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
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 exopolis.org).
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.
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
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.