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Developing the Cadillac Desert

Infrastructure are the arteries and nerves of a city. This essay primarily seeks to understand water issues. We will briefly touch upon transportation first. Peak-hour transportation “problems” are common throughout the world’s cities, reflecting economic growth. Modes of transportation have not evolved at all, really, in the last 50 years: airplanes and bullet trains… That is the extent of ‘modern’ solutions of transportation. With the advent of the hyper-loop in California, and car-less oases like Masdar City in the UAE, society is rethinking the issue. The Brookings Institute’s Policy brief #128 discusses how transportation is a solution that each city must negotiate through in face of development and expansion. Tolls, expansion, or simply living with the problem were not viable solutions.

Only 4.5 percent of the total population use public transportation in the US; New York City accounts for 1% by itself! Approximately 68 million people reside in the top nine metropolitan areas of the US, or 22%. These numbers suggest that a great possibility for public transit in large US metro-cities does exist. Like water, it took several decades for Americans to move away from consuming more, and towards conserving use: for transportation, this would mean: increased biking paths, hybrid & electric vehicles, a smarter connected grid for public transit systems.

An April 2017 issue of Time magazine points to 25 infrastructure projects that must find solution to maintain US economic growth. One chief concern is a dilapidated highway system in great need of repair. Current US funding is at $941 billion; our projected needs are $1.1 trillion. We must innovate out of the problem. Triple convergence, the idea of alternative-solution commuters jumping back on the expressway if it were to expand, is a deterrent to pumping funds for increasing lanes. Thus, other means must be sought to solve the inefficiencies of rush-hour commutes, waiting lines, and transportation in general…

Moving on to water:

This last decade has witnessed an increase in water problems. Water was a sine qua non for the initial development of Los Angeles, California in the early 1900s.

“Desert Cadillac” encapsulated a development strategy that was unsustainable. Before Hollywood or Las Vegas, Los Angeles was there, a small town not too far from the Pacific Ocean. In 1902 William Mulholland became the L.A. Water Department’s superintendent. The vision shared by he and the Mayor Frederick Eaton for the city did not take form until they arrived at a solution to the water problem: the Owens Valley River, a few hundred miles towards the Sierra Nevada mountains. Their efforts galvanized a water-pipeline dream… The aqueduct project became a driver for unsustainable growth… Shady land-purchasing deals by business elites trenched the means by which the city would grow. Certainly, when 4 times the water necessary to sustain LA flooded into the counties surrounding the tiny city in 1913, an economic and population boom followed with LA absorbing the surrounding lands, pouring precious water into palms and fleeting farms.

The cost was a drying up of Owens’ Lake and valley agriculture. Tensions increased as LA guzzled increasingly greater amounts of water and land, sprawling yet larger upon the southern California plain. In 1924, local citizens of Owens Valley seized the aqueduct to redirect the flow of water back to the valley and dried lake… By 1927, with the legal battle mostly won by LA, another solution for water was being engineered. The building of a dam, however, was to become one of the biggest disasters in California history. Mulholland would assume responsibility. Celebrated as being the father and founder of LA, he now stood a chance of being indicted for the bursting of St. Francis Dam in 1928.

It remains true, ‘supremely ironic,’ that without Mulholland and Eaton LA would not have grown the way it did during the early 20th century. And, it remains to be stated: they simultaneously laid the foundations for an expansion that did not find equilibrium with its surroundings for 100 years and counting.


As the figure above indicates, Southern California continues, in the early 21st century, to search for a solution to the climatic shift, drought patterns, and water scarcity. In the 1970s Mulholland’s plans for bringing more water to the city, plans that were once shelved, were now again being studied. Water was being pulled from as far away as Colorado River and the Mono Basin.

In 1984, a small group of biologists began conducting research that would save the ecology of the region, along with the lake. In a case against the juggernaut city vs. the Mono Lake biologists. The unthinkable happened: the small group of scientists won! They began a ‘green movement’ that continues to weigh growth and development against sustainability.

Calculations for ecological accounting are increasing. In the conversations of development and sustainability, water is life: serves as habitat for freshwater marine life, a transit point for migrating birds, and allows the local flora and fauna to root. One TED talk spoke of desalinization plants built upon boats in the Pacific Ocean.

Conservation efforts must be taught early in schools; like reusing changes the paradigm of recycling – water conservation must be re-thought. Coupled with changing global weather patterns, this issue will become increasingly important, regardless of development. As urban populations innovate to conserve, reuse, filter, and distribute water more efficiently sustainability itself will find an equilibrium. Developing urban gardens and closer food sources, hydroponics, and other green solutions the world at large will decrease its demand for water. Essentially, the Malthusian conundrum reemerges: will not the human species be able to pioneer inventions faster than the demands of an ever-increasing population growth?

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