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Building Equity in the Ever-Evolving Urban Infrastructure of Water in Los Angeles

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

Water is an essential part of life. We use it to drink, cook, clean farm, and countless other things. Have you ever noticed how many freeways and roads are alongside rivers? Historically, where you find water, there are usually settlements nearby. Waterways like rivers and lakes allow for the movement and development of infrastructure to build civilizations and our oceans serve as roadways to find distant lands. The ways we use water in the built environment is fully dependent on how access is decided. Today we look at how the use and access of water in Los Angeles evolves over time, by looking at the relationship between water, demographics, political power, and the environment. We will analyze the social-political process around water policy and look at the outcomes these processes have in marginalized communities within the infrastructure created for water access in Los Angeles. Water policy is changing in Los Angeles and we can ensure that water infrastructure moves towards more equity, green infrastructure, and sustainability. So, let’s get into it!


Many don’t know this but California was a part of Mexico. Prior to Mexico, it was a part of Spain. During these times there were laws and practices that carried over when California became a part of the United States. Some of these practices included the relationship with water.

When California was a province of Spain Spanish, Governor Felipe de Neve instituted a water infrastructure called zanjas. Zanjas were man-made ditches that collected water. This water was used to cultivate the soil and for domestic needs. An essential component of the zanjas was that it was for public use. Any development had to be approved by the town council to ensure the development was for public benefit. The town council appointed a zanjero to manage the zanjas and settled any issues the community had. The Zanjero was in charge of regulating usage and laws. It was illegal to use zanjas for laundry, washing animals, or disposing of animal remains. The zanjero would make a recommendation to the town council regarding labor, repairs, and financial needs. The council would ask the citizens to provide the necessary resources to address the zanjas’ need. This zanjas water infrastructure was continued until around the 1870's (Torres-Rouff, 2006).

The Table

As more US Immigrants settled in California, the relationship between the environment, the community, and the individual began to change. The biggest change was how US Immigrants intended to use the land and how that conflicted with the laws and practices of the Mexican Californians. US Immigrants movement west was rooted in the promise of access to land that yielded unlimited commercial potential (Torres-Rouff, 2006). European Americans immigrated to Los Angeles with visions of the come up. The come up is also known as taking a chance to make capital gains, and that vision was dependent on the commercial availability of water. The Mexican Californians practiced an agrarian approach to water access. They believed in providing an adequate and dependable supply of water to the village. In return, the city demanded a payment of tribute in the form of money or crops. Under the Spanish and Mexican rule, Los Angeles retained all rights to the water and used it to benefit communal interests. This meant that the settlers also had to pay taxes in order to retain their right to use the land (Torres-Rouff, 2006). This did not fit the US Immigrant’s capitalistic ideological approach to water access. They generally believed that water had no intrinsic value, no integrity that must be respected outside of its commercial use. Many historians argued that the US immigrants who arrived in the Los Angeles, California area viewed water as a commercial instrument (Torres-Rouff, 2006).

In 1850 California officially became a part of the United States, however, there was still a relatively large Mexican Californian population. For the first two decades, many of the water laws that were followed under Spanish and Mexican rule were still in practice. Because of the fundamental differences of ideology, the migration of US Immigrants into California caused much tension with the Mexican Californians regarding how resources like water were managed. Between 1840-1870, U.S. immigrants and Mexican Californians repeatedly battled over water, public land, and ownership rights (Torres-Rouff, 2006). The values of these two groups were not aligned and it affected the way they approached joint policy, and infrastructural design to their water systems.

By 1870 there were more US Immigrants (New Californians) than Mexican Californians (Mexicans). This allowed the New Californians to take complete control of the Los Angeles City Council. With this control, they begin to create new laws that supported the capitalist ideologies pertaining to water. One of the first laws implemented was a change in the infrastructure of water access. Instead of the zanjas infrastructure that made water access equitable to everyone in the city, the New Californians wanted to build a new water system with closed pipes. They argued that this infrastructure was needed to maintain public health and improve access to water. They convinced some of the elite Mexican families to allow these closed water pipes to be built on their land. Some individuals that represented these families included Doña Arcadia de Bandini, Ramona Sepulveda, Agustín Machado, Angel Reyes, and Dionisio Botinin. These families were instrumental in getting the first closed sewage pipes built in Los Angeles in 1873 (Torres-Rouff, 2006).

The Mexican families soon regretted the partnership with the New Californian ran city council. Soon after these closed pipes were completed the city council created new policies that required property owners to maintain the closed pipes or receive fines, and ultimately face a lean on their property if they did not comply. This was very different from the system the Mexican property owners were used to where everyone pitched in financially to maintain the water infrastructure. These policies had no appeal process (Torres-Rouff, 2006). The New Californians were strong-arming the Mexicans by using policy to force the property owners to pay for the development of the closed sewage and water pipes or face losing their land. With the political power of the Mexican diminished, they were at the will of the political power of the New Californians. Another consequence of this initial imbalance of political power was that the closed pipe sewage deposited untreated waste back into a specific section of the zanja networks still being used by Mexican and Chinese communities (Torres-Rouff, 2006). This can be seen as an act of environmental injustice or racism facilitated by the city council. This injustice finally ended in 1891 when public funding was granted for a comprehensive sewer network that would treat some waste for agricultural purposes and dump the rest into the Pacific Ocean. However, this did not end the injustice seen in the access to the sewage and irrigation systems.

By 1891 the population of Los Angeles increased to over 50,000. The Mexican and Chinese communities were a small fraction of that number. Although the city council expressed closed pipe infrastructure would be for everyone, they failed to build equitable closed pipe sewage and irrigation access (Torres-Rouff, 2006). It was not until almost 1900 that one sewage pipe connected to each of the Mexican and Chinese communities was built. Although they received water pipelines, they were constructed with faulty material which caused them to fail often. This inequity of closed pipe access interfered with the sustainability of health in Mexican and Chinese neighborhoods. This paved the way for Mexican and Chinese neighborhoods to be stereotyped as dirty and diseased (Torres-Rouff). Ultimately, inequitable distribution of water access constructed an identity of racial hierarchy.

By the 1900s Los Angeles had solidified its practice of building water infrastructure that was not equitable to marginalized communities. It is important to note that these practices stifled the sustainability of health which consequently effected academics and economics access due to the disease that was spread from the inequitable infrastructure. It is also important to note that Los Angeles’ first discriminatory laws and practices that influenced the built environment were aimed at the Mexican, and Chinese residences. However, when African Americans migrated west into Los Angeles during the 1930’s-60s, they were also targeted by race based disenfranchisement through water infrastructure built in their communities. Federal urban surveys done in the 1930’s showed that 16.2 percent of all dwelling units were either in need of major repairs or unfit for habitation, 14 percent were built without private indoor toilets, and 20 percent did not have bathtubs in the unit (CQ Researcher, 1952).

The City of Los Angeles, sometimes with the help of the federal government, facilitated systemic discrimination in marginalized communities through the city layout, zoning regulations, and developments that put these communities at extreme health risk. Local and federal government agencies have used eminent domain to target these communities through Title I slum clearance policies. These policies targeted these areas for redevelopment and commercial real-estate projects. The Alameda factories, oil refineries, railways, freeways, and even the Dodgers stadium dislocated marginalized communities. These laws made federal aid available to communities for clearing slums and blighted areas without regard to whether the land was to be used for private or public purposes (CQ Researcher, 1952).

These developments not only displaced whole communities, but they also established borders which aided segregation, and environmental racism (Kelley, 2015). Due to the lack of efficient regulatory zoning policies at the time, highly toxic waste producing industries were developed right next to residential housing. This can be seen in many marginalized communities in cities like Wilmington, Long Beach, Watts, and San Pedro to name a few. As a result, communities surrounding these industry-driving facilities face lower air quality, toxic soil and toxic groundwater. The contamination of the local water reservoirs in urban areas over the years is a major reason Los Angeles had to start sourcing its water from the Colorado River and Northern California (Krishnakumar, 2015). Even today, cities like Watts and Compton face health risk because of how the toxic ground water seeps into the soil of parks, front yards, and school yards. On average, 18 municipalities who access groundwater to serve 5,000 or more residents have 50 percent or more of contaminated groundwater reserves. Due to demand and inefficient infrastructure, some of these cities are being served toxic water, and are not always being told (Krishnakumar, 2015). These environmental injustices built in the water infrastructure have real health implications for not just the communities most vulnerable, but they also contribute to system-wide contamination.

Here and Now

Today we are facing new challenges which give us an opportunity to address a century’s worth of inequitable water policy and infrastructure. Climate change and failing infrastructure are the main components forcing local state and federal agencies to focus on infrastructure development. The water management entities have to move towards following new practices which allow more sustainable water infrastructure development. There are many ideas being looked on how new infrastructure can be developed. It is important that as new infrastructure is being explored, equity, inclusion, and sustainability are centered as priorities.

Failing Infrastructure

Sixty-four percent of the 6,000 plus miles of water piping in Los Angeles is seventy to one hundred years old. Much of the piping is built with material operating past its life expectancy. There are four types of material used for water piping. These materials include, cast iron which makes up 68.0 percent of the water piping, ductile iron which makes up 12.2 percent steel at 10.3 percent, and asbestos cement at 9.0 percent (Stevens, 2015). Cast iron, making up the highest percentage of the piping is expected to last 50 to 65 years, and the majority of those pipes were constructed over 50 years ago. Cities throughout Los Angeles are dealing with repair needs and since 2006 over 13,000 leaks have been reported. (Stevens, 2015) One issue that stands out, is that cities like Venice, Hyde Park, Boyle Heights, and Hollywood experience some of the highest reported leaks. These are also areas given a low grade during redlining policies which gave developers incentive to poorly invest in infrastructure.

The current water infrastructure is managed by over 100 fragmented groups that currently lack a cohesive water access process that allows consistency throughout the region. Metropolitan Water District and San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District are two of the main water suppliers, known as the contractors. These groups receive annual allocations of water from the Colorado River and resell water to the wholesalers. The wholesalers take the water they buy from contractors, or other wholesalers and sell it to the retailers. The retailer’s sale it directly to residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural customers (Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA; California Center for Sustainable Communities; UCLA Water Resources Group, 2015). The issue with this system is that there is no consistency of pricing or quality. This results in inequitable water access and lack of efficiency. With over 400 water systems throughout the LA metro area, water prices can vary from $200-$2000 annually (Kane, 2017). Collaboration between water agencies is vital in order to take on this issue of water management because climate change is impacting the way we will access water in the future. Historically we have proven that water infrastructure has not focused on equity and we have seen the results. It is time to innovate infrastructure and management to meet the challenge of water access in Los Angeles. Let’s talk about how.

Rebuilding the Water Access and Management

As climate change increasingly threatens our traditional water sourcing practices, it has forced us to rethink the water access infrastructure. The reality is that unjust policies used to develop and regulate the infrastructure for water access have greatly contributed to the overwhelming plight we face today. It also challenges how we can move forward. Our water management is an old artifact of an earlier period where our government values supported the infrastructures that negatively affected health outcomes for marginalized communities. It is essential that as we inevitably approach a need for new infrastructure, and water management practices, we build scalable systems that can be reliable and sustainable within a context of limited government and budget resources.

One of the most popular innovative water ideas is the use of groundwater. Groundwater is collected from storm runoff and surface water. There are seven adjudicated groundwater basins in the Los Angeles region. Some municipalities access groundwater to meet their water demands, but they must adhere to the regulation and extraction rights set by adjudications (Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA; California Center for Sustainable Communities; UCLA Water Resources Group, 2015). These regulations dictate limits on access and usage. It is important to note that as groundwater is being considered to address local water access, many urban cities like Watts would have to undergo a complete remediation of their groundwater. Due to decades of unregulated toxic waste, Watts’ groundwater is highly toxic with high levels of trichloroethene and tetrachloroethene, which can cause birth defects and cancer. Toxic ground water is usually only found out after a development project is stalled when the soil is tested. In this case it was found that the ground water caused several chemicals including the ones mentioned to soak into the soil where there was a proposed develop project (Chandler, 2017). This groundwater contamination issue poses immediate health risks and prevents cities like Watts from equally participating in ground water infrastructure development initiatives.

Building Equitable and Sustainable Water Infrastructure

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did an assessment in Los Angeles in 2012 to look at opportunities for green infrastructure specifically regarding water management. The EPA found that most of the local water sourcing opportunity was being lost because water was picking up toxins, bacteria, metals, and waste as it made its way into local water systems (Council for Watershed Health, 2013). They made suggestions and provided technical assistance to develop greener infrastructure pilots in some Los Angeles communities. The EPA defines green infrastructure as the use of vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments (Council for Watershed Health, 2013). Some of the technical assistance provided by the EPA for green infrastructure development included both vegetational, and non-vegetational infrastructure suggestions.

The Non-vegetation suggestions included rainwater capture which involves rerouting rooftop drainage pipes to drain rainwater into rain barrels, cisterns, or underground vaults for storage and reuse. Another suggestion was a dry well system which would be represented by a well, other than an improved sinkhole or subsurface fluid distribution system, completely above the water table (Council for Watershed Health, 2013). This would avoid the dry well water from being contaminated with the other ground water sources in the Los Angeles region. Permeable pavement is a way to address both street infrastructure and water management in one. Permeable pavements infiltrates, treats, and/or stores rainwater where it falls. Permeable pavements may be constructed from pervious concrete, porous asphalt, permeable interlocking pavers, and several other materials. This infrastructural change is cost effective especially places where land values are high like Los Angeles (Council for Watershed Health, 2013). As streets are often being repaved, this can be something that can be phased in as roads need replacement.

On the vegetation side, the EPA suggested infiltration trenches, constructed wetlands, bioretention cells, and downspout disconnection to a pervious area, among other things. The irony of the infiltration trenches, is that they are exactly same as zanjas and can be used to serve a similar purpose. The constructed wetlands infrastructure would facilitate the natural processes involving wetland vegetation, soils, and their associated microbial assemblages to assist in treating run-off or other sources of water. Bioretention cells are rain gardens that serve as vegetated basins which collect and absorb runoff from rooftops, sidewalks, and streets. Bioretention mimics the natural hydrology process of infiltrating and evapotranspiring runoff (Council for Watershed Health, 2013).

These rain gardens are versatile and can be a great initiative to reclaim greenspace in concrete infested communities within the urban landscape. Lastly, the infrastructure for the downspout disconnection, reroutes rooftop drainage pipes to drain rainwater to permeable areas instead of the storm sewer. This would allow storm water to infiltrate into the soil (Council for Watershed Health, 2013). All of these are cost effective and scalable ways to address some of the water management issues that cause inequity, and effect outcomes of social mobility, economics, and health for marginalized communities. They also address infrastructural issues regarding the sustainability, and management of water sources for the Los Angeles Region.

The City of Los Angeles’ has taken steps to implement some of the suggestions of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Resilience and Evaluation and Awareness Tool within the infrastructure plan for water management, access, and use. This is explained in the Resiliency Los Angeles Action plan. Within the action plan, the One Water L.A. coalition is an integrated framework for managing water access of the city’s watersheds, water resources, and water facilities in an environmentally, economically, and socially beneficial manner (City of Los Angeles, 2018). The city is creating resources and incentives for Los Angelinos, around water resilience and access to help facilitate this goal. The city is investing in green infrastructure and storm water retention to increase the number of projects that capture water for reuse and improve water quality, by 2028 (City of Los Angeles, 2018). They plan to do this by partnering with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to offer incentives that encourage homes and business owners to use water more efficiently (City of Los Angeles, 2018). These actions not only achieve sustainable and resilient outcomes by conserving resources and reducing energy, they also bring back communal water usage resources, and lower the cost for home and business owners. The city also has programs that teach sustainable gardening techniques for native and drought-tolerant species, efficient irrigation, rainwater capture and reuse, and local water efficiency ordinances (City of Los Angeles, 2018).

In addition to collaboration efforts toward resilient water distribution through green infrastructure, the Los Angeles Department of Water Power (LADWP) also has initiatives to address failing water pipe infrastructure. LADWP has a Plan to hire mainline crew workers to install new water piping at a rate of 56 miles per year (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, 2018). They plan to prioritize this initiative using several key factors which includes age of pipe, soil conditions, and leak history. They are currently planning to replace 500 miles of leak-prone and high-risk mainlines throughout the city in the next 10 years (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, 2018).

In conclusion

With the failing water infrastructure, climate change, and environmental impact of the urban landscape, it is inevitable that we have to redevelop our water infrastructure and rethink the way we manage water access. As innovative approaches are being implemented to address the water access infrastructure, it is important that we use the past as a reference to avoid rebuilding the same practices of inequity within the new infrastructure. The inequitable development in the past has had disastrous consequences.

A part of making sure this plan does not repeat the past requires the government agency to be held accountable to building values of environmental justice, equity, and sustainability into the water infrastructure. This is only done when constituents participate by accessing resources, attending council meetings and demanding action. The remanence discriminatory infrastructure and outdated policies is experienced every day by marginalized communities. We know that what effects one of us does not stay isolated, it affects all of us. We must look at ways to participate in these infrastructural initiatives in our local communities: build a rain garden, write your local politicians, demand testing/remediation of public fields, or even create a post on your social media to spread awareness. Someone once told me, civic engagement is an action, not a noun.

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Works Cited

Chandler, J. (2017, July 14). Toxic soil at Jordan Downs: Massive cleanup fails where LA plans to build new shops, restaurants. Retrieved from

City of Los Angeles. (2018, March). Resilient Los Anegeles. Retrieved from City of Los Angeles:

Council for Watershed Health. (2013, August). 2012 GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAM . Retrieved from

CQ Researcher. (1952, November 22). Slum Clearance: 1932–1952. Retrieved from CQ Researcher:

Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA;California Center for Sustainable Communities;UCLA Water Resources Group. (2015). Water Management in Los Angeles County; a Research Report.Los Angeles: Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA.

Kane, G. P. (2017, May 02). The Potential for an Urban Water Market in Los Angeles and Beyond. Retrieved from

Krishnakumar, R.-G. L. (2015, May 23). Groundwater contamination a growing problem in L.A. County wells. Retrieved from Los Ageles Times:

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. (2018, June). Water Infrastructure Plan. Retrieved from LADWP:

Stevens, B. P. (2015, February 16). L.A.’s aging water pipes; a $1-billion dilemma. Retrieved from Los Angeles Times:

Torres-Rouff, D. S. (n.d.). Water Use, Ethnic Conflict, and Infrastructure in Nineteenth-Century Los Angeles. Pacific Historical Review, 119-140.

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