust will rise up and cover us as if this place never existed.”
Gary Polakovic, a former Times editor and environmental staff writer, is president of Make Over Earth Inc., a communications and public affairs firm that specializes in environmental and energy policy.