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19 July 2000

A few weeks ago a water toxicity report arrived in my mailbox in my erstwhile apartment in Pasadena. The illustrations and titles are designed to give one the sense that chemicals you can't pronounce are really okay. But if you really read the damned thing, you immediately want a Calistoga. A glass of water in Pasadena carries a little taste of its voyage right to your tap - crap from pesticides, chemical fertilizers, golf-course runoff, leaky old gas stations and landfills, corporate waste and misbehavior, and inadequate sewage treatment. Inside your glass is a journal of a journey through chemical hell.

Los Angeles is whining about its water "shortage" again. Last week a segment of a local public-radio talk show was devoted to discussing the LA water problem and ways to fix it. More hacks to the Colorado River System? More water from Northern California? Gee, what are we gonna do about getting water to the last few square miles of undeveloped land in Orange County when the developers build all those new houses? Not once in the program did anybody question the idea that Los Angeles needs more water.

Real estate developers will inherit the earth. Like water dripping on stones, the real estate folks almost always win sooner or later, because there's money to be made. There are always yay-hoos that want to live in bloated mansions with nice big driveways for their Lexus SUVs. Real estate developers prey on the public's ignorance of the invisible costs of development. They are the termites chewing away our landscape. They have big lobbyists. And besides, development and growth are good. Aren't they? (For a beautiful story of at least a temporary triumph over developers, see Art Center Media Design Program alum Brad Gerstein's award-winning online documentary, "eXopolis" at

It seems obvious to me that long ago the greater Los Angeles area exceeded the limits to growth that are appropriate for its resources and landscape. "Improvements" in air quality notwithstanding, you just have to live there for a week to see that there are way too many people for the place to support. Actually, one hour on the freeway will make the point. Sucking down more water from the rest of the west is not a solution. Maybe making water more expensive is.

The citizens would cry out, of course. Their water bills would go up. They would have to plant cactus instead of grass. And there would be a huge scandal about water companies gouging California just the way the energy companies did. And oh, it would hurt the poor. But the poor don't usually have lawns and swimming pools. The problem with Los Angeles is that there are too many people. Duh.

A large portion of the Los Angeles and Orange County tax bases come from property tax. What if some of the cost of water came out of the hides of property developers and owners instead of everybody who turns on the tap? That would start to present a limit to growth. And the folks who still didn't want to pay for the water in LA might consider moving to Oregon.

Water companies can't take unilateral action to raise prices without massive protest. What is needed is reform at the federal level that reflects the real cost of water. Many places in the rest of the world are dealing with water crises that are much worse than ours, and water policies are being developed that force good planning by setting a very high value on water. We won't get this kind of reform from the current administration in Washington, of course, but it's an issue that ought to be near the top of the list in the next presidential election.

We can't quantify the damage of Los Angeles' insatiable thirst. We can't say what the current water market costs Colorado or Northern California. Oh yes, the Delta and Mono Lake may be drying up, but how can you put a cost on that? One must therefore be arbitrary. Strange talk from an environmentalist, I know, but hey, who gets real action out of naming intangible losses like the disappearance of landscapes and wetlands? The water market needs to be redesigned at the federal level to reflect the need to make wise use of water, and then the "free market economy" can do its work.