The trouble with Chinatown

Ann proposes Chinatown as the greatest environmental movie of all time.  Now, Chinatown is my favorite movie: the poster above is currently hanging on my office wall.  it is a great movie.  But Chinatown can’t be a great environmental movie for one simple reason:

It gets the environment wrong.

The conceit of Chinatown is that a diabolical mogul, Noah Cross, essentially invented a water shortage so that the city of Los Angeles could build an aqueduct.  Cross then secretly bought up land in the San Fernando Valley, knowing that this land would be extremely valuable.  This is at best a half-truth, and the part that is false continues to have debilitating impacts in California water policy.

It is true that a consortium of downtown businessmen, led by the likes of Moses Sherman and Harry Chandler, did buy up Valley land, knowing that the City was going to have to store the water somewhere, and the empty aquifer under the Valley’s alluvial plain was the perfect place.

But to say that Los Angeles built the aqueduct due to private greed is simply nonsense.  The city built the aqueduct because it wanted to be a big city.  And no: it didn’t “rape the Owens Valley” in the least.  The federal government made a very open, very transparent decision to transfer water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles because of a policy decision to bring water to where it could serve the most people — perhaps the only instance in US history where agricultural interests lost a water battle.  Indeed, the Owens Valley acqueduct might well have been the environmental savior of the Owens Valley: without it, the Owens Valley would have turned into the equivalent of the San Joaquin Valley, whose air quality is as bad as Los Angeles’.

Chinatown, and the fake state “report” upon which it was based, have led to the pernicious myth that Los Angeles “stole its water from the Owens Valley.  (The best source on the whole controversy is Abraham Hoffman, Vision or Villainy?: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy). This myth is permicious because it has led to the unfounded belief that somehow agricultural uses are more environmentally sensitive than urban ones (which they are not), and that somehow Los Angeles cannot be trusted.  Thus, whenever California water policy is considered, agricultural interests are unified, but urban interests are not, because self-righteous Bay Area people refuse to cooperate with the evil southern Californians:

So no: Chinatown is a fantastic movie, but I think we should look elsewhere.

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Reader Comments

8 Replies to “The trouble with Chinatown”

  1. You call the aqueduct the “environmental savior” of the Valley. But the aqueduct resulted in the destruction of the wetlands in the Owens Valley Delta (where it enters Owens Lake), the diversion of all of the water from the lower stretches of the River (destroying the riparian ecosystem there), and turned Owens Lake (once a major stopover for birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway) into a giant source for dust pollution (according to an article on Grist*, at one point the largest single source of particulate dust in the country, with significant levels of toxic pollutants). Perhaps the same or worse would have occurred with agricultural development as well. And LADWP has kept the lands it owns in the Valley from significant development. But “savior” sounds a bit strong to me.

    *article link is below — sorry I can’t figure out how to do this in comments without a handy toolbar

  2. Eric, perhaps you are right that “savior” is “a bit strong”, but I would argue it this way:

    1) If it had not been for the aqueduct, the Owens Valley right now would look very much like the San Joaquin Valley;
    2) The San Joaquin Valley is currently an environmental disaster area, unlike the Owens Valley;
    3) Thus, the aqueduct prevented the Owens Valley from being the disaster that the San Joaquin Valley currently is; and
    4) Thus, the aqueduct is the environmental savior of the Valley.

    Of course, my empirical assumptions could be wrong, but I think that they are at least HIGHLY plausible. In any event, blaming Los Angeles for the destruction of the Owens Valley ecosystem assumes that it would have been kept in pristine condition, which I think is a HEROIC empirical assumption.

    And no matter what Los Angeles did, San Francisco still destroyed Hetch Hetchy, and that’s worse. So you guys still lose!

  3. Depends on what you means by “you guys.” In the East Bay we’re served by East Bay MUD, which is not served by the Hetch Hetchy system. We flooded a different valley system for our reservoirs, but they weren’t in a national park at least.

  4. What about double-agent Joseph Barlow Lippincott? He was working for the Bureau of Reclamation Service at the time in Owens Valley, convincing farmers to support efforts to dam the Owens River, which they assumed would benefit them. Instead, he was secretly getting paid by the City of Los Angeles as a consultant to help the city purchase the land around the river. And private greed was certainly a critical factor in the story: the significant landowners of LA all joined forces to promote public investment in the aqueduct. Growth in population=growth in real estate values. They weren’t successful businessmen for nothing.

  5. Nice try, Elkind, but it won’t wash. The guy who was buying up the Owens Valley land was Fred Eaton, a former LA Mayor who did have a consulting contract with the Bureau of Reclamation, but who actually wanted the land because he wanted to own the aqueduct himself — a plan that Mulholland vetoed.

    Lippincott, as you say, did have a pretty egregious conflict-of-interest: he was working as the head engineer of the Bureau of Reclamation while moonlighting with a consulting contract with LA — an arrangement that the Bureau knew about. Not surprisingly, he recommended to the Bureau that it fund the LA aqueduct project. But it was the Bureau, not Lippincott, that approved it. And no one, not even the Owens Valley people, made anything close to a convincing argument that Lippincott’s assessment or engineering was wrong. He had a conflict-of-interest, but he didn’t lie about the engineering specifics.

    More importantly, NONE of this would have happened had not the federal government deeded the necessary right-of-way to Los Angeles. And it wasn’t Lippincott or Eaton that did that: it was Congress, and it was explicitly approved by Theodore Roosevelt. There was an explicit policy decision to have the water go for urban uses, which as I said constituted just about the only time when urban users won out over agriculture.

    San Franciscans have lots of reasons to hate LA: we have better baseball and basketball teams, a more vibrant cultural life, and we rob San Franciscans of their famous smarminess. But the Owens Valley isn’t one of them.

  6. A few qualifications to this story:

    First, there are reasons to be unsure whether Owens Valley would have turned out like the San Joaquin Valley. Owens Valley is several thousand feet higher and has a climate less favorable for agriculture, so a better analog might be the upper Klamath Valley or one of the agricultural valleys further north on the east side of the Sierra. All have their environmental problems, but none have air quality problems on the scale of the San Joaquin Valley or, for that matter, the dry bed of Owens Lake.

    Second, the Owens Valley’s grander agricultural dreams were predicated on the assumption that the federal government would build a reclamation project. That might have happened–economically marginal projects certainly certainly were built elsewhere–and it might not. That fact undercuts the common accusation that LA deprived Owens Valley of its inevitable future as an agricultural paradise. But it also might undercut the claim that LA’s actions prevented the adverse environmental effects of widespread irrigated agriculture. Large-scale irrigation might not have happened anyway.

    Third, the post asserts that “whenever California water policy is considered, agricultural interests are unified, but urban interests are not, because self-righteous Bay Area people refuse to cooperate with the evil southern Californians.” In fact, the Owens Valley story doesn’t mean a whole lot to urban northern Californians (it resonates much more in rural areas). Their primary concerns instead are with more recent, non-mythical actions by southern California water agencies, which have taken very aggressive positions on the pumping of water out of northern California–sometimes developing those positions in close coordination with agricultural interests. So the lack of urban unity has little to do with Chinatown and quite a lot to do with real and current resource conflicts.

  7. My point in bringing up Lippincott is that Los Angeles and Bureau officials were being duplicitous in how they went about collecting information and buying land in the Owens Valley. My understanding was that Eaton was buying the land in order to hide the fact from locals that there was any connection to Los Angeles, although he likely could have had a personal profit motive (ironically, James Phelan, former mayor of San Francisco, tried to do the same thing in buying land around Hetch Hetchy to smooth approval of that dam) . Supposedly, Eaton later felt guilty about what L.A. did to the Owens Valley and moved up there permanently in later years (and not just to escape the smog and crushing traffic). Interestingly, Roosevelt supported the aqueduct in part for national security reasons: he wanted a larger population in Southern California to solidify that corner of our border in case of attack or the need to launch a military force from there.

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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