Book Review: Thirsty, by Marc Weingarten

For aficionados of California water history, there is probably no better-known story than the conflict over water between Los Angeles and the residents of Owens Valley that occurred in the early 20th century.  This famous episode has been told and re-told countless times and has been the subject of numerous extensive treatments by capable scholars including Abraham Hoffman, Norris Hundley, Donald Jackson, William Kahrl, Gary Libecap, Marc Reisner, and John Walton.  Thus, when another book, like this new one by journalist Marc Weingarten, comes along and tells the story yet again, it needs to be clear why another treatment is warranted.  I think the answer is that it depends upon two things: how much you already know about the story, and how much you want to know.

If you are relatively new to studying California water history, there may be no better place to start than reading about the Los Angeles-Owens Valley episode.  It is not just that it is a rollicking good story, full of intrigue, sabotage, violence, political chicanery, and vivid personalities.  It is also of historical significance, being the first major long-distance transfer of water within the state.  And as such, it inaugurated the modern era of water development in California, in which various factors have given rise to steadily increasing pressures to move water around the state.

If you are not already familiar with the story, this book is a nice introduction.  Weingarten hits the main highlights of the story, constructs a sustaining narrative based on the life of the principal protagonist William Mulholland, provides some useful insights into important aspects of the dispute, and writes in an engaging, lively journalist’s way.

If you are already familiar with the episode from having read previous scholarly treatments, there is not a whole lot in Weingarten’s narrative that will surprise you.  Many of the details are well known, including the historical context of rapid growth in Los Angeles at the turn of the century and the resulting increasingly urgent demands for new water development.  These twin facts gave rise to the behind-the-scenes intrigue behind Los Angeles’ ultimately successful attempts to acquire Owens Valley’s water and the role played by various key personages including Los Angeles mayor Fred Eaton, the double agent Joseph Lippincott, and most notably, William Mulholland.  And finally, Weingarten ably discusses Mulholland’s personal traits and quirks, which probably ultimately contributed both to the successful construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the tragic collapse of the Saint Francis Dam.  But the narrative is well-constructed and the writing is lively and engaging.

What professional historians may find somewhat dissatisfying is the relative lack of contextualization of the narrative within existing scholarship.  One of the interesting issues surrounding the episode concerns how to properly interpret the roles played by Los Angeles and Owens Valley.  Early histories of the episode were remarkably one-sided and highly selective in their use of evidence to favor one side or the other.  However, recent histories by scholars such as William Kahrl, Abraham Hoffman, and Gary Libecap have put forth considerably more nuanced views of what happened and why.  Though Weingarten cites many of these earlier studies at various junctures in his argument, he does not provide a clear idea of how his argument fits with previous scholarship.  Thus, professional historians may come away uncertain as to the book’s scholarly contribution.

Having said that, I would argue that this book plays a useful role in making this important event in California water history more widely known to a general readership.  Professional histories can sometimes overwhelm more casual readers with more details and information than they really want, or often, need.  As a popular history, this book works well in telling the basic story of Los Angeles vs. Owens Valley in an engaging way.  And speaking for myself as a professional economic historian, this book will have served an important function if it encourages readers intrigued by the set of events in the story to delve more deeply into other studies for more of the details.

Published by

Mark Kanazawa

I am Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College, Northfield, MN