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April 24, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Jack Nicholson, a murder and water rights

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

'Chinatown' trailer

The holidays are always great for what we in the media call a “news dump” — that’s when press agents release information because they have to, but at a time when they hope few people will notice.

Well, a couple of days after Christmas, the Bureau of Land Management approved a plan to carry billions of gallons of water from rural Nevada counties near the Utah border to Las Vegas by way of a 263-mile pipeline.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority and its general manager, Pat Mulroy, say the pipeline will be an important safeguard given coming water shortages, though environmentalists and ranchers say it will be a catastrophe for scarce water resources and the lives that depend on them.

You know what else the holidays are good for? Catching up on old movies.

So, I sat down to watch “Chinatown,” director Roman Polanski’s update of the classic noir genre, starring Jack Nicholson in the role of the cool private detective, J.J. Gittes.

Have you seen it? You should.

It blends the languid pace of the director-driven cinema of the 1970s with a menacing undercurrent — Los Angeles during the water wars.

“Are you alone?” asks Evelyn Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway.

“Isn’t everyone?” Gittes replies. It’s just one of several one-liners delivered with usual aplomb by Nicholson.

“I take a long lunch hour — all day sometimes.”

In classic noir fashion, the plot is zigzaggy and suspenseful.

Nicholson’s Gittes mostly spies on cheating spouses, and the movie begins with what seems like a simple case of infidelity on the part of Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

But when Mulwray is found dead, our private detective Gittes figures out it was a setup and that the fix is in. He soon understands Mulwray’s murder has something to do with water and spends the movie unraveling the mystery.

It turns out Mulwray was murdered because he was trying to foil a plot by greedy land developers and the corrupt water agency: They were dumping much-needed water into reservoirs and sewers to drive down the price of arid farmland so they could buy the land cheap. All the while, they were fooling Los Angeles into building a water project for their massive new land holdings, leading to highly profitable flipping. A simple but genius plan that only required murder once Mulwray figured it out.

The movie plot didn’t come from nowhere. Screenwriter Robert Towne’s source material was “Southern California: An Island on the Land” by famed California historian Carey McWilliams.

“The absence of local water resources is, indeed, the basic weakness of the region — the eternal problem,” McWilliams writes.

Towne, the screenwriter, told a reporter a few years ago, “I was reading a chapter called ‘Water Water Water,’ about how this consortium of businessmen built a pipeline to carry water from one community hundreds of miles to the San Fernando Valley, and I realized, this is how the city was formed. It was basically a criminal operation.”

In his book, McWilliams describes a scheme similar to the one that plays out in “Chinatown.”

L.A. water was secretly dumped in reservoirs and sewers “so as to create an artificial water famine.”

In 1905, by a wide margin, voters approved a $25,000,000 bond issue for the Owens Valley Aqueduct. But voters had been duped. The water was really going to the San Fernando Valley, currently a place of endless fast food drive-ins and porn sets.

The buyers purchased 108,000 acres of land in the San Fernando Valley at $5, $10 and $20 per acre, and sold it for $500 and $1,000 per acre, for a profit of $100 million.

The water came from Owens Valley, 233 miles away. The result was an environmental nightmare that Owens Valley and its stepfather Los Angeles are still dealing with today.

McWilliams referred to the episode as another example of Southern California’s “ambivalent civic ethics.”

In “Chinatown,” when Nicholson’s character confronts the villain, he asks, “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

The villain, played by John Huston, replies, “The future Mr. Gittes! The future!”

Of course, it’s just a movie.

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  1. Carry on, Patrick, ink for the novel of the Las Vegas water grab/steal of White Pine's precious and scarce water resource has yet to dry.

    There are some who will thwart that project at every turn, so it will definitely make for a real page turner!

    Change the story: compel those County Planning Commissioners to take up SUSTAINABLE community planning and ENFORCE it. It would be far better for the Clark County Planning Commission to have a building moratorium, only allowing and permitting new building on previously developed parcels (recycling/repurposing property lots and parcels), and requiring the installation of utilities that are conservation smart.

    We are living in a desert here. Strengthen what remains of our Southern Nevada communities, make them better, higher quality. Stop the blatent rubber stamping of UNsustainable housing tracts and malls that cannot be guarranteed water and power support for the future.

    Blessings and Peace,

  2. "It's Chinatown, Jake!"

  3. Well, I just hope the Goshute Tribe can put a stop to this madness!

  4. I have written comments in LV Sun over the past 7 years, presenting the same scenario as Coolican writes about, and stating in my writings that Pat Mulroy (sounds a lot like Mulwray) is only interested in buiiding her water department bigger.

    WHY? I still maintain her objective is mandated by those in power in Las Vegas - including the Chamber of Commerce - all of whom still believe what they have been saying since the Mirage was built in 1989: "Build It And They Will Come."

    So, as they came (5,000 people a month for the last 10 years prior to 2008) - GROWTH became the desired objective. This was true even if we could not SUSTAIN (as stated herein) such growth, or SUPPORT THE WATER NEEDS of a forthcoming 2 million-people population. This 263 mile pipeline is estimated to cost BILLIONS of dollars to build. That is TAXPAYER MONIES that have YET TO BE ASSESSED, folks.

    Further, since the earlier boom years the trend is for many thousands of people TO MOVE OUT of Las Vegas (source of people moving in and out: moving companies.) Thus, the population has been decreasing; not growing. So why is this pipeline idea still "on the table?"

    To solve our current needs, we built a "3rd straw" (costing $Billions) to take more water out of Lake Mead. Yet, conversely, this proposed pipeline will not only deplete the available water for the ranchers and wildlife in the north, but will also take water from UTAH. Why? HALF OF THE WATER "pool" for this 263 mile pipline is underground, in Utah.

    Part of the end-result may be to produce a more arid climate in the north. Not good for farmers, cattle ranchers, wild life - and not good for Utah. Would this solution to one problem create another?

    So even in these times of recession, devistation of markets, exreme job losses, and losses of homes and residents - the water department (and their well paid minions) STILL advocate an unnecessary plan to capture water "for the future." Does anyone know WHAT the future will be; here in Nevada, or elsewhere? I think, not.

    We do not need for Las Vegas to grow any bigger. Clark County can't support the current infrastructure, or needs of the people who live here, NOW.

    In my opinion, this pipeline idea is still alive because the water department lives in a "fishbowl" where everything they see is isolated from reality. That is, the reality of what the economics are like in Las Vegas - NOW, and what they will be (as forecasted) until around 2015 or later - when Las Vegas MAY recover from the national recession (depression?).

    I appreciate that Mr. Coolican wrote this article, because it gives more (needed) exposure to this pipeline idea. This is useful to the public because government plans seem to gain a foothold - and later, people forget about what they (e.g., the water department) are doing - - until it is too late to stop it, or THE BILL arrives.

  5. Very interesting correlation of issues, names and histories. In 1905 there were very few safeguards for the public from very powerful financial predators, like it is becoming today.

    Iram of the Pillars, also called Ubar, is the classic story from antiquities of effects from long term groundwater pumping. It was an Oasis for passing merchant caravans camels that thrived in the Arabian desert over 2000 years ago. The source of water came from a large limestone aquifer underneath. Ubar lasted for many hundreds of years until the limestone cap collapsed and the Oasis disappeared.

    It was rediscovered from pictures taken by the Space Shuttle in 1992. The 6-to 8-foot-tall remnants of seven of its eight 30-foot-tall mud-brick towers and various rooms are visible. Frankincense burners and thousands of pieces of pottery still remain to be discovered.

    The book "Water Follies" by Robert Glennon presents the modern (American) experience of "Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Fresh Water", the furthest thing from success. A copy of chapter 2 and experiences with groundwater pumping can be found on the web.

    The Water District is acting as if there is no history of long term groundwater use outside of Nevada and no public records. Perhaps, this is because the large hotels and mining interests are mostly owned by corporations with their headquarters outside of Nevada. They come here for their own sake and not for the sake of Nevada. Kirk Kerkorian of Tracinda and MGM lives in Los Angeles. The vast bulk of his Lincy Foundation fortune was given to UCLA. Barrick Gold has their major headquarters in Toronto. They pay Nevada 1% of the gross minerals proceeds and take the rest to Canada to pay much higher tax rates, which allow Canadians to afford Universal Health Coverage and leave band aids for Clark County. At least we have freedom, right? We're not controlled by sled mushing socialists in snow shoes.

    The new straw into Northern aquifers will bring new water, attract more people and boost the economy for a while. The new profits will then be pumped out of Nevada through voltage controlled aqueducts that send the transfers all the way to the Cayman Islands and beyond. That is, pumped out until the water tables drop to unusable levels and can't supply any further useful volumes.

    Then there will be 2 million or more people short of water and no new straw. They will be forced to leave in droves but the city will have been left a unique legacy: the remains of the foundations and roads of a once thriving Oasis in the desert will be visible from space for several thousand years, a lesson for future generations, even if they can't read or like the Water District, refuse to read.

    I have never addressed the QUALITY of underground water in northern Nevada. You make very good points as to why others SHOULD, and also, why THEY DON'T want to look into such quality.

    The following "quips" are suggestive of why Nevada politicians, current and former Governors, Pat Mulroy, AND the BLM are all for this pipeline:

    "An ideology, or economic agenda, has a profit-motive, and will move toward that end - without providing any sound or cost-effective rationale." (Look to actions in Washington, DC, for this example.)

    "They have their collective heads buried in the sand."

    "They believe - you CAN fool all the people, all the time."

    "Forget about the recession; money grows on trees. And they can always increase taxes."

    "Such achevement is for "The collective good" - which is more imporant than State Government's Constitutional responsibility toward its citizens" (Karl Marx, paraphrased).

    "GROWTH equals tenure and job security in Clark County."

    "Problems will occur. We will fix them later (maybe)."

    "Throw this idea at the wall, and see what sticks." (Translation: see what we can get away with - and what we need to "get around" - so our response sticks, too.)

    I wonder how many of my "quips" could be gleaned from the Water Department, and Governor's Office, Goals and MISSION Statements for this pipeline in similar language?

    Mulroy tried this pipeline idea in Mesquite, and with the BLM to increase Nevada's allocation from the Colorado River. She lost both.

    But she did convince Arizona to "bank" some water in Arizona, and thus let Nevada use some of Arizona's water allocation - in an exchange approved by the BLM.

    So in recent years, this "barter" with Utah regarding water rights, is Mulroy's next move - which may seem less a less objectionable path, to her. But not to the ranchers, farmers, et al in northern Nevada. And this pipeline has required several "studies" to get even a tentative approval. Is all this for the good of the people?

    The CC Water Dept consultants, AND the NV State Engineer, MUST HAVE KNOWN about the underground water quality issue that SunJon writes about - yet they also ignored it, or put it on "page 9999" under an "also ran" heading, or where no one would find it. That is an ruse sometimes used by lawyers to provide evidence to the opposition. Just another reason for hiring consultants: no one has to share any factual blame.

    But exactly where is the CC population growth-control-plan? There isn't one! Such a plan was developed in the NV State legislature, but the powers-that-be didn't want it, and got the legislature to kill.

    Instead, Clark County depends on DEVELOPERS to tell them what THEIR building and growth plans are. And then, CC USES Developer plans as a template for CC growth and infrastructure. What you see is what you get.

    Who knew that in the LV/NV desert, WATER could become a CASH- COW business.