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

February 23, 2012

The Narrows Dam Project

Filed under: Water — admin @ 4:36 am

The land west of the Mississippi has always been notoriously dry and uninhabitable, even by the nomadic native American tribes in pre-settlement times. The Eastern Colorado Plains, like much of the Westlands, receives little rainfall each year and relies on irrigation for farming purposes. However, these plains are also among the most fertile in the country and consist of “very deep, well drained, slowly permeable soils” (Colorado Agriculture). The South Platte and other such rivers have provided a source of water for agricultural irrigation purposes, but some water is still lost to neighboring states, and the demand for water had led some resource managers to seek out new means of procuring the increasingly valuable resource. The South Platte flows from the Eastern slopes of the Rockies in a northeasterly direction towards Nebraska. The North Platte joins the South Platte in Nebraska after passing through northern Colorado and Wyoming. The two rivers form the Platte mainstem and eventually join the Missouri River in Omaha, NE. Along their journeys, the rivers deliver much-needed irrigation benefits to otherwise parched regions.

The South Platte River

In Cadillac Desert, Mark Reisner documents the history of the Narrows Project, a proposed dam project that would flood Weldon Valley and give more water to several large farms. He does not go much into the details regarding which farms benefit, but he outlines the stories of individuals from all walks of life who are for and against the project. Emerging first in 1908, the proposal drifted in and out of the spotlight during the next seven and a half decades, gaining the most attention towards the end of that period. The Narrows was authorized in 1944, and its proponents began their attempt to drum up local support thereafter. It can be assumed, based on Reisner’s later anecdotes on the politicization of water projects, that the beneficiaries of the Narrows Project might be powerful farmers with financial clout. The project was proposed during a time when dams were less associated with environmental degradation and more with development. The Teton Dam had not yet collapsed, and the West was booming agriculturally. Human ingenuity had thus far provided solutions to nature’s impediments, and those with the means to do so fully intended to take advantage of the technology that was available.  While farmers may enjoy the direct benefits of a new dam, some of the politicians involved with the project would take advantage of the economic boons.

The Teton Dam Collapse

The graph below tracks the overall increase in agricultural outputs in the USA. It is assumed that big farms in the Eastern Plains wanted to capitalize off this growth in outputs via additional irrigation from the Narrows Project.

The Narrows Project ultimately failed to pass in 1983. A number of factors led to its rejection. Growing awareness of the environment during the 60s and 70s severely hindered the ability of the state government and the Bureau to garner support for the dam. The Endangered Species Act prevented the construction of dams that would negatively affect endangered or threatened species, the Teton Dam disaster occurred in 1976, and further research on the foundation of the proposed Narrows Dam were all important factors in the dismissal of the project.  It is unclear why comprehensive geological assessments were not carried out prior to 1976 for the Narrows Project, but C. J. Kruiger and others took note of the porous, disjointed fragments that made up the dam site and were able to recalculate the projected flow figures.  Upon finding that the amount of water that reached farmers would likely be maybe a fifth or so of the figures that the Bureau touted, (in conjunction with the fact that farmers would be paying for the amount that left the dam rather than the amount they received) the project lost even more credibility.

The role of ecologists, geologists, and other environmentalists was much larger in the Narrows Project case than in the past.  Lessons learned from the Teton Dam, ecological threats, social issues (i.e. relocation), geological surveys, and the growing environmental movement worked together to prevent the Narrows Project from passing. The environmental and political issues that cropped up contributed to the formation of the Platte River joint collaborative, an initiative that sought to provide a politics-based solution to resource issues that plagued the riparian areas around the Platte River. Because the Platte River crosses state borders, the venture could prove useful in creating joint legislative initiatives that aid in managing the whole watershed.

Despite the many environmental risks the dams contained, different stakeholders benefited from the dam project passing in particular Glenn Saunders and Richard Lamm. Glenn Saunders, who was a prominent water lawyer, benefited from the dam projects passing because it allowed him the opportunity to control water from the mountains of Colorado, which is where the water in the state originates. The most particular case of who benefited from the dam project being passed was that of Richard Lamm. Lamm, as stated by Reisner, had established himself as an environmentalist and had taken actions such as prohibiting the Winter Olympics from occurring at Denver (416). However, it can be shown that Lamm benefited from the dam project passing due to the fact that he wanted an increase in agriculture growth. The water that would be gained from passing the dam project would ensure that the agriculture business would flourish and provide Colorado with an economic boost, even if it was at the cost of the environment.

Source:The Greeley Daily Tribune

As it is reiterated in the article above, it is these economic benefits and gains that come from the construction of the dam that many proponents, mainly Lamm and Sherman, kept pushing the decision to establish more dams despite the severe environmental ramifications. As Reisner states, the desire to establish a more stable agricultural industry came as a result of agriculture being the the only source if economic gain during the last 125 years in Colorado. In addition to boosting agricultural production, the creation of a dam provided a means by which to prevent development from businesses, in particular, the oil companies, as the particular energy source that was desired was oil shale. The creation of the dam served as a protection against development which would have prevented an economic stability for the state of Colorado.


This post is authored by Annie Guo ’12 majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in International Relations and Mabel Nevarez ’12 also majoring in Environmental Studies.



February 22, 2012

Poisoning our Soils: A Consequence of Undervalued Water

Filed under: Agriculture,Water — Tags: — admin @ 11:22 pm

Much of our American history is linked to the way in which our government has chosen, and the people have voted, to control our freshwater resources. Whether it has been through the damming of rivers, the diversion of streams, or the pumping of ground water, countless water control projects have been executed, and as a result the landscape of this nation has undeniably been transformed. These water control methods, generous government subsidies, and the inefficient and indulgent irrigation and water usage practices have contributed to many social, economic and environmental disasters that exist in the California Central Valley today.

The original intent of federal water projects, set out in the Reclamation Act of 1902, was to encourage Western settlement by small family farms. However, over the course of many years this initial motive was lost. The Central Valley Project (CVP) is the largest federal reclamation project in the United States. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWP), as of 2004 the estimated yearly subsidy to farmers receiving CVP water was roughly $60 million. Water subsidies in the Central Valley Project are mainly granted to very large agribusiness operations. The operations are usually under the control of corporations and run by hired farmers instead the small farms for which the project was intended. In this report EWP stated that, “In 2002, the average price for irrigation water from the CVP was less than two percent what Los Angeles residents pay for drinking water and about one-tenth the estimated cost of replacement water supplies.” So not only have the farmers of the Central Valley been getting their water virtually free, they have not even been paying what it costs to deliver and replace the water they have received.

This is a graph showing the price farmers of the Central Valley Project pay for water, in comparison to the costs of water supply replacement and what Los Angeles Residents pay for water.  This heavily subsidized water turned out to be an influential factor in many of the water issues California would come to face after the projects implementation. Because receivers of CVP water do not pay for the true cost and value of water, this precious resource has been overused and as a result has led to a host of problems including the inefficient use of water, the devastation of fish and wildlife habitat, severe toxic pollution, and the salinization of our soils. This salinization is a major issue that isn’t always front page news, but is a startling crisis.

Today the most under-recognized water quality problem in California is salinity, the concentration of dissolved solids in water. One of the primary ways salts are added to soil and water supplies is through irrigated agriculture. In the western United States, many soils are classified as saline or alkaline, a direct result of intense agricultural irrigation made possible by cheap water. When water is extracted from the soil, either by plants, evaporation, or irrigation, salts are left behind. Every time a farmer irrigates a field, every time you or I take a shower, every time water is used we contribute to the salinity problem. This is because the water we use has a higher salinity concentration than what it started with. In the case of soil salinization, water-soluble salts build up in the root zones of plants, blocking the absorption of water and nutrients into the plants roots. This problem particularly applies to arid regions, like the western United States, because increased evaporation results in a higher concentration of salt. As the irrigation water evaporates, absorbed by plants, or trapped in overwatered and poorly drained (waterlogged) soils, it increases the dissolved solid content of the soil and water. Eventually this increase in soil salt will inhibit or stop plant growth. Once this happens it is necessary to apply much more water to the field than required for plant growth to flush away salt from the plant root zone. Without proper drainage systems, the soils become waterlogged and the ground water becomes enriched in dissolved salts. Since water is so cheap in the Central Valley there is little to no incentive for farmers to switch to more efficient irrigation and drainage methods, thus the problem of soil salinization is exacerbated. According to the California Water Impact Network irrigation of this land with water exported from the Sacramento Delta and received through the CVP adds an enormous amount of salt to the already-saline soils of the western Valley. As much as 4,000 tons of salt are deposited daily (the equivalent of 40 railroad cars), while only 1,700 tons of salts leave the basin daily in runoff and drainage to the San Joaquin River. Salinization of this magnitude has resulted in the approximately 400,000 acres of saline soils that currently exist in this area. This acreage constitutes approximately 48 percent of the irrigated land within the boundaries of the survey area, up from approximately 33 percent of the irrigated saline land identified in 1985, an increase of approximately 120,000 acres in 18 years. While approximately 113,000 acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have been retired (permanently removed from irrigation) due to regional drainage problems and high salinity content. Salts have toxically poisoned these soils to the point that they are no longer arable. Not only are occurrences such as these detrimental to the environment but they threaten our food security by limiting our ability to produce sustenance, destroy our land resources, and carry negative social and economic implications.

This is an image of retired land due to over salinization in the San Joaquin valley

Of course, it would be foolish not to recognize the contributions irrigation has provided for California and many parts of the world. Most of our lives at USC currently depend on the unnatural irrigation of water throughout California. However, the facts do not change, and if we intend to continue living in this desert, we have to be willing to change our practices. It is easy to say that water subsidies should be eliminated, but we have to be willing to accept the consequences of that action. Not only would small farmers probably have to find new work, but also many other people would be displaced vocationally. The cost of any business that uses water or some resource from the corporations that use water would go up dramatically. Our lives would be heavily impacted as well. We’d face much higher prices for water and most goods, many would have to move to locations were the cost and value of water is not as high. The change would be dramatic. But even if it seems unfair or too hard, it is ultimately the only practical way to solve these issues. We’ve seen that technology can’t keep up with these problems, and even if it does it requires a vast amount of energy and resources. As Environmental Studies majors, we have to decide if we would be willing to accept these new living conditions before we expect others to.

Christina Robles ‘12, who is pursing a BS in Environmental Studies and Corey Bustamante ‘13, who is pursing a double major in Environmental Studies and Economics, wrote this blog.

UC Davis, Center for Watershed Science-
Environmental Working Group-
Natural Resources Conservation Service-
California Water Impact Network-


February 17, 2012

Dams and Water Projects: The Lessons We Learn

Filed under: Water — admin @ 12:41 am

The classic argument against Southern Californian development has always been the issue of water.  Many feel that an area of such inadequate resources should never have been allowed to become the economic super power that it was allowed to become.  As Reisner stated in his book Cadillac Desert:

“The whole state thrives, even survives, by moving water from where it is, and presumably isn’t needed, to where it isn’t, and presumably is needed. No other state has done as much to fructify its deserts, make over its flora and fauna, and rearrange the hydrology God gave it. No other place has put as many people where they probably have no business being. There is no place like it anywhere on earth. Thirty-one million people (more than the population of Canada), an economy richer than all but seven nations’ in the world, one third of the table food grown in the United States—and none of it remotely conceivable within the preexisting natural order” (Reisner, 333).

In order to meet the incredible demands of city development and agriculture, massive dam and reclamation projects have been undertaken to satisfy these needs over the course of California’s history.  Despite their ability to combat water scarcity issues, dams and their construction have brought about a variety concerns.  Habitat destruction, the displacement of people, the incredible cost of their construction, and their potential for failure resulting in the loss of human life and property are all commonly held criticisms against damming.  Regardless, it is inarguable that extensive measures need to be taken to reconcile human needs with resource scarcity.  Having reached the point where our water resources are nearing their limits, we may have to more aggressively consider strategies involving conservation and efficiency as opposed to simple expansion of water systems.  However, the traditional path has been the later, bringing water from places of abundance to places in need.

The Central Valley Project is a Federal water project devised in 1933 by the Bureau of Reclamation, to help address the growing water demands of the growers and the depletion of the San Joaquin Valley ground water.  Ironically however, by bringing them more water the farmers were enabled to expand their industry and ground waters were even further exploited.  This necessitated yet another water development to meet this need, the California State Water Project.

It is interesting to see that in California we are continuing in similar trends whereby our growth leads to increased water needs, and when we eventually address such needs, we respond with further growth and a renewed need for water.  A Public Policy report released by the public policy institute of California argues that our current model is largely insufficient to meet California’s growing needs.  This scarcity of water they claim has led to increased competition among agricultural and urban water users.  This they believe has further contributed to issues of water quality and ecological degradation.  The current system also leaves us fairly vulnerable to events such as drought or flood.  This report instead proposes that measures be taken to more closely monitor and regulate our water resources with an increased concern for environmental impacts.  Conservation efforts also contribute largely to their strategy.  Reconsidering how water is priced was one suggestion they made for encouraging conservation on the part of both individuals and industry.  Regardless of how we attempt to implement water conservation efforts, it is becoming increasingly clear that unrestricted water consumption and indefinite expansion of water systems cannot be a part of California’s long-term strategy.

The policies implemented by California throughout the 19th century helped to establish a viable and continuous water supply that would be able to support a growing population, especially one that is likely to surpass 38 million by 2012 in an arid region naturally unfit for a community that size. It also coincided with a time when funding needs for water projects were easily met. Damming was initially thought to be an effective solution to providing a sustainable water yield to California because of its ability to provide cheaper electricity, create reservoirs for periods of extended drought, as well as preventing floods and regulating late runoff. It also has the ability to alter the flow-path of major rivers and transport that water across long distances. However, with any project of that magnitude, there are serious environmental repercussions that have surfaced in the past, and with such little room for error in the design and construction phases, it’s not hard to imagine how and why dams have failed and pose such a threat to everything positioned downstream and in the surrounding vicinities.

With dams came a ‘high risk; high reward’ scenario, and the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir in 1963 serves as a good example of the type of risk that creates such controversy over these types of water projects. The effect of the subsidence of a nearby oil field led to the failure of the reservoir, leading to the destruction of 277 homes and 5 lives. Understanding the science is key to lowering the amount of risk, and it has been proven time and time again throughout history to be greatly underestimated. The $100 million dollar loss that came about in 1976 during the filling phase of the Teton Dam in Idaho serves as another perfect example favoring the ‘high risk” scenario. Poor construction led to a face that was easily eroded and eventually compromised the dam’s structural integrity, causing it to collapse. It was a costly oversight that goes to show how little was actually understood about the hydrogeology of the region and what environmental effects would surface in the wake of such large-scale changes to the land. It also shows how unprepared we are and have been in the past for such catastrophic events to occur. It is this lack of knowledge that ultimately allows for the small errors to cause large disasters.

Collapse of the Teton Dam

Collapse of the Teton Dam

Crack in the Baldwin Hills reservoir

Crack in the Baldwin Hills reservoir

Another view of the crack in the Baldwin Hills Reservoir

Another view of the crack in the Baldwin Hills Reservoir

In general, improvements in the design and construction phases of massive water projects in the U.S. have gotten better with time, but after bearing witness to the plethora of negative effects from dams, both ecological and anthropogenic, one can see why the hard path approach to secure higher quantities of water creates more opportunities for problems. By using the soft path approach to better utilize and conserve water, we will improve, as a society, our ability to sustainably use our resources and lower the risks we pose to ourselves and the environment.

This post was written by Jeffrey Nakashioya ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies and Genivieve McCormick ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies.


Hannak, Ellen, Jay Lund, and Areil Dinar. Managing California’s Water: From Conflicts to Resolution. Public Policy Institure of California, 2011.

The following link includes the film Cadillac Desert, broken into 6-7min YouTube clips. These videos are also available as VHS cassettes from most public libraries.

Those Who Refuse to Learn…

Filed under: Water — admin @ 12:31 am

As the largest wholesaler of water in the country, the Bureau of Reclamation has been responsible for building various dams across the United States. The bureau now provides water for over 31 million people, and provides irrigation for one in five American farmers (1). However, in an effort to seek more and more sources of irrigation, the bureau began to choose dam sites that were less than desirable. As we read in this week’s reading of Cadillac Desert, all of the logical dam sites have already been built, leaving the Bureau to then begin damming up sites that have previously been rejected some forty years previously. As our population grows, and the sources of water diminish, the pressure on the Bureau of Reclamation to build more dam sites has increased as well. While many of these dams have turned out to be successful, disasters such as the failure of the Teton dam provide constant worry. The potential for a catastrophic disaster has only increased over time as multiple dams have been built on the same waterway. Now if one dam fails, the excess water will proceed to cause the next dam to also fail, with a domino effect capable of causing significant damage.

A map showing the locations of the 8,100+ dams in the United States

The bureau’s greatest disaster, the Teton dam, provides an interesting illustration of what can happen when bureaucracy transcends logical science to achieve an economic goal. The Teton dam was built in Northern Idaho, in order to provide irrigation to the many potato farmers in the region. It would provide irrigation to an area that already on average received 132 inches of irrigation a year, which amounts to five times the rainfall in the farmlands of Iowa. The dam’s original selling point was to provide a stable water source for these farmers, after two years of moderate drought (where ironically the crop yields were higher than normal) and a flood.  While this certainly doesn’t provide sufficient reason to build a dam on a previously rejected site, everyone bought into the idea, and the construction was quickly underway. Aside from the Geologic Survey report presented to the Bureau, four regional geologists also submitted a statement that did in fact heed caution towards the safety of the dam, especially if an earthquake should arise, due to the semi-solid rhyolitic rock foundation. However, when the bureau calculated the cost and benefit analysis for building the dam, when factoring in the worst possible floods that could result without the dam; they ignored the concerns and decided to continue with construction. The project was officially finished in October of 1975, and they began to divert the river to fill the dam. Less than a year later, the excessively high water level, combined with insufficient outlets, eventually led to failure during the first filling of the reservoir. At 350 feet, this dam was the highest to ever fail, releasing billions of gallons of water. It resulted in 11 deaths, countless lost livestock, and nearly a billion dollars of damage (2).


Image of the Teton dam catastrophically failing

It turns out that the chapter title, “Those who refuse to learn…,” is increasingly appropriate because just this year the Bureau of Reclamation has completed a study to assess the rebuilding of the Teton dam. While officials say the re-build is still in the distant future, it is certainly in the conversation as a solution to Idaho’s water storage problem. The new cost of the Teton dam is estimated around $550 million, but is compared to the $10 billion Idaho economy that may be in risk without water (3). Unfortunately, this discussion of the dams in this region is still centered primarily on the economic impact, rather than the geological and environmental consequences of another large-scale project. Additionally, many geologists expressed their concerns with the selection of this site for a dam, the first time it was built. Even if they rebuild the dam in a slightly different way, it is concerning to think they may try to rebuild the dam in a geologically inadequate location.  It shall be fascinating to see how this plays out in the future, as the aquifer below Idaho is currently running a 600,000 acre feet water deficit, and the Teton dam provides the largest storage area, of 200,000 acre feet of water. Hopefully, regardless of their decisions, the Bureau of Reclamation will be able to avoid disaster this time.

This post was authored by Melissa Krigbaum ’12, a double major in Economics (BA) and Environmental Studies (BA).


  1. Bureau of Reclamation website
  2.  Teton Dam Failure
  3.  Years after failure, Teton Dam continues to spark debate
  4. Teton Dam rebuild still option for water storage

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.

Catalina Island Field Trip- January 27-28, 2012

Filed under: Catalina Island — admin @ 12:18 am

I just returned from an awesome field trip to Catalina Island. My ENST 495 classmates and I had the privilege of spending Friday and Saturday on the island learning first hand what we went over in class the past three weeks: Catalina natural history, fires in the wild, and Marine Protected Areas.

My favorite part of the weekend was an assignment to collect 15 plant specimens, identify them, and put them into a plant press. I not only learned about native and non-native species, but I am also now able to point out which plant species are endemic to Catalina.

I made a little video about some of the plants:ENST 495 Catalina Video

I think the coolest thing I learned was about why many of the plants have little hairs, or fuzz on them. This is to shade themselves from the sun. Catalina has a Mediterranean climate, which means very dry, and little rain. Therefore, the plants need to keep in moisture as much as possible, so with hairs that provide shade, the plants release less water into the atmosphere because their surrounding temperature is a little bit lower. That is SO COOL!

And to top it off, we got to go snorkeling!

Amelia Bahr & Nina Gordon-Kirsch geared up for snorkeling

This post was authored by Nina Gordon-Kirsch ’12 an Environmental Studies major (BS) with a minor in marketing.