Abstract: The Influence of the Los Angeles "Oligarchy" on the Governance of the Municipal Water Department, 1902-1930: A Business Like Any Other or a Public Service?

Fionn MacKillop


The municipalization of the water service in Los Angeles (LA) in 1902 was the result of a (mostly implicit) compromise between the city's political, social, and economic elites. The economic elite (the "oligarchy") accepted municipalizing the water service, and helped Progressive politicians and citizens put an end to the private LA City Water Co., a corporation whose obsession with financial profitability led to under-investment and the construction of a network relatively modest in scope and efficiency. The "oligarchy" accepted municipalization on the condition that the water service remain self-sustainable with respect to investments and operating costs. Moreover, the oligarchy benefited hugely from public investments, such as land speculation in desert made habitable by giant water infrastructures. Profit-making was part of the reason why the business class accepted infringement of the dogma of LA free enterprise. Progressives, faithful to the motto of one of the movement leaders, President Theodore Roosevelt, aimed to achieve "the greatest good for the greatest number," to disperse water service as much as possible, and foster widespread access. They had a social and even a moral agenda and were trying to increase LA's political influence in Southern California. From the start these conflicting views of what the municipal system should be and how it should operate, exerted influence on both the governance of the company and water network planning in LA.

BEH On-Line Paper