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Water Rights and Chinatown

Water Rights and Chinatown
Profile photo of James E. Miller

chinatownDoes a warning mean anything if nobody listens?

With the precarious case of Lake Mead, doomsayers never seem to break the surface. For years, reports of the lake’s declining levels have popped up in the news. Yet residents of the surrounding area still refuse to listen. The latest report from the Interior Department is very troublesome: there is a 20% chance of water shortages for Nevada and Arizona in 2016 if the lake maintains current levels.

Lake Mead, if you are unaware, provides 90% of the water to Las Vegas. It is also a crucial water source for Los Angeles and major cities in Arizona. Thus, it’s easy to see why residents of Nevada and surrounding states have an interest in the viability of the lake to sustain itself. News of drought or weakening levels should be cause for alarm. Often times, attention is roused with reports that water may become scarce in the immediate future. But that scare usually dissipates when rain comes, essentially washing away the fear of future paucity.

There is an assumption by people living in the southwestern United States that water shortages are a naturally-caused phenomenon. A coworker of mine who hails from the region recently informed me that most Nevada citizens don’t understand the underlying forces driving the water crisis. They ignore the fact that the present situation is unsustainable. Worse yet, they don’t see the real culprit behind a continual lack of H2O: the government.

Contrary to popular belief, the current state of the American southwest isn’t the norm. Rather, it’s an artificial creation that likely wouldn’t exist without government planning. What do I mean?

Without Lake Mead, Las Vegas wouldn’t have enough of a water supply to be the country’s leading tourist trap. The same goes for cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Austin. An artificial lake created by the construction of the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead has the government’s fingertips all over it. And that means its filled with the hubris of a thousand engineers who thought they could thwart nature.

Lake Mead was created almost a century ago with the creation of the Hoover Dam. The dam was originally a make-work program pushed by President Hoover and later completed by Franklin Roosevelt. It was part of many economic recovery programs meant to mitigate the spike in unemployment brought on by the Great Depression. At the time of its completion, F.D.R. called the structure (then named the Boulder Dam) a “great feat of mankind” and “the greatest dam in the world.”

Little did he anticipate. Like all government projects, the unintended consequences wrought by the Hoover Dam are legion. According to historian Michael Hiltzik, the population of the southwest swelled upon completion of the dam. “Since that dedication year, the population of the seven states of the basin has swelled by about 45 million. Much of this growth has been fueled by the dam and its precious bounties of water and electrical power.”

The promise of water attracted farmers and developers from across the nation. The phony supply of water created an insatiable demand that was never viable over the long term. As Doug French writes, “government’s damming of the Colorado River attempted to cheat Mother Nature by bringing water to the desert southwest — water that just isn’t and never was there.”

The Hoover Dam boondoggle sprung to mind when I recently watched the classic film noir Chinatown. Starring a young Jack Nicholson, Chinatown is based on the seedy dealings of water rights in Los Angeles during the 1930s. Access to water, it turns out, has always been a topic of contention in the southern California area.

The film begins with private investigator J.J. Gittes being hired to investigate the husband of Evelyn Mulwray. Said husband is the owner of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. During his investigation, Gittes stumbles upon a nefarious scheme to rob the city of much-needed water and transfer it to a newly-cultivated valley. Mulwray ends up dead for discovering the plan. Gittes struggles to put the pieces together while protecting Mulwray’s widow from danger.

Chinatown is considered a classic of American cinema because it portrays the unsavory underbelly of black market activity. Government corruption is a prominent theme, but the state is also portrayed as a positive mechanism for distributing water rights. Mulwray is regarded as a hero for transferring the responsibility of water allocation “to the people” rather than keep it in private hands. The idea that government arrogance is to blame for water misappropriation is not an explored theme of the film.

Gittes finds out the hard way that passing the ownership of water from private to public doesn’t weed out the tendency for corruption of the former. Rather, it incentivizes misuse of the public trust by putting bureaucrats in charge of one of life’s necessity. A shady deal is hatched to annex a neighboring valley into Los Angeles, while using this insider knowledge to scoop up the land at discount prices.

This scheme, while fictional, is loosely based on the California water wars of the early 20th century. A century of government meddling has turned the issue of water rights on its head, and further centralized control of waterways in local, state, and federal governments. Just as the residents of Los Angeles fought over water with local farmers, the residents of Las Vegas will soon find themselves fighting with surrounding states over what’s left of Lake Mead. None of the power players seem to care that the current population settlements of the southwestern United States cannot last. One day the water will run out. The sooner this reality is confronted, the better.

Admittedly, the ownership of water and its various bodies is a difficult topic. Rivers and tributaries don’t flow by man’s commands. They can be directed, but never fully controlled. Privatization of water rights would be a good start for restoring sane usage of natural resources. Don’t expect as much to happen though. Government control is far too entrenched in the process to be removed easily.

Forget it Jake, it’s socialism.

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James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of Mises Canada and a regular contributor to the Mitrailleuse . Send him mail

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