ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today, the beauty of Los Angeles is dramatically symbolical of the ancient prophecy that the desert shall bloom like a rose, for this city has become a modern Garden of Eden.
RATH: How did that desert bloom into this Garden of Eden, paving the way for Hollywood and Beverly Hills? This 1947 film produced by Standard Oil of California, now Chevron, explains.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: With great courage, men of vision and determination built a gigantic aqueduct system and trapped the white gold melting and tumbling from these lofty peaks.
RATH: Thus fulfilling the vision of William Mulholland, L.A.'s chief water engineer. As he stood in front of 40,000 spectators, 100 years ago this week, Mulholland gestured toward the water cascade charging down the hillside and declared: There it is. Take it. That was the birth of the L.A. Aqueduct.
It might as well have been the birth of the modern West. Moving vast quantities of water has made L.A., Las Vegas, Phoenix and other cities across the region possible. But it's come at a price. And that's our cover story today: How water built the American West, transforming some of the driest places into thriving cities.
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RATH: The $23 million L.A. Aqueduct project took 5,000 workers five years to complete. And here's a phrase you may not have heard: It finished on time and under budget.
JON CHRISTENSEN: The state of California would be different, you know, arguably the world would be different, without the L.A. Aqueduct.
RATH: That's Jon Christensen, the editor of Boom Magazine. Their latest issue looks at the 100-year anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. While the aqueduct brought water to L.A., it took it from somewhere else: Owens Valley.
CHRISTENSEN: When the aqueduct was first built, people sold their agricultural lands and their water to the city of L.A. There's lots of claims and evidence that some of that was done secretly, without identifying who the real buyers were, and there were a lot of suspicions, but there were also a lot of willing sellers until it really became clear that Los Angeles was intent on taking most of that water. You know, over the years, several big protests occupying the site of the aqueduct, several bombings of the aqueduct, a lot of anger.
RATH: Mention water, politics and California, and most people think of the 1974 film "Chinatown."
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JOHN HUSTON: (as Noah Cross) You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact, the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.
CHRISTENSEN: You know, that movie is really the great myth of the city and its relationship with Owens Valley and water. Almost nothing about it is historically accurate. But we still often get used in environmental debates and narratives that the big city took - came and took what it wanted with force and without any regard, you know, for Owens Valley. That troubling history is still very much alive, and it's embodied in this movie.
RATH: Jon Christensen is the editor of Boom Magazine.
"Chinatown" may be fiction, but the century's worth of mistrust between L.A. and the rural Owens Valley is real. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that it's one of the West's biggest water wars.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A ride in a helicopter is the best way to grasp the scale and beauty of the Owens Valley along the eastern Sierra Nevada.
MARTY ADAMS: We're going to leave our headsets on for right now back here, OK.
SIEGLER: The valley is sandwiched between some of the highest peaks in North America and the deserts of Death Valley.
ADAMS: We're looking across, you know, probably about 30 miles of length of lake bed. And in the background distance is Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains capped off by Mount Whitney.
SIEGLER: This is Marty Adams, the L.A. Department of Water and Power's director of water operations.
ADAMS: Well, right under us is basically a flat lake bed that was formerly like salt flats.
SIEGLER: That dusty, briny pancake as big as San Francisco is now the dry Owens Lake, a direct consequence of 100 years of the L.A. Aqueduct.
ADAMS: Even Teddy Roosevelt, who was the president of the United States, you know, declared that, you know, it was way more valuable to bring that water down to the city of Los Angeles so that the city could grow, than it was to let it flow into the salt water of Owens Lake.
SIEGLER: The only problem: When the wind blows here - and it does a lot - the dry lake bed can fuel massive dust storms. This area has long carried the dubious distinction of being the largest single source of particulate pollution in the country. And further upstream, the Owens River all but disappeared.
MEL JOSEPH: At one time, this valley floor was lush, green, orchards, fields, you know, the agriculture, the farming. You know, we lived off of this land.
SIEGLER: Up the road in Lone Pine, you'll meet a lot of folks like Mel Joseph. He grew up in the valley and always heard stories about what it used to be like before L.A. started buying up land, water rights, building dams and channels. A member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, Joseph says people here are still struggling with asthma and other health issues attributed to the dust. There's no love loss between most people in this valley and the Department of Water and Power.
JOSEPH: It's a desert climate, but they made it the Dust Bowl that it is today.
SIEGLER: But the fact is some things have been done to cool these tensions lately. A few years ago, led by then L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city started pumping thousands of gallons of sierra water back in to the Owens River channel.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: By opening these gates today, we'll demonstrate to the world that the great city of Los Angeles is prepared to own up to its history.
SIEGLER: Under court order, the city has also spent more than a billion dollars so far on dust controls covering more than 90 percent of Owens Lake. Everyone agrees the air has gotten a lot cleaner, yet many locals rolled their eyes again when the city went back to court this year to argue that its cleanup job here is done. If nothing else, the quibble over that last 10 percent is a sign that one of the greatest water wars in the West isn't going to end anytime soon.
RATH: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler.
And as the water leaves the Owens Valley, it comes here to the Los Angeles Aqueduct filtration plant.
STEVE TORRES: It's amazing, this whole aqueduct is just an engineering marvel.
RATH: Steve Torres is the water utility superintendent.
TORRES: We're producing about 420 million gallons today.
RATH: And all of that will get distributed to L.A.
TORRES: The city of L.A. takes about 197 billion gallons a year.
RATH: This massive type of hydro engineering changed how we think of cities. Instead of building them where the water is, we build where we want. Dr. Doug Kenney directs the Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder.
DR. DOUG KENNEY: Back in the 1800s when John Wesley Powell came out to the West, he basically made the argument that the West shouldn't build large cities and that water was a constraint - and people wanted to build large cities. And if that meant we had to enlist the talents of engineers to build pipelines and so on, well then that's what we're going to do. And there's no denying the fact that without large water conveyance systems, we wouldn't have many of the large cities in the West.
RATH: The Western explorer John Wesley Powell would be surprised to see what the West has become today.
KENNEY: If you look at population growth by state, there seems to be this correlation that the drier the state, the faster the population grows. One example I'll give you is Las Vegas who's dependent almost exclusively on the Colorado River. And they pull their water out of Lake Mead, which is the large reservoir we find behind Hoover Dam.
The trends on the Colorado River are for decreasing flows. And sure enough, the storage level in Lake Mead has been falling in recent years. And the way that creates problems for Las Vegas is that they have their intake. There are big pipes that go into the lake that take water out. They're starting to get worried that at least one of their intake is going to be above the waterline and so no longer useful.
RATH: So what would happen if a city like Las Vegas were to run out of water or to be in a situation where you couldn't meet the needs of the citizens?
KENNEY: You know, it's a really good question, just because we don't have anything to point to. You know, it's one of the great success stories of the West, I think, is that you would think that maybe that would happen in an arid region, but it doesn't normally happen.
What happens is sometimes water supplies get tight and then cities have to tell people to use less water outside on their landscaping, and that gets them through a short-term problem. And over the long term, they can build more water projects.
RATH: There's been some court challenges recently. Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a water dispute between Oklahoma and Texas that local state rules actually trumped these agreements between states. There was also a case recently - Florida, I think, has just sued Georgia in a water rights dispute case. What do you make of these?
KENNEY: When I got out of college 20 years ago, the first thing I worked on was this dispute between Florida, Alabama and Georgia. And it's still going strong. And...
RATH: It's the same dispute?
KENNEY: It's the same dispute, and it's the nature of these interstate water disputes.
RATH: Do you take the Supreme Court decision as a sign that maybe that old way of doing business - I mean, the cliché is "Chinatown," right, where...
RATH: ...the city steals water from a small town and that old guy gets run over. Is it a sign maybe that old way of doing business is gone, or is that - what do you think?
KENNEY: Well, I mean, in any fight, it still pays to be the big guy, but it's not as extreme as it used to be. In California, the L.A. Aqueduct and the Mono Lake in Owens Valley, set of issues there, is one that the rest of the country - and really the rest of the world - really looked to and said, you know, we really shouldn't behave in that way. You know, it shouldn't be that confrontational. And most places, including California, really have done better since then.
RATH: Doug Kenney is the director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. Doug, thank you.
RATH: Mark Gold is associate director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. He says L.A. has made amazing strides in conservation. The city consumes the same amount of water it did in 1970, with one million more residents.
MARK GOLD: If you compare them to other major cities nationally, they're around 123 gallons per capita, per day, which is the best in the entire nation, just continually moving forward with tougher plumbing standards, which are required by state, having tiered pricing on cost. So from the standpoint of if you're a water waster, you're paying a lot more per gallon than if you're actually conserving water well.
RATH: Still, Gold says 80 percent of the water in the state of California is used for agricultural purposes, and he says that needs to be reduced. So the Garden of Eden will be around for a while longer, but it may have fewer lawns and golf courses, and more water recycling.
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