Dirty Water in Los Angeles

Dirty Water

The history of Los Angeles is inextricably intertwined with the city’s insatiable thirst for the water it desperately needed to sustain its growth. The early 20th-century “Water Wars” that made L.A. possible also mired the city in a shadowy saga of corruption and lies that inspired one of the most celebrated noir movies of all time: Chinatown.

In Los Angeles, the historians know the truth: The water here is anything but clean.

Like many areas with relatively high temperatures and paltry precipitation, water has always been a matter of life and death for L.A., a city that sits on a semi-arid coastal plain with desert on three sides and the Pacific Ocean on the fourth. The city resorted to drastic, at times deeply unethical — and occasionally even criminal — means to secure the vital resource that enabled it to grow into a major world metropolis.

“Water invites all kinds of shenanigans in the American West. It invites all kinds of deals: smoke-filled room deals, quiet deals, corrupt deals. And people need to know these histories,” says William Deverell, professor of historyspatial sciences and environmental studies at USC Dornsife.

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