There It Is — Take It

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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38 Responses

  1. Kolohe says:

    A magnificent piece Mr. Likko.

    The one other big difference between Los Angeles and Bakersfield is that the (old town of the) former is only 25 miles and no mountain passes from the ocean. On the other hand, neither the Port of LA nor the Port of Long Beach are natural harbors, and their development into the premier west coast container facilities is directly related to having a huge metro area appended onto them. On the other other hand, California has a dearth of natural harbors between the San Diego and San Francisco Bays, so building something at San Pedro Bay is probably as good as anywhere. (though in this scenario, San Pedro would have likely been a ‘twin city’ to LA. )Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Kolohe says:

      Thank you, @kolohe .

      It may seem a mystery why San Diego did not become Alta California’s premier city during Spanish and Mexican administration. It has a magnificent natural harbor and plenty of good land for crops and cattle. The answer (I think) is that the San Diego River was unstable and unreliable, switching channels and periodically running dry. The nearest stable river, the Tijuana, was too far away to be routed through canals or ditches to the area near San Diego’s harbor using eighteenth-century technology and the minimal manpower available. But Felipe de Neve, one of the first governors to actually look to urban development of the area, chartered three pueblos in Alta California: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Jose. De Neve found San Diego lacking for some reason, and I think it was the unreliability of the fresh water source.

      Also of note to your point about ports factoring in to development and growth: the Spanish and early Mexican governments thought that Santa Barbara was riper for development and growth than Los Angeles: deeper water right offshore, greater military defensibility, moister and more stable climate, possibly better soil and good cattle country in its hinterlands. The greater distance involved and the relative dearth of flat, developable land as compared to Los Angeles makes the idea of a Santa Barbara-centered California relatively implausible, but it apparently didn’t seem that way to the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century leaders of Alta California.

      Of course, the world-class natural harbors of the San Francisco Bay were responsible for that area being the foci of the development that actually happened. If I had been betting on cities to take the lead in California in 1750, my money would have been on San Jose: lots of land, an easily-expoitable river, the Bay right there for easy commerce with Spanish holdings in south America and the south Pacific.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Burt Likko says:

        wiki tells me that the San Diego mission and pueblo pre-dates the Los Angeles (& the San Gabriel) one(s). wiki also tells me that there was a complex interplay of the Crown, the Church, imperial administrators, settlers, administration zones, two different Church orders, ongoing battles with the aboriginal population, and yes, water, that gave the Los Angeles a somewhat superior political and economic (and population) position to San Diego (but both vastly inferior to San Francisco) by the time of Mexican Independence, and later, the annexation by the USA.

        However, I don’t put much stock in prescient planning for 17th to early 19th century european colonization locales. There is a vast cottage industry (in some cases literally) on the east coast of North America based on being a place that used to be someplace.

        I was thinking more how late 20th century development would have occurred were LA hampered (either politically or technically) in its early 20th century efforts to expand that you detailed in your post. My guess is that it still, nonetheless, would have been growth deferred, vice growth denied. I can’t think of a better place where the combo of the sunshine and the regulatory environment would enable the de facto world headquarters of the visual mass media industry. The same factors make it almost inevitable for the aerospace industry to be a big player in Southern California. Plus, just with weather, the automobile, and the jet, it seems likely that the Los Angeles Basin would have grown as quickly, if not more rapidly (due to even more favorable conditions) as the Phoenix metro area has since the 60’s.Report

  2. NewDealer says:

    I will do a more serious read but whenever I think of water in LA, I think of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

    What this says about me…..Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to NewDealer says:

      Chinatown is the genesis myth of Los Angeles, no question about it. While there’s no evidence Fred Eaton was not guilty of the particular kinds of interpersonal monstrosities as the villain in that movie, I can’t acquit him of the corruption. He and the rest of the early elite made out like arbitrageurs speculating on land in the San Fernando Valley and there’s little doubt that they were willing to use sharp tactics to make sure they succeeded at it.

      The ambiguity is the degree to which Mulholland, the heroic engineer, participated. On the one hand, he really did see himself as a public servant and really did care about the public interest, and at times acted consistently with this, never more so than when he responded to the disaster in San Francisquito Canyon with political seppuku. On the other hand, he bought and sold all kinds of land too, and at minimum was willing to turn a blind eye to what he must have known his associates were up to.Report

      • scott the mediocre in reply to Burt Likko says:

        And is there any evidence that Eaton was guilty of interpersonal monstrosities? 🙂

        Fantastic job, counsellor. Rather than San Jose, my ca 1750 bet for the future capital would have been someplace like Benicia (which was of course briefly the capital), anticipating that the economic anchor would have been transshipment from riverine (agricultural products) to oceanborne (New Orleans model) and that the local land logistics of San Francisco would have been too limiting. Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Ack! I meant to acquit him, not condemn him! FTR, it is reasonable to suspect Eaton of plentiful acts of land fraud and public corruption. But not [vaprfg-encr]; all accounts I’ve read of him suggest [n erznexnoyl qhyy snzvyl yvsr]. Wait, everyone’s seen Chinatown already, right; need I rot13 the spoilers?

        I agree that Benecia or Vallejo would have been reasonable bets at one time, too — somewhere right there at the mouth of the delta.Report

  3. North says:

    Fascinating Burt, well done!Report

  4. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Echoing Kolohe, a maginificent essay on an endlessly fascinating topic.

    And you’ve done me a great service. I am guest teaching a couple of lectures next term in an interdisciplinary honors course called simply “Water,” that will have students studying water from scientific, political, legal, literary, and religious perspectives. I may have just been handed an excellent reading for one of my guest talks.Report

    • aaron david in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      J @jm3z-aitch , I am assuming you have read Cadillac Dessert? If not, I think it is right there for you.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to aaron david says:


        Yes, but years ago. Many flashbacks while reading Burt’s essay, especially about the San Francisquito Dam collapse (I’ve been up to the spot), and it would definitely be on my research list. But Burt’s essay is a quicker read. 😉

        I’m still waiting to hear what the person coordinating the class wants me to give guest lectures on. I pitched him several ideas, and don’t know know which ones he’ll bite on (it depends in part on what other faculty offer him, as well). So I don’t know if this topic will make the cut.Report

  5. Francis says:

    Very impressive.

    A few nits: Your treatment of subterranean waters. Pueblo rights, iirc, attach to subterranean rivers (ie, within the bed and banks of a definable river). Groundwater, by contrast, is owned by the landowner above. The problems associated with groundwater management have lead to the “adjudication” of groundwater basins and the formation of limited-power governmental agencies known as water districts. (Some of these have been notoriously corrupt.) But successful groundwater management has been a key element of LA’s ongoing ability to provide meet demand.

    Also, I thought that LA was a founding member of MWD. There’s a whole another story (or two) about the Colorado River, including building Hoover Dam and sending its power to LA.

    (I also used to be a water lawyer. That practice collapsed in the recession — no more development meant no more need to find new water.)Report

    • Francis in reply to Francis says:

      And one more thing — the huge pipelines you see to the west of the I-5 just north of the Grapevine are the West Branch of the State Water Project. Here’s a pretty good photo.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Francis says:

      I had some assistance from a colleague involved in ongoing groundwater adjudication. And editorial help from Ordinary Times colleagues Michelle Togut and Vikram Bath. All have my thanks. Any errors in the piece are entirely my own.

      Is the large cascade draining into the Sylmar Reservoir a SWP/MWD or DWP facility? I don’t think I specifically mentioned the uphill pipes at the Grapevine, although they are also impressive feats of civil engineering and I note that they, too, make water flow towards money.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Burt Likko says:


        I thought the large cascade was the outflow from the Grapevine pumps (for those not in the know, a tremendous engineering feat that pumps water over 3,000 feet up an over the transverse mountain range caused by the bend in the San Andreas fault). But in retrospect I think I’m wrong, because that water flows into Castaic Lake (in my wife’s hometown), and then into the wash that flows behind their house, which I think feeds into the L.A. river. So your original claim maybe sounds right to me now.Report

      • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “Ongoing groundwater adjudication” is redundant; none of them ever end. Given your geographical location, though, I’ll bet your colleague is involved in the Antelope Valley Adjudication. I was peripherally involved in that case.

        Sylmar Reservoir is solely a DWP facility. But as this map shows, the LA aqueduct never goes over the Tehachapis. The aqueduct is nestled against the southern edge of that mountain range. The California Aqueduct comes straight down the Central Valley. The West Branch of the California Aqueduct is lifted over the Tehachapis by the Edmonston Pumping Plant, and that’s what you can see from the I-5 freeway north of the Grapevine (which, for all the non-Angelenos is the name of pass over the Tehachapi Mountains, found to the north of Los Angeles).

        After crossing the Tehachapis, the West Branch terminates in Pyramid Lake, which in turn delivers the water into Castaic Lake, which is a state (Department of Water Resources) facility. Water is then delivered to individual State Water Project contractors. I believe that only Castaic Lake Water Agency and MWD physically draw from Castaic Lake.

        A map and list of SWP Contractors and their annual allocations can be found here. But that’s an old document; allocations have changed since then.Report

      • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Speaking of errors in your piece (there aren’t really any), how is it that you got so much of what’s an incredibly complicated situation correct in this piece, and yet in early October managed to lose three or four major irrigation systems in an answer to the trivia quiz?

        for heavens sake you dropped both the Colorado River Aqueduct and the Central Valley Project in your answer and you had the All-American Canal running all the way to San Diego!

        Is there really just one Burt Likko? Three weeks is not that long to go from where you were then to where you are today.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Methinks you credit me with having invested greater effort into a Monday Trivia answer than would be strictly accurate, @francis . IIRC, I was sitting in a jury box between short-cause trial calls and might have had portions of my mind focused elsewhere. Absent-mindedness is demonstrated in, inter alia, having overlooked that California takes water from the Colorado River and it has to somehow get to the coastal cities from the Arizona border. 🙂

        But this piece, I researched. I originally developed a more ambitious thesis about how the law impelled the rapid growth of Los Angeles’s political boundaries and economic development. After a little digging in, I realized that that my own knowledge of the legal landscape would not be complete enough to defend such a proposition. So I did what a lawyer ought to do in such situations: I asked a subject matter expert for help. And lo! Right there in my office was a lawyer involved in groundwater litigation, who is entrusted with knowledge of my secret bloggy identity and enjoys lurking on these pages from time to time.

        My colleague (who recognized you from your comments, and he speaks well of you) generously took some time reading an early draft of this piece and gently informed me that I’d gone too far out on the limb. He gave me access to his water law library (the book by the BB&K guys was pretty good) and patiently explained why the bigger-picture legal doctrines like pueblo rights and appropriative rights were not nearly so important to this subject as Los Angeles amending its own charter.

        The extent to which I have accurately conveyed both the legal and logistical situations is the product of other people’s efforts to educate me, kicking and screaming at times, away from my prejudices and into reality.Report

      • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

        So, having given us the definitive LA Aqueduct post, when do we get the Colorado River / 7 States / Hoover Dam / Law of the River / Colorado River Aqueduct / Salton Sea post?

        (I’m sure you’ve learned that water from the Colorado River gets to San Diego via the Colorado River Aqueduct, not the All-American Canal. [The San Jacinto mountain range being in the way.] And, a decade after the Quantification Settlement Agreements were signed that transferred a portion of IID’s rights to San Diego, those agreements were upheld just a few months ago.)

        or the State Water Project / Bay-Delta post?

        or the Central Valley Project (with a subsection on Kesterson?

        Come on, you’re just getting started! You live in the most hydraulically complex society that (likely) has ever existed! Even Roman engineers would be impressed by what we’ve done.


    • Michael Cain in reply to Francis says:

      Colorado is slowly gearing up to address the problem of linkages between ground water and surface water. Let’s see if I can remember the details w/o looking them up. Colorado’s share of the Republican River flow is grossly over-appropriated, so holders of junior rights get little water in some years. Many “newer” farmers were never going to get river water, so started drilling wells and drawing on the underlying aquifer. Holders of junior rights to the surface water have now sued, on the grounds that there is a hydrologic linkage between the river and the aquifer, so that lowering the aquifer level reduces the river flow and deprives the junior rights holders of water they would get in the absence of the wells.

      Right now we’re in the early phases of dueling experts. A couple of years back the legislature killed a bill in committee that would have set up rules, giving as a reason that it would be some time until the “facts” were sufficiently settled to consider the policy question. Given that it’s a western water law case, I anticipate that they’ll settle things in 20-25 years :^)Report

    • Lyle in reply to Francis says:

      To read more about the story of Hoover Dam and its link to the Imperial Valley see Colossus which is the story of how Hover Dam first got authorized and then how it was built. Back in the early 1920s no one trusted Ca elsewhere in the Colorado River Basin to start with. Second the idea of Hoover dam was to prevent a repetition of the 1905 floods which caused the Colorado to flow into the Salton Sea. The efforts it took Hoover to get the states to agree on how to divide the river’s waters up are a tale. Also the public private issue of who should own the powerplant. Hoover dam when built was the tallest dam in the world, as well.
      The tale of Ca taking more water than it was authorized since Az was not taking it until the Central Arizona Project was built is interesting, and how 1/2 of the power produced at Hoover Dam is used to pump the water to LA from the Colorado River.Report

  6. Patrick says:

    Thanks, Burt, this piece just saved me about 10 hours of research and linking for the post I’m working on right now.

    Mine’s kinda gloomy, though.Report

  7. Michael Cain says:

    Very nice. I love pieces about Western water law and the California Water Wars.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    How appropriate that LA began with a ditch.Report

    • I have it on good authority that San Francisco began with a sewer. 😉Report

      • Lyle in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Actually if you read a bit you find that between Broadway and California Streets in San Francisco, was originally a bay. During the gold rush ships were abandoned there, some actually converted into buildings. Of course back then that part of the bay was essentially a sewer as well as waste just got dumped there. So yes the downtown area of San Francisco. (From the Ferry Building back on the flat lands) was originally water and essentially an odoriferous during and after the gold rush,Report

  9. This was seriously awesome, Burt.Report

  10. Kim says:

    Ahh, the city of the future.Report

  11. Tod Kelly says:

    I haven’t read through the comments yet (has anyone brought up Chinatown yet?), and I might have more to say later (though really, what’s to say?), but for now I just wanted to say that this post crushed it — just knocked it out of the park. One of the very best ever I’ve seen here, really.

    I’m proud to have it up here, especially since I think Burt could have easily sold it to a larger venue.

    Awesome, awesome job.Report

  12. Barry says:

    Thanks for this, Burt!Report