Believe it or not, when I started working on the Los Angeles Aqueduct-themed documentary, one of the major creative minds on this project had never seen the movie Chinatown. Now, Chinatown is a work of fiction and hardly the be-all and end-all of aqueduct information, but it is probably the biggest pop-culture property to reference water management issues in Los Angeles. When I watched the movie the other night, it was my first viewing since before I started working on this project. While I vaguely remembered that the movie focused on the corruption in Los Angeles that centers around water infrastructure, I had forgotten the specifics. I imagine the same is true for many who read this blog.
Spoiler warning for the thirty-nine-year-old movie:
In Chinatown, a corrupt LADWP employee pushes farmers off their land, and buys their orange groves. He then dumps hundreds of gallons of LA’s water into the desert, with the intention of raising the water table so that the land can flourish. He will incorporate the land into Los Angeles, and turn a massive profit.
There are other sub-plots and red-herrings throughout, including marital affairs, attempted and successful murders, a secret illegitimate daughter, and incest. Those plotlines, however, are not important to this post.
As I mentioned earlier, Chinatown is a work of fiction. This doesn’t mean the movie takes a true story and changes a few names, it means that the events of this movie, for the most part, never happened. There is one key core element, however: the corruption and shady dealings that went into the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct are as much a part of Los Angeles and its history as Hollywood starlets, sunny weather, and propensity for earthquakes.
For example, take a look at Owens Lake… oh, wait, you can’t, because it almost doesn’t exist anymore. In 1913, when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was constructed, it diverted rivers that fed Owens Lake into the aqueduct for Los Angeles’s use. Shortly thereafter, in 1924, Owens Lake began to significantly lose its capacity. A whole farming community virtually disappeared as they lost their water, and to this day, Owens Lake is the second largest source of dust in the United States.
Or, let’s look at the aqueduct’s impact on the city, itself. When the LADWP originally built the aqueduct, the city charter stated that the LA Aqueduct would only provide water to the city of Los Angeles. However, the LADWP found a loophole that if they incorporated more surrounding towns into Los Angeles, they could sell their excess water and make money. In less than a decade, the city expanded by over 350 miles – an over 700% growth.
On its own creative merits, Chinatown is a great movie. As a peek into the history of Los Angeles, however, they missed a great opportunity: with all of the controversy that still surrounds the aqueduct even to this day, Chinatown, strangely, told a story that was less interesting than the real thing. Guess that the real LA is, as they say, stranger than fiction.