“Chinatown” is fooling itself.
Los Angeles has a long history of water deceptions, a point made famously by Roman Polanski’s 1974 film. But the self-sabotage of the city’s latest scheme is a real doozy. L.A. has convinced itself of the hokum that it has all the water it needs.
Let me be clear: L.A. must produce more of its own water for its long-term security. And leading Angelenos are right to ramp up stormwater capture, groundwater clean-up, recycling and conservation so that more L.A. water is local.
The combination of greater dependence on imports – and L.A.’s statements of self-sufficiency – is dangerous. Why should other parts of the state send us water, if our leaders say we don’t need it?
But the idea now being sold by elites – that L.A. can become completely self-sufficient on water – is a fantasy. Producing more local water would be so costly that Los Angeles would be fortunate to get half of its water from local sources in the decades ahead.
Which makes L.A.’s current deluge of self-deception dangerous. Leading Angelenos are broadcasting their self-sufficiency message at a moment when the state is debating a vital plan to shore up a crucial piece of the region’s water supply: the California Delta.
That proposal, estimated to cost anywhere from $10 billion to $30 billion, would construct one or two tunnels to carry Sacramento River water south, thus providing more certainty about the 30 percent of L.A. water that runs through the Delta.
The project should be a no-brainer for L.A. But few are thinking clearly in L.A. when it comes to water. Instead, the city, under Mayor Eric Garcetti – a smooth-talking optimist full of data and presidential ambition – seems to believe it can make transformational changes without much trouble.
Such triumphalism is rooted in the city’s winning streak: securing the 2028 Olympics, rebuilding its schools, reviving South L.A., transforming downtown into a true center, expanding transit, and getting voters to approve more resources for housing for the homeless.
But triumphalism doesn’t work with water. Garcetti, in a ludicrous L.A. Daily News op-ed, framed his call for water self-sufficiency as a “Mulholland moment,” a strange choice given that William Mulholland ushered in water imports that Garcetti now rejects.
Then the mayor went off the deep end, calling the Delta tunnels detrimental to the dream of L.A. self-sufficiency, writing: “We will never be able to solve our water needs if we have tunnel vision.” Finally, he wrote of a city that gets over 70 percent of its water from elsewhere: “I’m often asked if we have enough water in Los Angeles for our future. And I always answer that we have plenty of water.”
That is laughable, but Garcetti isn’t alone in his hubris. The L.A. City Council just voted to oppose the tunnels if they don’t meet certain conditions. That vote reflects fears of local environmental groups that use the self-sufficiency myth to oppose the tunnels. The groups have demanded the firing of the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s ratepayer advocate, Fred Pickel, for the crime of saying that L.A. could afford the Delta tunnel.
Leading Angelenos love to warn that the tunnels’ high sticker price would get passed on to ratepayers and property taxpayers. But the truth is that Delta water via the tunnels would be far cheaper than the expensive new infrastructure needed to make L.A.’s water more local.
And the tunnels are a real project. L.A.’s various water plans rarely mention the massive costs of making water more local. But they also ignore that the drought increased L.A.’s reliance on water imports, including from the Delta. The combination of greater dependence on imports – and L.A.’s statements of self-sufficiency – is dangerous. Why should other parts of the state send us water, if our leaders say we don’t need it?
So, my fellow Californians, I hereby apologize for Angelenos’ ingratitude. I wish I could promise that we Angelenos will cool the self-sufficiency rhetoric while the state debates the tunnels.
But c’mon, Jake, you know what town this is.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.