Friday, December 10, 2010

A biased technical report -Los Angeles Aqueduct Report (Book Review)

The book can be read at here.

The political belief of Allen Kelly and the City of Los Angeles was that the growth of the City is paramount. At the beginning of twentieth century, the City of Los Angeles, like other contemporary modern cities, attracted flocks of population from rural area seeking opportunities. Cities had advantages of high wages, employment opportunities, upward mobility, and alluring entertaining lifestyle, as described by Ebenezer Howard to be a Town magnet (Howard 1902). Political elites, such as Fred Eaton, former mayor of the City of Los Angeles, believed that the economic advantages of the city have to be maintained by taking more resources from its surrounding rural areas. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was portrayed as a vital project not only for current survival but also for future growth. 

The author lay out the arguments for building the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The water shortage caused by population growth would not be satisfied by existing water supply. The City examined alternatives, such as other rivers in South California and aquifers in coastal plains, but none of them were economically feasible since these water resources had already been under use by local agriculture. The framing of the issue makes it as if there was no other alternative other than getting additional water supply from more than 200 miles away in the Owens Valley. 
The City was confined in a “box” that in order to keep growing, they had to get more and more water (Davis 1998). They never thought of stepping out of “box”. Very little attention was paid on how the existing water resources could be used in a more efficient way.  Solutions such as conservation and recycling were not considered. At the time the Aqueduct was built, water meters had been in use. According to the author, it helped reduce average consumption of water to 150 gallons per day per person. This number is still identical to per capita water consumption in the U.S. today, which is 152 gallons per day (Hinrichsen 1998). As a reference, per capita consumption in Africa is about 12 gallons per day, that in Asia is about 22 gallons, and that in the more economically comparable United Kingdom is about 88 gallons. The reluctance of changing water consumption behavior made it difficult to resort to conservation as a solution. In addition, water conservation as an inward solution would not promote the outward growth that political elites were aspiring for. Recycling might not be seen as a possible solution at that time due to technological constraints. 

When it comes to the tension between public and private good, the author argued that the city of government was representative of the public good of the people of Los Angeles, while the private interests of Owens Valley people should be disrespected. However, this kind of pluralist argument has fundamental drawbacks. As Richard Klosterman put it, “the political arena is dominated by individuals and groups who use their access to government officials and other elites to protect their status, privilege, and wealth and ensure the government acts in their interest” (Klosterman 1985). Some groups of people, in this case, the Owens Valley people, were systematically excluded from the bargaining process. 

In the report, Fred Eaton was described like a saint, who purchased land for water rights in Owens Valley for the sake of public interests; “He acted in a public spirited and generous manner toward the City” (Kelly 1916). However, his proposal of operating the aqueduct as a public private joint venture indicated his personal pecuniary interests within the project. The details of the transaction between Eaton and the City of Los Angeles were left out from the document, only mentioning that “the results obtained were favorable to the City and only just to him”. In order to win enough ballots to issue bonds, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which was actually controlled by Eaton, Muholland and other political elites, created an artificial water famine by dumping its water into sewer system in the night. This scandal was never mentioned in the document. After the Aqueduct was completed, its terminus was at San Fernando Reservoirs, which were out of the limits of Los Angeles. The author did explain that San Fernando Reservoir was at a suitable topography to start distribution water to the City, but even by the time he wrote the report in 1916, the City Main Line that distributes water further down to the city for domestic use was still under construction. During the early operation of the Aqueduct, the water was not used for domestic purpose in the city but for irrigation in the San Fernando Valley, where a syndicate of investors (close friends of Eaton), bought up large tracts of land for speculative profits (Greenstein 1999). Therefore, the Aqueduct served most for the people who profited from the land speculation in the San Fernando Valley. This scandal well demonstrated how politically influential people would use “public interests” as camouflage to seek their own private interests. I think the existing citizens of Los Angeles did not get much benefit from the Aqueduct, because they did not even face a “real” water shortage before the Aqueduct was built. 

Even if the Los Angeles Aqueduct could be reasonably justified as for the public interests of Los Angeles people, the social externality of the project was concealed In the report and the environmental externality was left unspoken. 
It was mentioned in the report that the City had considered the social externality of getting water from adjacent aquifers. “If the City of Los Angeles should exercise the right of eminent domain and condemn the local irrigation waters for a superior domestic use, it would not only work great injury to the farming interests, but would virtually ruin towns and highly developed communities (48)”. However, they were not as nice to the farmers of Owens Valley, whose interests were completely ignored. According to the author, purchasing land in Owens Valley for water rights was made in a quiet and business-like way, because if the farmers knew the land would be used for a public project, they would ask for more. I perceive this kind of under-table transaction was unfair to Owens Valley farmers. According to the Fifth Amendment to Constitution, “…, nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”. Although the farmers in Owens Valley got paid for the price of the land, their latent cost of losing water was not justly compensated by the City of Los Angeles. 

Besides justifying under-table land transaction, the author also tried to convince readers that the impact of the Aqueduct on Owens Valley would be minimal. He argued since the agriculture in Owens Valley was mainly concentrated in the northern part, the aqueduct that fetches water from southern part of Owens Valley would do no harm to Inyo County’s economy. He used some misleading statistics: Inyo County experienced a population increase of 60% from 1905 to 1910; the assessed value of the entire county experienced an increase 240% from 1905 to 1912; and the irrigated area increase by 60% from 1899 to 1909. If we looked at the data closely, we can find none of the data was about Inyo County’s economic condition after 1913, when the Aqueduct was completed and started transporting water out of the region. Ironically, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was later extended north into Mono Lake basin in 1941, which radically destroyed the agricultural economy of the whole Owens Valley. The inconsistent policy caused by imbalanced political power devastated the regional economy and social justice. 
Moreover, the author did not mention a single word about the long-range environmental externality the Aqueduct might bring. The Aqueduct was designed to take “wasteful” water (those evaporated and seepage water) from the Owens Valley to serve 2 millions of population, about four times of population at the time. However, Los Angeles did not stop at the anticipated point. By 1930, Los Angeles population reached 2.2 million, and by 2000, the population reached 9.5 million. The Aqueduct built in 1913 was obviously not sufficient to satisfy the exponential growth of Los Angeles. The consequences were detrimental. Owens Lake, which used to be habitat of thousands of water birds, dried up in1924. It is now a mixture of clay, sand and brine. The alkaline dust storm formed on lakebed causes respiratory problems to nearby residents (U.S. Geological Survey 1981). By 1982, Mono Lake lost 31% of its 1941 surface area. The water becomes too alkaline for ecosystems to survive. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had also been entangled in environmental lawsuits in the second half of twentieth century. 

Due to the imbalanced power between the Los Angeles political elites and the Owens Valley people, the solution of building an aqueduct was proposed only to satisfy local needs of Los Angeles, without balancing the needs of the whole region. Owens Valley people lost land, water, and political power, while Los Angeles would be able to take off and sprawl into its great suburban country. To some extent, the author or the City of Los Angeles in 1905 did anticipate the upbuilding of the tributary suburban. However, I think they might not have anticipated the scale of the sprawl and its complex social and environmental consequences.

Davis, Martha. 1998. Stepping Outside the Box: A Short History of Water in Southern California. In UCLA Environment Symposium. Los Angeles.
Greenstein, Albert. 1999. Harrison Gray Otis.
Hinrichsen, Don. 1998. Solutions for a Water-Short World, Population Reports, Series M, Number 14. Population Report.
Howard, Ebenezer. 1902. Garden Cities of Tomorrow. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. Ltd.
Kelly, Allen. 1916. Complete report on construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct. Department of Public Service.
Klosterman, Richard. 1985. Arguments for and against planning. The Town Planning Reivew 56, no. 1: 5-20.
U.S. Geological Survey. 1981. Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). Feature Detail Report:Owens Lake. U.S. Department of the Interior.

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