The Owens River created Los Angeles, letting a great city grow where common sense dictated that one should never be, but one could just as well say that it ruined Los Angeles, too. The annexation of the San Fernando Valley, a direct result of the aqueduct, instantly made it the largest city in the world in geographic size. From that moment, it was doomed to become a huge, sprawling, one-story conurbation, hopelessly dependent on the automobile. The Owens River made Los Angeles large and wealthy enough to go out and capture any river within six hundred miles, and that made it larger, wealthier, and a good deal more awful.
-Marc Reisner (1986) via LAtimes
There are many things that Reisner got right in his 1986 masterpiece Cadillac Desert, but I’m not sure that the Aqueduct ruined Los Angeles. Sprawl in Los Angeles was initially spur by successive waves of exploiting natural resources – water from the Owens Valley was just the 3rd of these wave, after silver from Comstock Lode (1859)/Cerro Gordo (1860)/Panamint & Calico (1881), then oil (1892). Land speculation waves of growth proceeds Owens River water to LA and follows too. Other waves of growth have followed from economic (citrus industry and WWII’s launch of aerospace), the technological (Red Cars and the freeways). Each of these waves is more appropriately blamed for ‘ruining’ the sleepy Alta Mexican village described by Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast.
This post was inspired as I searched for readings to assign to this fall’s Aqueduct Futures courses. Time to pull my old friend off the bookshelf. references: