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Counterpoint: Brave New L.A.


In his essay, "Brave New L.A.," Jon Christensen cites what he considers two pivotal and progressive moments in Los Angeles' quest for sustainability: the July rise of former Los Angeles City Council Member Eric Garcetti to the mayor's office and the November centenary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (HCN, 1/20/14). Both occasions can equally be seen as markers of backsliding by the city that inspired the movie Chinatown. Here's why:

In 2010, as then-Councilman Garcetti prepared for the mayoral primary, he led the push for the replacement of an unpopular two-day lawn-watering ordinance with a three-day rule. Sprinkler restrictions that reduced L.A.'s water use by almost 20 percent between 2007 and 2010 were blurred, and water consumption rose nearly 2 percent over the next two years. Meanwhile, Garcetti based his campaign on promises of fiscal reform of the aqueduct operator, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power.

As the utility, particularly its trade union, became a political punching bag, its staff scrambled to augment declining water supplies from L.A.'s three major sources: the Owens River in the Eastern Sierra, the Colorado River in the Mojave Desert, and Northern California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. For Los Angeles, which alone among Southern California cities benefits from the aqueduct that William Mulholland built, the best source of new water was the Owens River. Here, where the Mojave ends and the Sierra begins, an estimated 90,000 acre-feet of mountain snowmelt was being diverted every year from the aqueduct for dust suppression on the Owens Valley playa, where a terminal lake had long ago been reduced by L.A. to a dust bowl. L.A. sued to avoid dust-control orders, declared the local air-quality officer a "rogue regulator," and demanded that Inyo County approve brine pumping from beneath the playa to be used for dust control.

California was clearly on course for a drought declaration as Mayor Garcetti assumed office last July. Calling for outdoor water conservation was an obvious first step. Instead, the mayor focused on fiscal reform right up to Jan. 30, when he nominated Anaheim City Manager Marcie Edwards as a new general manager for the LADWP. "With Marcie Edwards, we're going to make sure the DWP is more efficient, tightly managed, reliable and that costs are cut," he pledged.

The next day, state officials revealed that Southern California might not see any as-yet-unscheduled water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta in 2014. Watch for L.A. to tighten its vise on Owens Valley.

Emily Green
Altadena, California

Emily Green and Jon Christensen, the author of "Brave New L.A.," debated whether L.A. was becoming a model of urban sustainability on the Santa Monica public radio station KCRW in January. Listen to the debate at: hcne.ws/1namIhG.