At the beginning of the last century, L.A. Mayor Frederick Eaton and William Mulholland, superintendent of the city's newly created Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), plotted to gain control of water sources in Owens Valley, which left Owens Lake dry and area farmers with little recourse.
The result was the completion of the first Los Angeles Aqueduct, which supplied the city with much of its water from 1913 until a second aqueduct was completed in 1970. (Los Angeles also draws water from Northern California via the California Aqueduct and competes with other Western states for water from the Colorado River.)
The city of Los Angeles recently began atoning for its sins by returning some of the water to the Owens region, which has forced L.A.'s 3.8 million residents to do more with less. With the city's population expected to reach 4.2 million to 4.9 million by 2020, according to the Southern California Association of Governments, solutions are needed to address the area's growing water needs.
A recent conference at UCLA's School of Law, "Transboundary Environmental Management in the Arava and Beyond," proposed that Los Angeles might gain some ground regarding its often-contentious water policies if the city turned to Israel's example.
The Sept. 9 forum, sponsored by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a leading teaching and research program in the Middle East, suggested that both Israel and Los Angeles have made many of the same mistakes when trying to develop water in arid, dry lands and could learn a great deal from each other when dealing with issues of water scarcity.
"There are very strong parallels between what's going on in the Western United States and what's going on in the Middle East," said Peter Gleick, the keynote speaker at the conference.
Gleick, a MacArthur Fellow and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental research organization, said both countries are struggling with the issue of how to best share their water supplies with neighbors. Although Israel, according to Gleick, faces the more complicated problem of sharing water from sources like the Sea of Galilee, natural underground aquifers and the Jordan River with its Jordanian and Palestinian neighbors, the dilemma in both countries is much the same.
Moreover, Gleick said, these transboundary issues extend far beyond conflicts about water. With an abundance of vehicles and factories in both regions, combating air pollution can be an equally contentious issue.
Despite the scope of the problems, Gleick insists that each region's failure to disentangle environmental challenges stems from a lack of direction rather than a lack of attainable solutions.
"I don't think the water crisis is the result of a lack of resources, a lack of money ... but a lack of a vision of where we want to be," he said.
Gleick said experts would do well in thinking more about critical environmental goals -- like the fair and efficient distribution of water, and collaborative decision making -- rather than dwelling exclusively on questions that surround engineering or money.
After all, it is the more engineered, less ecological approach to environmental problems that has left areas in the Western United States -- like Owens Valley and the Colorado River -- in less than optimal states. Although experts hope Owens Valley is on its way to recovery, the overuse of the Colorado by the United States and Mexico has caused the river to no longer consistently reach its delta. Manipulating waterways in Israel has also caused severe problems.
"What we had in the 1950s was the beginning of a ... very technologically driven approach to how to access the waters," said Clive Lipchin, director of research at Arava. "Small-scale diversions began to be set up."
These manipulations have come at a cost, he said. The country's most significant water diversion project -- the National Water Carrier -- was completed in 1964 and was intended for irrigation in the south.
But the diversion of water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev "has severely impacted ... the Jordan River and the Dead Sea," Lipchin said.
"The Jordan is mostly dry except for sewage and wastewater and the Dead Sea is shrinking at around one meter per year," he said.
In addition, Southern California needs to think more about desalination and the treatment of wastewater, Gleick said.
Aside from using wastewater as drinking water, as is currently being done in Orange County, he said it can be used for flushing toilets and watering lawns.
"It should be regarded as an asset rather than a liability," he said.
Caitlin MacLean of the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, an independent think-tank that aims to create a more democratic, efficient global economy, said Gleick's presentation made her think twice about her organization's efforts in Israel.
"We're looking for financial solutions to aid the river clean-up," she said, referring to several river projects in Israel.
Instead, MacLean said she came away from the conference recognizing the importance of obtaining a variety of expertise when brainstorming solutions.
The Milken Institute is holding two environmental conferences in Israel in November, and MacLean said she plans to have experts from all sectors -- environmental organizations, water authorities, engineers -- present.
"These are the people that know how to spend the money," she said.
During his presentation, Gleick said: "In the 21st century, we have to understand that water is not just an engineering question, but it's wrapped up in social values and cultural values and religious values."
Lee Wallach, president of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California, said Gleick's speech aligned perfectly with his organization's goal: To forge connections between Judaism and the environment.
But he added that Gleick's presentation was essentially "preaching to the choir."
LADWP General Manager H. David Nahai, who didn't attend the conference, said that Gleick's suggestion to look to Israel as an example might be a smart one.
After all, Nahai said, 75 percent of wastewater is recycled in Israel, while Los Angeles only recycles 1 percent.
When LADWP first introduced wastewater treatment plans in the 1990s, critics branded it "toilet to tap," which helped kill the effort. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was among those critics, has since made the reintroduction of treated wastewater into the water supply a centerpiece of his plan to address Los Angeles' water needs in the next 20 years.
Nahai hopes his push to recycle wastewater will succeed this time around.
"It's what's being done the world over," he said.