Fragmented Flows: Water Supply in Los Angeles County


In the Los Angeles metropolitan region, nearly 100 public and private entities are formally involved in the management and distribution of potable water—a legacy rooted in fragmented urban growth in the area and late 19th century convictions about local control of services. Yet, while policy debates focus on new forms of infrastructure, restructured pricing mechanisms, and other technical fixes, the complex institutional architecture of the present system has received little attention. In this paper, we trace the development of this system, describe its interconnections and disjunctures, and demonstrate the invisibility of water infrastructure in LA in multiple ways—through mapping, statistical analysis, and historical texts. Perverse blessings of past water abundance led to a complex, but less than resilient, system with users accustomed to cheap, easily accessible water. We describe the lack of transparency and accountability in the current system, as well as its shortcomings in building needed new infrastructure and instituting new water rate structures. Adapting to increasing water scarcity and likely droughts must include addressing the architecture of water management.

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Fig. 1

Source: shapefiles from the LA County GIS Data Portal, California Environmental Health Tracking Program, LAFCO, and individual suppliers (California Water Service Company, Golden State Water Company, Suburban Water Systems, Park Water Company, City of Azusa, City of Torrance, City of Downey, and Foothill MWD)

Fig. 2

Source: shapefiles from the LA County GIS Data Portal, California Environmental Health Tracking Program, LAFCO, and individual suppliers (California Water Service Company, Golden State Water Company, Suburban Water Systems, Park Water Company, City of Azusa, City of Torrance, City of Downey, and Foothill MWD)

Fig. 3

Source: SWRCB 2015 per capita use database

Fig. 4

Source: SWRCB 2015 per capita use database, QGIS Geometry functions, and calculations by the authors

Fig. 5

Source: each individual water purveyor’s website

Fig. 6

Source: data derived from 2010 Urban Water Management Plans (UWMPs) and the L.A. County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO)


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This research was possible due to NSF WSC 1204235.

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Correspondence to Stephanie Pincetl.

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Pincetl, S., Porse, E. & Cheng, D. Fragmented Flows: Water Supply in Los Angeles County. Environmental Management 58, 208–222 (2016).

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  • Water
  • Governance
  • Complexity
  • Accountability
  • Climate adaptation