California Scheming | People & Places | Smithsonian
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California Scheming

Los Angeles' insatiable thirst for water, which drained the Owens Valley, has ruined lives, shaped the city's politics and provoked ongoing controversy

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At the moment, Chris Plakos is a little embarrassed. the public relations manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is looking for a river he can’t find. We’re driving down a road 200 miles from Los Angeles, in the Owens Valley, which parallels the Sierra Nevada for about 100 miles. Plakos’ employer owns most of this valley, having obtained it decades ago by means that may fairly be called ruthless. Plakos wants to show me how, these days, the municipal utility has become more enlightened toward the region and its residents.

 

We know the river is east of us, so it should be a simple matter of pointing the rented SUV in that direction. But we are caught in a whiteout caused not by snow but by salt, blowing off a dry lake bed to the south. The cloud contains microscopic particles of nickel, cadmium and arsenic, which at high doses have been shown to cause cancer in animals.

 

We keep the windows rolled up tight.

 

Plakos is also embarrassed because the salt-out is traceable to his employer’s past policies, and the utility, in a historic turnaround after decades of hostility and acrimony, recently agreed to do something about the problem. So he doesn’t need this possibly toxic atmospheric pollution just now. These dust storms, which have long plagued the area whenever the wind is just so, arise from OwensLake. Once a shallow 110-square-mile body of briny water that still managed to support an abundance of grasses, birds and other wildlife, it was drained decades ago by L.A.’s seemingly bottomless demand for water, transforming the lake into a vast, dusty, cracked-white patch of high desert. It’s the most visible casualty in the battle for the water that turned Los Angeles into a major metropolis—a battle about to be rejoined as the city eyes untapped water sources beneath the Mojave Desert.

 

In the final analysis, it’s not the balmy climate or the $31 billion a year the entertainment industry generates for the city that makes Los Angeles possible. It’s water. Without it, the town one newcomer in the 1860s called a “vile little dump” (pop. 13,000) would never have evolved into the second most populous city in the United States.

 

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