What's trust got to do with it?

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: I didn't foresee the final turn that a discussion about "water wars" would take at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on Thursday. Our focus in this session of "Just Add Water: The Discussions" was the people and struggles that have made our water systems cleaner, healthier, and safer for all, from Mono Lake to East LA and Santa Monica Bay.

The museum's mission--"to inspire wonder, discovery, and responsibility"--has been a guiding light for the discussions, which I have been moderating. Earlier sessions had covered wonder and discovery. This one, I thought, would turn to responsibility and the tools and methods that people can use to improve how LA manages its water.

justaddwater4.jpgClean water doesn't just come from nature. It's made by people too. I expected that the conversation would revolve around the lawsuits, grassroots organizing, politics, power, money, laws, and regulations that people can use to make sure that we take responsibility for our water, for people, and for nature. I expected talk of EIRs (environmental impact reports) and TMDLs (total maximum daily load limits for pollutants), and we did have a fair amount of that.

I didn't foresee that so much of the conversation would be about trust. Sure, it was not surprising that Mark Gold, the former head of Heal the Bay, now at UCLA, and my collaborator on this column, brought up the "public trust" doctrine. The legal principle was upheld in a court case that protected Mono Lake and restricted the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's ability to divert water from the streams that fill the desert lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.

But it was interesting to hear how trust played out in Elsa Lopez's work with the Mothers of East Los Angeles connecting Mono Lake to water use in her community. The mothers had successfully fought to keep a prison and a toxic incinerator out of their neighborhood. And they understood the connection between using less water and protecting Mono Lake. Building on the trust they had established household by household, they persuaded hundreds of residents to install low-flush toilets, and began taking kids from the neighborhood on an annual trip to Mono Lake.

Mary Pardo, a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, who has studied the Mothers of East LA, said that the trust that is built up person to person in grassroots-organizing networks is the key to their strength, their long-term success, and their ability to change and adapt to challenges in their communities.

But there are real difficulties in building trust at higher levels in a world of water wars. Ed Reyes, a Los Angeles City Council member who was "termed out" because of term limits last fall, worried that the constant churn of elections and turnover in elected officials, who move from one office to another, is making it increasingly difficult to sustain the trust needed to develop the kinds of long term strategies for water that we will need in the future.

It will likely come as no surprise to readers of this column that Mark Gold underlined that trust has to be earned. Transparency is key to that trust, he said. We're all going to have to conserve more water and pay more for the water we use in order to fund the repairs and innovations that we need to make in our water systems in LA. But if we're going to do that, we need to know that the water we save and the money we spend will be used responsibly.

And right now that's not at all clear.

"Just Add Water: The Discussions" continues this Thursday, August 7, with the final session "Some Like It Hot." We'll discuss how to survive and thrive in a hotter LA, and adapt to climate change and increasingly stressed water supplies, all while creating a more livable, vibrant city. Our panelists will be Frances Anderton, host of KCRW's "DnA: Design & Architecture"; Alex Hall, professor in UCLA's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences; John Harris, chief curator at the Page Museum and head of vertebrate studies at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; and Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Photo courtesy of Lila Higgins.

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