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Water, Water Everywhere: A New Los Angeles Resident Gets to Know the Local Currency

As romantic as the ocean is to a desert girl, it's totally worthless in the water conversation.

The hot tub at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs is occupied starting at 8 in the morning. Women sit on pillows to protect their bikini bottoms. One of them ventures down the tub stairs and straddles the pole, letting the current buffet her in a slow circle. "Hey," a tattooed man on the other side calls out to her, lifting his bloody Mary to point. "Hey, good morning," he says. He smiles like he's pissing in an endless stream under the surface.

  • Current Chromium-6 (the "Erin Brockovich" chromium) levels in nearby Hinkley, CA: 1.19 parts per billion
  • New state goals for Chromium-6: 0.02 parts per billion
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This story begins, like most stories, as a tributary to a river. The Feather River, specifically; tributary to the Sacramento, winding its way around Yuba, Sutter, and Butte counties, over and through the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, the water in the Feather River used to be warm enough to swim in before they dammed it up to create the Oroville Dam and Reservoir. The dam was finished in 1968 and blessed by Gov. Ronald Reagan to serve the agriculture and people of Southern California.

The people of Oroville feel they were sold a false bill of goods. Campgrounds were not built, resorts did not spring up, tourism dollars did not emerge. What's more, the water is far too cold for even a summertime swim. In order to maintain artificial fish hatchery areas, frigid water is drawn from the bottom of the reservoir to feed into the river. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey categorizes the water of the Feather River as "colder than a well-digger’s ass."

I was born in Tucson, Arizona and grew up drinking groundwater from the Santa Cruz River Basin, water so clean that it felt like a resource as endless as the air itself. Tucsonans are as proud of their golf courses as they are of their water regulations. My parents still live there. On one trip home, I found that the local paper had printed a list of top water abusers in town. In the '90s, residents turned up their noses at the Central Arizona Project sludge that flowed through their taps. CAP water, originating in Lake Havasu City, travels in a massive aqueduct 336 miles to Tucson, uncovered from its source because such a measure would have quadrupled costs. Today, residential customers are largely dependent on the same wellfields they've always used.

At a house party in Silver Lake, I got tired of my wine and dumped it down the drain, rinsing the mug out before filling it with tap water. One of the hosts touched my wrist. "Don't drink that," he said, offering instead the filtered jug on the counter. From source to filter, this water has traveled from as far as Oroville, blended on its way with groundwater, Mono Lake and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Haiwee Resevoir and the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct, and a handful of other sources. You could say that this aquatic blend mirrors the mixing of cultures, making it all distinctly L.A. You could also say that the anonymous water emerges from its thankless source to quench a greedy and growing population.

At The Bazaar, the restaurant at the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, you may pair your watermelon nigiri with your choice from the water menu. Highlights include $11 for 500ml of Wattwiller still ("Its pedigree dates back to Roman times...") and $12 for a sparkling Spanish Vichy Catalán ("There are no missing minerals or salts in Vichy."). The list is dominated by Europeans, with the exception of Walnut Grove Spring water from Southern Indiana. "The Walnut Grove Spring formation is theorized by professional geologists to be 15,000+ years old," reads the menu.

  • Transportation of spring water from Fiji: 8900km by cargo ship (Fiji to Long Beach)
  • Transportation of spring water from France: 600km by heavy truck (Evian to Le Havre), 5670km by cargo ship (Le Havre to New York), 3950km by rail (New York to Los Angeles)
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I learn that my friend Mike is from Oroville (726km from Los Angeles) while we're walking to the Blue Line in Chicago. It's snowing. He remembers school trips to the dam and yearly projects about fish hatcheries and hydroelectric power. It was only when he got older that he started to realize how locals really felt about the dam; the town meetings, the yearly exposés in the Chico News and Review. I tell Mike I'm writing an article about water in L.A. He asks me if I've seen Chinatown.

Tucson and Los Angeles have the same problem on a different scale: how to support a thriving community that has busted through its local share. Without an external supply, both cities would look very different—nomadic populations, a few lucky well-owners, everyone else huddled around finicky rivers.

Mothers dip their children in the hot tub at the Ace. You can see the kids' skin pinking up. A little French girl cries, “Trop chaud, trop chaud.” I'm thinking of another watering hole, Jacob's Well in Wimberley, Texas, near Austin, where I spent the past seven years. Jacob's Well, which taps the massive, Austin-feeding Edwards Aquifer, was documented in the 1920s as shooting water six or seven feet in the air. Mothers would throw their infants into the well to have them buffeted up, laughing. The well stopped flowing in 2008 due to drought and unabated aquifer pumping.

As romantic as the ocean is to a desert girl, it's totally worthless in the water conversation. That endless stretch of chop off the coast of Santa Monica and Redondo and Venice would cost $1 to $2 per cubic meter to desalinate and render drinkable, compared to 10 to 20 cents for river water.

I told my dad I was writing an article about water in L.A. and he responded, via email: "The movie Chinatown was all about water, in the 20s. Chinatown is at The Loft next Thursday. We're going each Thursday this month, but I can't make it to Chinatown because of the Session meeting that night. It's Hollywood Hellraisers month: M*A*S*H, The Conversation, Mean Streets, Chinatown, and The Last Picture Show."

In 1913, William Mulholland dedicated the first Los Angeles Aqueduct in the Owens Valley thusly: "This rude platform is an altar, and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating the Aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children—for all time."

The Silver Lake house party is dominated by former Texans, but nobody can remember how to make a proper queso. (Salt is sprinkled. Peppers are chopped.) I'm scraping out a layer of sediment from the water jug. The host admits he's not sure the last time the filter was changed. He remembers a recent article he read about new public health goals related to Chromium-6. I tell him I'm writing an article about water in Los Angeles, gently speculate that the water out of the tap might be cleaner. He asks me if I've seen Chinatown. I haven't.

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