USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 26, 2012

Public Transportation Transformation in Southern California and the Environmental and Health Problems it has Caused

Filed under: Energy,Los Angeles Politics,Pollution — admin @ 6:15 pm

Los Angeles once had a thriving public transportation system, mainly of electric streetcars owned and operated by the Pacific Electric Company. Pacific Electric’s trains branched out from the heart of Los Angeles for a radius of 75 miles to San Fernando, San Bernardino, and Santa Ana making (at the time) the world’s largest interurban electric railway system (see Pacific Electric Railway picture for details). Snell argues Pacific Electric is responsible for the manner in which Los Angeles is geographically sprawled today. The electric railways were first constructed in 1911, and it “established traditions of suburban living long before the automobile arrived” (Snell).

In 1940, General Motors (GM) purchased $100 million worth of portions of the Pacific Electric system under the auspices of Pacific City Lines (a bus company made up of GM and Standard Oil of California). In 1944, GM and Standard Oil gave American City Lines (also an affiliate of GM) to motorize Los Angeles, whereby American City Lines purchased Los Angeles Railway (the local electric streetcar system), scrapped the electric transit cars, tore down power transmission lines, took out tracks, and established a system of buses. These buses were specifically built by GM and ran on Standard Oil (Snell).

GM had the ability to do this because of its serious influence throughout the United States. At the time, there were the “Big Three” car companies: GM, Chrysler, and Ford. GM, however, had by far the most power of them all. Snell argues Chrysler and Ford depended greatly on GM for supply of various parts that were crucial to their automobiles. GM, Ford, and Chrysler at the time annually contributed around $14 million to lobbyists for promotion of automotive transportation; their leading rivals could only afford about $1 million to lobby for rail transit. The magnitude of sales, the number of American employees, government revenue from corporate taxes, and the almost monopoly the Big Three had, enabled them to levy serious political influence. The Big Three saw public transportation as standing in their way of selling cars – each public transportation vehicle held up to 50 spots per trip that could otherwise have purchased automobiles (Snell). It makes sense then for the Big Three to levy their power to move the United States to personal automobiles.

GM also had built a solid grasp on city bus production. Seeing as both their cars and the buses ran on diesel fuel, it was an easy transition for them. In the 1920s, when the automobile market was saturated, GM expanded into other types of transportation, mainly city buses. Snell states “Beginning in 1932, [GM] undertook the direct operation and conversion of interurban electric railway and local electric streetcar and trolley bus systems into city bus operations.” GM formed an agreement with Greyhound Bus Corporation, putting many GM executives onto Greyhounds Board of Directors, and aiding the Greyhound Bus Corporation financially; until 1948, GM was the single largest shareholder in the Greyhound Corporation (Snell). In 1928, Greyhound announced its intention to convert commuter rail operations to intercity bus services. In 1936, GM together with Greyhound, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and a parts supplier come together to make National City Lines (intercity bus transportation). By 1939, GM and Greyhound had been successful in converting electric streetcar lines to National City Bus Lines in Pennsylvania, New York, St. Louis, among others (Snell).

Interestingly enough, GM realizes in the 1950s they make more money by selling cars than buses; 10 times more to be exact (Snell). Buses also have higher operating costs due to the fact that “diesel buses have 28 percent shorter economic lives, 40 percent higher operating costs, and 9 percent lower productivity than electric buses” (Snell). Thus, GM actually had an incentive to decrease bus ridership. Buses, however, are noisy, produce diesel smoke, and slower than electric rail cars. Thus, Snell argues, the move to diesel buses may have actually created a long-term effect of selling more GM cars; the public transportation was no longer a desirable option, so people purchased personal automobiles.

Slater, however, contradicts Snell’s argument. Slater claims buses would have replaced streetcars, regardless of GM’s intervention. He argues by 1944 bus lines were already carrying as many passengers as electric streetcars (58). In addition, he states, Pacific Electric also had a bus operations for public transit as well. However, he misses the point that the urban sprawl of Los Angeles was created by the electric railway system, thus it was perfectly suited to be dependent on it.

Regardless of which side one takes in the controversy, in 20/20 hindsight, it is clear public electric streetcar transportation would have most likely been the healthier option for the residents of Los Angeles. Traffic congestion and the number of cars on Los Angeles freeways and streets causes a serious amount of pollution that is damaging to human and environmental health.

Los Angeles is one of the largest cities in the nation in terms of population, all of who need transportation. Transportation, however, encourages further development and settlement of people, as we saw with the direct correlation between urban sprawl and the extension of the Pacific Electric railway system. This extension can have positive influences on the economy due to the growth of business and transportation of goods, but comes with a cost.  Freeways have a direct impact on the human and their environment ranging from human health concerns to the disruption of ecological communities.

The construction of freeways can displace residents and small business owners. Local communities fight against freeways near their homes because it can bring down property values from the noise, air pollution and overall loss of a certain quality of life. Freeways can drastically alter the native landscape and ecological community.  The loss of habitat land for wildlife can have a direct impact on the ecosystem and alter the genetic make up of a species due to the separation.  This can result in a loss of biodiversity, susceptibility to disease and extinction.  The construction of many freeways has resulted in a loss of wetlands and/or the contamination of waterways essential to a community’s water supply; ultimately contributing to the decline in water quality in our oceans through surface water run off.  Freeways have a direct impact on air quality and mobile air pollution contributing to climate change, smog and the overall air quality of that region.  All these factors play a role in why stakeholders vehemently fight for there rights to bee heard in the transportation planning process.

An example of stakeholder involvement in transportation planning, specifically in regards to a freeways environmental impact on the surrounding region, is the I-710 highway that connects the two largest ports in the world, Long Beach and Los Angeles, to the rest of Southern California.  The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles import 40% of all U.S. goods.  Due to mass movement of goods and an increasing amount of traffic due to the high volume, environmental and health challenges facing the area are high. In 2005 the I-710 Corridor Project Study was commissioned to look at the challenges and ways to improve traffic congestion and enhance the quality of life for residents and communities of the surrounding area.  The findings of this report were staggering. Los Angeles has attempted to improve and reduce the environmental and health risks demonstrated in the findings.

The I-710 passes through 15 communities with 1 million residents; 70% of these residents are minority, low-income communities.  These communities persistently exceed national air quality standards, which is due to the mass transit from the ports to the rest of the state and country. One small example is diesel emissions, the report stated, caused 2,000 premature deaths.

In 2009, the American Lung Association identified Los Angeles as the most polluted city in the nation from ozone and particulate levels.  Besides improving traffic congestion through the possible widening of lanes, building tunnels, elevated ramps and other infrastructural development the city must all take into consideration the needs of the already damaged health of the communities.  As mentioned earlier there are a number of stakeholders within this type of project and for the past 3 years the city has been trying to work with the communities and local organizations to identify pollution problems and resources to solve these problems. This is an ongoing concern and while currently the focus is on the I-710, these problems are related to all highways.

This post was written by Jasmine Davis, ’12 who is graduating this spring with a BA in Environmental Studies, and Elise Fabro who is graduating this spring with a double major in Environmental Studies & Political Science, and she is pursuing a progressive Master’s in Environmental Studies.

Works Cited

Environmental Justice: Los Angeles Area Environmental Enforcement Collaborative | Pacific Southwest, Region 9 | US EPA.” US Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Goffman, Ethan. “Highways and Environmental Impact Issues.” CSA. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Slater, Cliff. “General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars.” Transportation Quarterly51.3 (1997): 45-66. Print.
Snell, Bradford C. “A Market Structure as the Determinant of Industry Conduct and Performance.” American Ground Transport. CarBusters, Mar. 2001. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.

April 10, 2012

A new vision for the LA River

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 10:04 pm

Since Los Angeles’ founding in the late 1700s, the Los Angeles River has been highly controversial.  Used originally as Los Angeles’ main source of water, the Los Angeles River provided enough water for both the city’s agricultural need and its domestic needs.  However, as the city’s population grew, the river failed to provide enough water to meet Los Angeles’ increased water needs.  In the late 1800s, city officials realized that the once life-giving river served the city more as a sewage and trash dump than a viable source of potable water.  As the city continued to grow, railroad and industrial development on the river’s bank continued to exacerbate the amount of waste discharged into the river.  The unsightly river encouraged citizen to submit cleanup and beautification proposals to the city.  Similarly, today, a new proposal—The Los Angeles Revitalization Plan—aims to improve the image of the river.

New legal interpretations of the Clean Water Act helped increase federal protection for the Los Angeles River.  The 2006 Supreme Court case Rapanos v. United States challenged the traditional criteria for navigable waterways under the Clean Water Act.  Traditionally, the Army Corps of Engineers regulates the development of flood control, navigation and reaction along waterways.  Rapanos v. United States attempted to reduce ambiguity regarding the terms “waters of the United States” and “ significant nexus.”  The case set precedence for what water bodies were accurately classified as a “water of the United States”.  Thus, the ruling essentially clarified the criteria for waterways to be federally protected.

In 2008, the EPA declared the Los Angeles River a special Case to the Clean Water Act.  In July 2008, a group of environmental activist kayaked the 51-mile Los Angeles River in order to prove the river was a navigable waterway.  Known as the L.A. River Expedition, the demonstration drew attention to the river as a navigable waterway, rather than a “storm drain”.  Previously, the Army Corps of Engineers classified only 5 miles of the river as a navigable waterway.  However, the demonstration proved that the entire 51-mile length of the river was in fact navigable.  On August 17, 2008, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water designated the Los Angeles River as a “Special Case’ as defined by the EPA-Corps 1989 Memorandum. The declaration transferred the river from the jurisdiction of the Army Corps to the EPA.

In 2010, the EPA announced that it would ensure more protection for the river under the Clean Water Act.  This announcement strengthened future environmental protection for the 51-mile river and its tributary streams and wetlands.  By being under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, the EPA is able to more effectively protect the river from potential pollution and destruction.  These new regulations are important for protecting water quality, wildlife, recreation and public health.

In 2007, the city developed the Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan.  By improving parts of the 51-mile river, city planners hope to improve water quality, increase wildlife abundance and health, and ultimately increase the economic value of adjacent neighborhoods.  The plan attempts to return the splendor and natural beauty of the forgotten LA River back to the people of Los Angeles, while simultaneously maintaining necessary flood control systems. The plan consists of 239 projects along 32-miles of the river, from Canoga Park to downtown LA.  Although not projected to be finished for another 25 to 50 years, the plan is envisioned as a greenway of interconnected parks and amenities acting to connect communities along the river.

The river’s master plan has many new areas for development.  The plan aims to widen the channel in order to preserve its flood control capacity. Also, it hopes to expand the riparian habitat, thus increasing the watershed ecosystem. In addition to adding parks along the river’s banks, the revitalization efforts will also increase the number of walking paths, bicycle trails, gathering spaces, public art, community markers, restaurants, and mixed use areas.  These recreational developments will make the river a feature destination.

Prominent city officials, such as Councilman Ed Reyes and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have advocated for the preservation of the river.  These individuals reference significant areas, such as the Glendale narrows, where its soil river bottom encourages natural vegetation growth and wildlife inhabitation. Areas like the Glendale narrows encourage citizens to imagine what the river could be if it were properly restored.

While the proposal has gained significant public support, persistent economic conditions have delayed revitalization efforts. Although some areas of progress already exist along the LA River, such as bike paths and equestrian trails, the goal of creating an “emerald necklace” of parks is still far in the future.  However, if completed it would offer Angelinos a fresh perception of their city: a long forgotten natural treasure.

LA River Revitalization Proposal

Before and After

Pictures from:


And watch a video explaining the revitalization plans:

This post was authored by Scott Gross ’12 and Michaela McLoughlin ’12, both Environmental Studies majors.





April 5, 2012

Los Angeles Water: Past, Present, and Future

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:48 pm

Southern California residents have had a contentious relationship with water supply, since the founding of Los Angeles in 1781. After California became part of the United States in 1850, development and migration to Los Angeles from across the country and the world became prevalent; largely due to human perceptions of the environment that the Los Angeles River had supported. The proliferation of this trend resulted in an enduring growth in population and with it a greater need to supply water. Over the years of Los Angeles development, city officials were forced to look to outside of the city for sources water that would prove to have negative implications on the environment and for the future of Los Angeles water supply.

Prior to the extensive urbanization of Los Angeles, the L.A. River was one of the only water sources that would flow year round. Due to the distinct geology of the region, the river’s pattern constantly changed from one rainy season to the next and much of the rivers water supply came from underground sources, which made capturing and distribution of water burdensome for city officials. In the early 1900s, in response to the need for more water and to prevent underground water supplies from becoming contaminated, Los Angeles city officials took extreme actions to ensure that the city would continue to have a reliable water source, despite the increasing population. City officials were able to supply millions of additional gallons of water to residents by installing new infiltration galleries, drilling several wells into the river, and creating a 1,178-foot tunnel that was driven into bedrock and served as a reservoir to collect percolated water from the wells. However, this only provided temporary relief to the mounting water crisis in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles River, its many tributaries, and underground supply was the city’s sole source of water until 1913. After which time the river could no longer sustain the needs of the city’s growing population. Today, Los Angeles gets its water delivered across 444-miles and over some 2-000 feet of elevation from the State Water Project; the 1,400-mile long Colorado River; a share of California’s collective 30% groundwater usage; and from aqueducts that collect water from: Owens River, Mono Lake Basin, and reservoirs on the east slopes of the southern Sierra Mountains, all traveling over some 223-miles. The distance at which Los Angeles has, literally, gone to secure water for this city is astounding. Especially when considering the huge amounts of energy that providing and using water consumes. Energy is a costly and environmentally intensive resource to produce, and when coupling that with the costs of the water supply-use-disposal chain (figure 1) and we have simply compounded these costs.

According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, one source that provides Water to Los Angeles, The State Water Project (SWP), is the single largest user of energy in California, accounting for 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in the State. Supplying water through energy intensive projects like the SWP, ultimately leads to climate change, creating a water-energy-climate change feedback loop. According to this same report, power plants emit approximately 40-percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide pollution, the primary cause of climate change.

Today concerns about water trouble most regions of California and conservation efforts remain too minimal to counter the damage. Overshadowing these concerns, however, is an even greater threat—global climate change. Current carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are approximately 394 parts per million (ppm), per data from the Mauna Loa Observatory. Scientists believe that unless emissions are reduced to below 350 ppm, average temperatures in the United States could increase by five to ten degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with implications for greatly affecting water supply and water management. As more and more emerging studies continue to project rising temperatures across the world, California and LA in particular must resolve its water crisis, or soon face a crippling scarcity that could very well spell its ruin. 

Climate change presents a variety of obstacles to LA’s future as a globally powerful and influential metropolis, but none are as critical as the implications this has on the region’s water supply. As previously stated, the Sierra Nevada mountain range currently provides about one third of the nearly 200 billion gallons of water each year used by customers of the Department of Water and Power. Decreased precipitation, a highly likely consequence of climate change in southern California, will reduce Sierra snowpack accumulation, which sustains much of the city’s water supply in dry months. Higher temperatures are already troubling, with snow melt occurring slightly sooner each year. This water from the mountains is one of LA’s most vital sources of high quality water, though decreased flow volume and pattern could someday change that.

Moreover, many climate models showing rainfall changes forecast an overall shift to drier climatic conditions in many of the regions that supply Los Angeles. Even minor increases in temperature have been linked to altered flow patterns, with higher rates in winter and lower rates in summer when demand is at its highest. Droughts are expected to increase in frequency across the southwest, posing a threat to southern California’s continued diversion of the Colorado River as well as increasing the concentration of pollutants in shrinking bodies of water.

There is ample evidence to support the frightening scenarios for LA’s future that are increasingly a topic of serious concern among residents. The notion of water scarcity in this region is not new and some have attempted to combat it, however nothing has proven effective. Significant advances in adaptation and mitigation measures are imperative to southern California’s future, especially if population continues to grow.

Water conservation is a complex subject, one that LA residents must understand more completely before successful strategies can emerge. It is vital to identify factors and behaviors that contribute to water supply stress so that they may be targeted and resolved. One rather evident factor is that Los Angeles has been significantly slower than other large cities in the US in assessing the future of its environment, resources, and consumption. In recent years, more and more action plans, legal measures and shareholder committees have taken form, but few encouraging reports of progress are heard. Regulations or changes to land permit terms spend years in the courts and cases for conservation are often lost. Furthermore, there are frequent instances where seemingly good policies end up hurting the situation more than they helping it. Perhaps the most relevant example of this in regards to balancing growing demand and dwindling supply is the DWP’s tiered pricing structure for water use. Besides setting the price ceiling for water far lower than a free market system would indicate, the structure favors large property owners, who pay less per gallon to irrigate each acre than owners of modest parcels and low consumption. Keeping rates for use unnaturally low hides the truth of scarcity and provides residents a false sense of security that could soon give out.

The culture of Los Angeles water use is a direct result of the flaws in the water pricing system, and has created one of the cornerstones of this culture by encouraging wasteful water use practices. Runoff from overwatered lawns, hosing down of concrete sidewalks, ornamental plants, and countless other factors serve as evidence of a lack of concern over the possible consequences of everyday things. There is no incentive to not waste water, and since the effects of widespread withdrawals have yet to truly be felt, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for government subsidies for use of newer, efficient home products to actually exacerbate consumption. When price per use falls, use often rises because the true cost that is being paid is obscured by the imposed price break.

With these things in mind, developing and enacting more effective policies and behaviors seems less formidable. Perhaps if everyone understands the implications of water scarcity, a fair and equal pricing system can be constructed. Even if everyone in LA decides they’ll keep their large yards and pay the price, the DWP would generate revenue that could be channeled into improved technology and engineering practices. For instance, treatment of the gray-water from sinks, showers, and appliances has existed for quite some time, with some facilities able to restore some wastewater into potable water. However, such facilities rarely gained approval as a result of spreading misinformation that challenged the water’s cleanliness. Even if a city’s populace refuses to drink the water, it is rarely suggested that the water be recycled for agricultural or industrial purposes despite the availability of fully adequate facilities. Treatment and reuse of some wastewater could greatly alleviate current pressure on supply, yet no one seems interested. On a better note, plans to clean up the wells beneath the San Fernando Valley floor are making progress and reflect an encouraging shift in attitudes among policymakers seeking to improve reliability of local resources.

Finally, minor individual undertakings can add up to mean a lot in a city as large as LA. Besides replacing inefficient appliances and other goods, more people are adopting the practice of xeriscaping, which involves planting of landscape vegetation that is suited to the climatic conditions. One study’s calculations found that substituting plants that are suited for LA’s arid weather for a typical lawn could save roughly 50 thousand gallons of water per year. Xeriscaping is a not only a practical step in conserving water, it can be as vibrant as any other garden so city dwellers can retain the aesthetic value that they have come to prize so greatly. 

The history of extreme measures taken by the city would forever change the hydrology of southern California, the sources in which the city received her water, and continue to promote poor water usage habits by residents that persist throughout today. This has left Los Angeles vulnerable to changing climate conditions and placed and the burden on today’s generation to create solutions to address these issues. Because the consequences of overuse have rarely been directly felt, lax attitudes toward water wastefulness have become ingrained in the culture and poor policy decisions and enforcement have only made matters worse. As more studies project a dismal future for Los Angeles water supply and with climate change and development continuing to grow, city dwellers are faced with the need to change their habits before it’s too late. By isolating the key contributing factors of this water crisis, and adopting long term strategies for adaptation and mitigation, the city might find a way out of the mess that began so long ago when the first settlers arrived on the pristine banks of the LA River.

This post was written by Christina Robles ’12 and Gabrielle Ripert ’12 who are both pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies.


Climatopolis by Matthew Kahn

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power website

Natural Resources Defense Counsel

Water Education Foundation


River or stream, creek or brook: All are precious in my book!

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:27 pm

In many respects, it’s unsurprising to learn that the passive disdain with which most modern Angelinos regard the Los Angeles River was not an overnight development. The contemptuous nature of our relationship with the river dates back more than a century, and no matter what we would like to believe today, “[the river] was never the center of local life as some modern-day environmentalists have supposed” (Gumprecht 123). For instance, what little does appear about the L.A. River in the historical record generally takes the form of complaints about the various ways in which the river aggrieved local residents, namely by overflowing its banks. Infinitely more common than mentions of the river itself, however, are descriptions of the Southern California region’s bountiful croplands and high standard of living, both of which the L.A. River directly enabled.

Examining the reasons behind Los Angeles’ longstanding neglect of its eponymous river brings to light some concerning trends as to how we interact with the natural world. Interestingly, the L.A. River did play a fundamental role in establishing the city in its present location, but not in the usual way that a river fosters municipal expansion. Los Angeles began as a railroad town, more or less, precisely because the river devalued the surround area: Because the river was so prone to flooding, land on either side of the banks was deemed low-grade, and unfit for residential or other commercial purposes. Judged unsuitable for most other uses, the land lining the river became railroad. Particularly near the station, the newly lain railway incited the development of some of the city’s first industrial buildings, where “[w]arehouses, lumber yards, blacksmith shops, foundries, and wagon factories began to displace the vineyards and orchards” (Gumprecht 125).

Obviously, by initiating the city’s transition away from agriculture, instead positioning it as a center of industry, the L.A. River had a vital role in shaping present day Los Angeles. But one possible explanation for the chronic disregard shown by Angelinos toward the L.A. River could be that it doesn’t offer the utilities conventionally supplied by a river: Its flow was too meager and too inconsistent to ever make the waterborne transport of goods a viable consideration; by the time industry had become sufficiently widespread so as to make hydroelectric power necessary, too much of the surface water had been drained to make turning a turbine practical; and the feeble trickle of water in the channel was — thankfully — judged inadequate to dilute sewage, let alone wash effluents downstream (Gumprecht 125). For settlers relocating from other parts of the country, accustomed as they were to different, more robust varieties of rivers, the L.A. River scarcely constituted a proper river at all.

Given its meager surface flow and accordingly limited conventional uses, it makes sense why the L.A. River would be afforded less respect — reverence, even — than a river like the Colorado, that carved the Grand Canyon, or the “Mighty Mississippi,” which is so much a part of the local identity as to take on an almost mythic quality. But the L.A. River is no less important to the watershed it drains than the Colorado or Mississippi are to theirs. Just because it might be less superficially imposing does not diminish the absolutely crucial ecosystem services it provides.

In many respects, early Angelinos’ neglect of the L.A. River parallels certain actions of contemporary environmental non-governmental organizations. When designing campaigns to mobilize action against deforestation, overfishing, climate change and other environmental ills that lead to species loss and extinction, NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund have been criticized for disproportionately emphasizing the plights of so-called “charismatic megafauna” —whales and polar bears, for instance — while overlooking keystone species that may be more important but less photogenic. Such organizations rightly acknowledge that “if that’s what interests people then that’s how we start the conversation about conservation” (Tesar), but when discussing water resources, that rationale doesn’t hold water quite as well (pun initially unintended, but later gleefully embraced).

Time after time, Americans have demonstrated a characteristic inability to value things that might not appear valuable. Our history of neglect and abuse of the L.A. River unfortunately fits this trend to a T, but with increased education about its less-than-obvious importance, the river will hopefully gain the respect it deserves from the region it serves.

The Los Angeles River near present-day downtown, ca. 1900. Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The LA River, view from 6th Street Bridge (illustrating the use of land on either side of the banks being in their historic use for railway). Photo courtesy of Mark Behr. 30 December 2011.

This post was authored by Louis Lucero II ’12 who is majoring in Environmental Studies with a double minor in English and Screenwriting.



Gumprecht, Blake. “Who Killed the Los Angeles River?” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. 115-134.

Tesar, Clive. “Tracking megafauna in Iceland.” Thin Ice blog. WWF, 27 June 2011. Web. <>.

February 10, 2012

Water Politics in Los Angeles

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Water — admin @ 10:09 pm

The City of Los Angeles like all other civilizations is dependent upon water to continue and sustain life.  The difference between Los Angeles and other high population areas is water sources.  Los Angeles is located in an arid desert where water is scarce.  Currently it has aqueducts and dams all across the state and in neighboring states to provide water to its residents.  It is hardly believable that this grand city that we live in today with over 10 million people was once a town that did not have enough water to promote expansion.  This week we read about the history of Los Angeles’ source of water and the development of technology and engineering that has allowed this city to grow.  Its history dates back to the late 1800’s in the early formations of the city.  Considered an area of potential for its sunny climate and ocean-cooled air, the possibilities of agricultural growth seemed unlimited.  Its climate could enable a number of different fruits and vegetables to be grown simultaneously.  Along with the oil discoveries many began packing there belongings and moving to the west coast in search of the American Dream.  The limiting growth would be the access to fresh water to supply irrigation and provide for its residents.

Before Los Angeles could be become a developed and well known city there were a number of individuals who were instrumental in its expansion of water accessibility.  Each individual was drawn to Los Angeles for similar reasons but ultimately for its potential wealth.  Before describing what is now known as the California Water Wars it’s important to take a look at the direct players most active in its inception and implementation.  After arriving in its infancy Harrison Otis Gray took over and became editor of the Times and Mirror and he would eventually be an investor within the San Fernando Valley.  Harry Chandler, who believed in potential of the San Fernando Valley as an irrigated agricultural mecca, owned almost all the newspaper circulation routes within the city.  William Mulholland immigrated to the United States from Dublin, Ireland and stumbled his way into the authority of the Los Angeles Water Company which eventually would be taken over by the city government.  Fred Eaton was born and raised in CA by his family who founded Pasadena and became a self-taught hydrologic engineer.  During that time Los Angeles relied on groundwater as its main source and Eaton understood that groundwater was a nonrenewable source that eventually would be depleted as the city began to grow.  Eaton knew there was a source of water at in the Owens Valley and was the first to believe that it could be used as a viable prospective of alternative water supply for the growing city.

With an increasing population and water demand Mulholland, superintendent to the Los Angeles Water Company began to search for alternative sources and with the help of long time friend Fred Eaton, Owens Valley was the primary target.  The procedures and manner in which Los Angeles claimed authority over the Owens Valley River is largely contested and one that promotes an ethical dilemma.  Eaton, Mulholland and engineering consultant Joseph Lippincott began secretly buying land and water rights from Owen Valley residents while giving off the impression that their intentions were unrelated to the water.  Meanwhile Chandler and Gray began buying land within Sand Fernando Valley knowing that the extra water from the Owens Valley River would end up irrigating their lands.  This entire fiasco ended up blowing up within the press and eventually became a large source of contention between Los Angeles and the Owen Valley.  This resulted in protests and vandalism to the water lines that carried the water from to the basin and the city.  Ultimately because Los Angeles was larger and deemed more important, the Owens Valley lost water rights and the town was destroyed.

In class a couple weeks ago we discussed the oil boom within Los Angeles and the corruption of political leaders siding with capital over the health of there residents.  The incident with Owens Valley reminds me of the political schemes and plots to become wealthy and is a clear example of how greed and pride are motivating forces behind many of the decisions that were made regarding Los Angeles’s source of water.

This post was authored by Jasmine Davis ’12 who is pursuing a BA in Environmental Studies.

February 8, 2012

Los Angeles and its Fight for Owens Valley Water

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Water — admin @ 11:24 pm

Southern California’s moderate, semi-arid climate helped Los Angeles to become the thriving city that it is today. As present-day residents, we never have to worry about severe rainstorms, let alone harsh snow falls. We don’t even experience the blistering hot temperatures that desert cities endure. On top of having near-perfect weather almost everyday of the year, we don’t even experience the hardships that come along with droughts! How is this possible? We don’t get enough rain to make our lives uncomfortable, but we also don’t feel the repercussions of being in a constant drought. I guess we have William Mulholland and Fred Eaton to thank for the manufactured Utopia we live in.

Each man arrived in Los Angeles for different reasons: Mulholland for curiosity and Eaton for his strong family ties. Each man later played a major role in tapping into a water source that changed the way of life in Los Angeles forever. The building of the Los Angeles aqueduct diverts water from the Owens River all the way to the city. Eaton, an engineer and superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company, determined that such a feat was not only possible but would also make him and his successor, Mulholland, wealthy for a lifetime and notorious for even longer.

The Owens Valley

A key obstacle in the quest for Owens Valley water would be the resistance from Owens Valley landowners. For this reason, Eaton determined that the best way to obtain the water he desired would be to work closely with a small number of Owens Valley landowners and engineers and deceive the rest. He took several crucial steps towards the construction of the aqueduct. First, he persuaded the Reclamation Service engineer, J.B. Lippincott to help him to receive the deeds he needed for his project. This included cajoling Lippincott into choosing a reclamation project proposed by the Nevada Power Mining and Milling Company. Thomas Rickey, the owner of the reservoir site necessary for the aqueduct, ran this company. Finally, Eaton bought up many plots of Owens Valley land for seemingly overpriced sums. Though deceptive, all of Eaton’s actions were legal, and to the dismay and outrage of Owens Valley residents, the Los Angeles Aqueduct would be built and slowly suck the valley’s water supply dry.

J.B. Lippincott, Fred Eaton, and William Mulholland

After a brief filibuster in Congress, construction began. The aqueduct was then built over six years on a tight budget. The city could barely afford to pay the workers, but Mulholland, the new superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company, was able to win the workers’ dedication. On November 5, 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened, and water cascaded down the sluiceway into the San Fernando Valley.

Opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

The building of the aqueduct led to an influx of new Los Angeles residents from all over the country. The city thrived on its borrowed, or stolen, water. Not even a severe 1920s drought could crush the thriving city, thanks to the aqueduct bringing water from 233 miles away. To sustain further growth, Los Angeles would need water storage. Frustrated, Mulholland realized that he would need to dry out, or rather buy out, Owens Valley. Mulholland worked to obtain water rights to the valley from small irrigators: farmers and ranchers. This land grab led to a small series of battles, including the demolition of an irrigational diverter, the destruction of aqueduct pipes, and seizures of aqueduct gates.

Adding to Mulholland’s ruin, his reckless and careless engineering finally caught up to him, and his Saint Francis Dam collapsed. The resulting flood caused an estimated 450 deaths, causing bodies to wash ashore as far away as San Diego. His character was ruined, but his legacy was not. It has lived on in Los Angeles’s continued search for water for almost a century. As Los Angeles has grown in both population and size, it has reached farther and farther for water, even to the Colorado River.

Negative effects from Mulholland’s legacy can still be seen today. The valley has reached an appearance akin to Salt Flats, complete with toxic dust storms, and Owens Lake has dried up. The mineral-laced basin has been the single largest source of particulate pollution in the country. In 2007, restoration efforts succeeded in getting water flowing along the Lower Owens River again. Under the “Inyo/Los Angeles Water Agreement” Inyo and LADWP have committed to restoring the 60-mile reach of the river. To control dust storms, there is a plan to construct a pump system at the north end of Owens Lake, utilizing automated gates at the point where the river veers into the aqueduct to steer some water into the original riverbed. This flow would help sustain the growth of cottonwood trees, waterfowl, and other plants and animals. Although past wrongs can’t be undone, this project may steer Owens Valley back on course. There is already enough water for kayakers to enjoy the Lower Owens River area once again.

Owens River: Kayaking towards the Sierras

This restoration effort has had some setbacks, however. By 2011, tules and cattails had grown much quicker than anticipated—choking off portions of the river and limiting recreational activities. Mark Hill, the lead scientist of the Lower Owens River Project points out that the project has been a success for wildlife. 3,000 acres of water and wetland have been created, and there are an estimated 4,000 largemouth bass per mile, 2,000 bluegill per mile, and 108 species of birds. Although the restored river is not as accessible to recreation as people had hoped, the great ecological strides are at least steps to be proud of.



Inyo County Water Department

LA Times: Tule vegetation infests Lower Owens River

Just Add Water The Owens Valley Land Grab

NYT: A Century Later, Los Angeles Atones for Water Sins


This post was written by Adelaide Rowe ’13 and Christopher Miranda ’12, who are each pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies.

February 3, 2012

Shaping LA’s Political Environment: A Matter of Perspective

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics — admin @ 12:03 am

As Los Angeles experienced unprecedented growth at the turn of the last century, the need for carefully constructed development policies became increasingly apparent. Contrasting demands from economic interests and the city’s residents gave rise to a divide that would challenge politicians for decades to come. Early legislation often favored business and investors in an effort to continue the city’s growth. As alliances grew stronger between politicians and private interests, corruption became a recurring theme in decision making. However, many arguments can be made that city officials were acting in the city’s best interest as a whole, which suggests that we should reconsider our definition of corruption by taking a closer look at every facet of the issue.

Demographic growth and industrial expansion in the late 1800s into the early 1900s produced lots of environmental degradation to the growing city. The city’s political system was not adequate to deal with environmental problems. Political machines and rampant corruption dominated city government. At this time, the constituents were not readily considered when making decisions and government official were mostly out for their own well-being. As is the incentive even today for many of the politicians, the government officials wanted money and would entertain corrupt business offers. Not only were their practices corrupt, but they brought harm to the residents, their constituents.

Los Angeles Freeway circa 1930

Gas plants had frequent explosions, and leaked oil into the streets. There were protests against the establishment of gas plants. There was unresponsive service when it came to municipal trash pick-up. People spoke up against nearby slaughterhouses, and still the local government took no action, because these industries were working in their favor and bringing money into the city. The city was becoming an industrial haven not suited for human life and understandably, locals were getting upset. Eventually a politician by the name of James Davenport was recalled, inspiring other politicians to get their acts together, if even only for a brief amount of time following the recall.  Local media outlets, specifically the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Express, aided the quest to eliminate the crooked politicians.

The red cars established in 1901 served the areas of Los Angeles, encompassing Long Beach, San Fernando, Riverside and San Pedro. As new lines spread throughout the L.A. basin, new cities began springing up, persisting the trend of growth and, even more environmentally significant, sprawl. As the sprawl of city began to fragment, each section faced their own problems, especially environmentally related concerns. Everyone got poor service when it came to garbage collection, but east LA was fighting the incinerators. West LA was fighting debates on the oil extracting. Everyone had their battle to face, and even more, fight for the selfish politicians to actually support their constituents. Slowly, with the help of the local newspapers, the corruption began to turn around and reform groups fighting for specific ideals began to be established.

San Pedro c. 1907

As interests in coastal oil drilling surged during the early years of the century, issues of political corruption began to plague more than just the LA Basin. Disputes about land ownership and development rights contributed to the growing rift between state and local governments, as both parties adamantly supported measures they felt would lead California to prosperity. The events that unfolded in Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach in particular highlight the complexity of factors that influenced policy decisions and raise an important question about how we define the boundary between true corruption versus simply acting in the state’s best interest.

California’s fiscal crisis and the outrage following questionable development decisions in Los Angeles put great pressure on politicians to reconcile public and private demands. Many of those in higher positions campaigned against efforts to open state owned coastal lands to drilling, perhaps partially to distance themselves from those responsible for Los Angeles’s ongoing battle. With the majority of their constituents supporting coastal preservation, both surveyor general Kingsbury and governor Rolf decided that protection  of the coast, a public good, would provide greater sustained benefits than drilling. To counter oil companies’ claims that California would be missing out on a lot of revenue by only allowing drilling on privately owned lands, they cited both the oversaturation of the oil market which had driven prices unreasonably low as well as the royalties laws that were far too low to make a dent in California’s debt.

Oil derricks in Los Angeles in the 1900's

Backed by legitimate concerns and supported by the public, Rolf and Kingsbury acted with arguably few ulterior motives, keeping the focus on the public’s best interest. However not everyone saw it that way, a fact that became especially apparent within the Huntington Beach City Council. Fearing that state leaders were in an alliance with the Standard Oil Company, the council saw protection measures as a cover for corruption that would favor private gains at the expense of the state and allow for monopoly control of the oil market. Though a link was never firmly proven, it is possible that  some questionable dealings occurred, as suggested by Rolf’s slightly preferential treatment of Standard Oil in later lawsuits.

As with any city facing financial difficulties, Huntington Beach council officials sought to escape this burden however possible.  They saw coastal lands as a prime source of revenue that would boost both local and state economies and attract the type of investment that would allow the city to grow and thrive.  When frustrated oil companies took to digging illegally slanted wells to harvest oil pools under state lands, the council supported them. This choice was quickly validated as vast quantities of oil were harvested daily, without any degradation of state beaches. However, it would be easy to point out the corruption here, given the blatant support of unlawful activities.

Oil derricks lining the beaches of Southern California in the 1900's

These opposing positions suggest that there is no clear cut way to define what is corrupt and what is not. Perhaps it is a matter of perspective. Rolf and Kingsbury and the city officials each felt that they were acting in the best interests of the people, so it is difficult to criticize them too harshly. However, it is evident that other factors influenced each party’s demands and occasionally these factors likely involved some personal benefit. The final outcome of allowing slanted drilling with payment of royalties is an obvious violation of state property rights, but it would be difficult to condemn this decision since it also found an unlikely compromise between beach conservation and private oil interests. What we can take from this is that corruption certainly still exists, but growing environmental, economic, and public concerns have complicated policymaking and it is not as easy as it once was to determine what course of action would benefit the greatest number of interests.

Works Referenced

Deverell, William Francis., and Greg Hise. “Pollution and Public Policy at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2005. 78-94.

This post was written by Gabrielle Ripert ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies; and Marisa Spinella ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies with a minor in Architecture.



February 2, 2012

Environmental Justice: Then and Now

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics — admin @ 8:51 pm

As contemporary as notions of environmental justice might seems to us, as citizens of the twenty-first century, the reality of the unequal externalization of environmental ills far pre-dates the term itself. From a local standpoint, Los Angeles contended with major issues of inequity, specifically relating to the expansion of the oil drilling operations and the meatpacking industry into areas where their presence was pointedly unwanted.

The turn of the twentieth century and accompanying oil and industrial boom brought many political, social, and economic changes to residents in Southern California. It was around this time that politicians and policy makers started becoming aware of the environmental consequences of economic and demographic growth, which were largely negative.  Beginning in the 1880s (perhaps not coincidentally, the decade in which the University of Southern California was founded), a general trend of population increase started to take effect. Los Angeles was booming for a variety of reasons although they were predominantly bound to the climate, geography, and resource wealth of the Southern California region.

From 1900 to 1910, as a consequence of the appealing Mediterranean climate, population rapidly grew from 102,479 to 319,198 people, creating a real estate driven economy. However other entrepreneurs and local interests realized that the city’s economy would also be intrinsically linked to the untapped wealth of natural resources, specifically oil and natural gas that span the continental shelf and coastal areas. At the time, this desire for rapid economic diversification and a frugal political climate inherently clashed with the local residents who had a vested interest in keeping their homes and residential areas clean and safe to live in.

Although the environmental problems associated with the diversification of the economy in Southern California were clearly evident and taking a toll on the quality of living, politicians generally favored big business and economic expansion. This was due to the “political machine” in place at the turn of the century that was dominated by corruption and greed. Politicians disregarded the welfare of their citizens in turn for personal profit and the political support of public utilities and business firms.

Though nearly the whole of downtown Los Angeles was divided into residential or commercial districts called ‘wards,’ the primary division was Main Street — affluent, middle-class inhabitants chiefly resided on the west side of Main, while blue collar workers and members of the lower-middle-class lived on the east.

Not unlike what we see in today’s political arena, a century ago, there was still a clear and emphasis on fostering economic growth — often at the expense of environmental stewardship. And public policy, which, as Daniel Johnson put it, “all too readily subordinated the interests of Los Angeles’ poorer citizens to the goals and ambitions of the wealthy and powerful,” reflected that priority.

Then, as now, political protest was often the first line of defense against perceived injustices. Political corruption at the municipal level presented a very serious roadblock to any sort of positive action, however, as many ward representatives were in the pockets of public utilities. Many city politicians were openly reliant on such companies for the financial backing and campaign staffing support to hold onto their positions of power. L.A. Gas and Electric Company enjoyed an unrivaled monopoly for many years, before being challenged by an upstart and potential alternative called Suburban Gas. Although residents of the eighth ward were very vocal in making their opposition to Suburban Gas’ plan to set up shop in their backyard, the local homeowners’ protest fell on deaf ears, for the most part, and the fire commission granted Suburban Gas the permit to begin construction. It wasn’t until residents’ opposition was “coupled with substantial political pressure from the established gas monopoly” that the city council was eventually convinced to overturn the fire commission’s original decision.

In many ways, it’s discouraging to see how little has changed in more than one hundred years. Beyond shifting the region that’s most egregiously exploited and most consistently disenfranchised a few blocks further east, all of the same problems still exist. For reasons that, while utterly lacking in humanity, nonetheless make perfect sense from an economic standpoint, industry will always have significant clout in the realm of governance and policymaking. The interests of industry are currently being put ahead of the basic needs of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, who live in disproportionately large numbers, in close proximity to the worst sorts of industrial pollution, and must endure diminished quality of life because of it.

Many — including USC’s own Manuel Pastor, who serves as Co-Director of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community (CJTC) — have invested years in documenting and explaining the root causes of environmental injustices in urban areas. Professor Pastor and his colleague’s work suggest that the issue may have more to do with socioeconomic status than race, but whatever the case, it’s clear — given their century-old history in the area — that environmental justice is an issue that will require widespread attention and significant commitments to make any real headway against it.

This post was authored by Louis Lucero II ’12 an Environmental Studies major (BA) with minors in English and Screenwriting; and Scott Gross ’12 an Environmental Studies major (BA).

How Policy Shaped Industry in Los Angeles

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics — admin @ 12:23 am

In the early 1900’s the political will of Los Angeles was heavily geared toward economic expansion with no regard to the environmental and residential degradation that the industrial movement was causing in the southland. The rise of industrial corporations saw a clash between the upper middle class, heavily invested in the industry, and the lower class, struggling with health affects and decreasing value of property due to the environmental degradation. This clash between classes was primarily because they had different economic interests. The citizens that were in the lower class mainly relied on the value of real estate and quality of health in their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the upper class was heavily invested in diversifying the Los Angeles economy with the expansion of industry. This economic clash was only the basis of the political struggles the city government faced, in regards to environmental justice.

The machine politicians that emerged from the upper middle class were focused on financial gain over the environmental preservation of natural resources. Even when corruption was not an issue, the plan to expand the economy trumped the concern of residential degradation by the industries in the lower class neighborhoods. For example, over a long period of time, complaints were filed about LA Gas and Electric Company holding a monopoly on the energy supply, which caused a huge stranglehold on the political system with financial influence and corruption. The amount of pollution the energy utility was causing greatly affected the health and value of the neighborhoods it affected.

One of the more prominent disputes occurred over whether or not to permit the Suburban Gas Company to build near the river in the Eighth Ward, which spurred encouragement from local manufactures because of cheap energy and negative feedback from the residents that lived in the affected area. After the federal and local courts were involved, the gas company was finally denied the permits necessary to construct in the district; consequently, that secured the LA Gas and Electric Company’s monopoly on the industry, thus allowing a thick amount of air pollution to be released unregulated in order to meet energy demands and make a marginal profit.

Although industrial monopoly is minimal in Los Angeles today, the utilities continue to have a negative effect on the poorer communities in which they operate. While corruption is uncommon in the city government, the environmental and residential degradation continues to take a back seat to efforts to expand the economy and diversify its natural resources. We will see this issue augment as more problems looms with the expanding economy.

The expansion of population in Southern California, due to the massive economic expansion, also had a huge effect on coastal policies regarding resource extraction, specifically that of oil. In the 1920s, as land oil sources were becoming sparse, extensive oil deposits were found off the coast of Southern California. The public and government were unsure of what should be done with the oil deposits and who had the right to control them. Corporations, looking to access more capital, wished to drill offshore to extract the oil. But many people hoped to preserve the aesthetics of the beach, which gave it economic value in realty and tourism. This dispute generated a large legal battle involving many stakeholders, courts, and government officials.

Many notable state officials actively supported the protection of the coastline from oil drillers. California surveyor general, W. S. Kingsbury, denied many coastal oil-development permits in order to thwart oil development that would ruin the coastline. Also joining him in the cause for coastal protection were Governor Clement C. Young and California attorney general Ulysses S. Webb. The competing interest was the oil companies. Specifically, these rivals clashed in a dispute over Huntington Beach, a contentious location in the battle, where the government’s desire to protect the coastline clashed with the need to economically develop as the Great Depression hit. Despite extensive court decisions, state propositions, and lobbying in the 1920s and 1930s, the issue of offshore oil drilling was never fully resolved and remains an issue to this day.

In fact, the topic of drilling off the coast of Southern California is still discussed in Congress. As of late, new offshore drilling locations have not been created. However, according to a blog written on the National Resources Defense Council site, a bill was introduced Tuesday (January 31, 2012) by the Republican Party in Congress that would reopen the California coast to offshore oil drilling. In fact, it would require the government to lease out drillable areas. If the bill passed as is, the Secretary of the Interior would be required to lease 50 percent of the not already leased acreage for gas and oil drilling every five years (Pepper).

The issues that the Angelinos struggled with in the 1920s and 1930s are still very relevant today. Although the city has decreased smog in the air and compromised on many issues, Los Angeles struggles with environmental justice, which is the movement derived from corporations locating industry near poor, underrepresented residential areas. And offshore oil drilling off the coast of California is still in debate in Congress, as noted by the proposed bill. These, among other environmental issues particular to Los Angeles, do not have perfect solutions even today, for as technology and innovation increase, so does the population that the city struggles to support.

Pepper, Elly. “GOP Leadership Wants to Drill Here, There, and EVERYWHERE.” National Resources Defense Council Staff Blog. National Resources Defense Council, 31 Jan 2012. Web. 31 Jan 2012.

This post was written by Alice Hall-Partyka ’14 who is pursuing a double major in Environmental Studies (BA) and Global Health,  and Sherwood Egbert ’14 who is majoring in Environmental Studies with a strong interest Environmental Law.