The fountain at Ken Genser Square in front of City Hall reflects the sunset. (File photo)

By Michael Feinstein

From the earliest migrations across Africa millions of years ago — to today’s international geopolitical conflicts — the struggle to equitably and sustainably live off natural resources has been a driving force in human history. ‘Who controls access to what resources’ often determines who lives well and who not, and is perhaps the greatest intersection between social justice and environment on our planet — for individuals, nations and between generations.

Santa Monica and water independence

One of the main reasons Santa Monica is an independent city today — instead of being a part of the City of Los Angeles — is that for most of its history, Santa Monica has controlled its own water supply.

When Santa Monica was first established in 1875, city founders Senator John P. Jones, Colonel Robert S. Baker and his wife Arcadia Bandini de Stearns de Baker built a reservoir filled from nearby Kuruvungna Springs (adjacent to today’s University High in West L.A.), then piped water to Santa Monica. But as the city grew, residents watched neighboring Los Angeles gain rights in 1902 to the Owens Valley water supply (in Central California) — spurring LA’s growth and development, while Santa Monica’s own water supply remained limited.

In 1912, the Santa Monica City Council considered a consultant’s recommendation to either annex itself into Los Angeles to acquire an interest in the Owens River water, or purchase the private water companies serving Santa Monica at that time, including the Santa Monica Land & Water Company (successor to Jones and the Bakers). In 1916 residents approved a $712,500 bond measure to acquire those water companies with 56.6% of the vote, then in 1917 voted against annexation into LA. This was followed by three more city water bonds in 1923, 1948 and 1958 – to build five more reservoirs and gain more water-bearing land. Santa Monica was also one of the first cities to invest in the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) back in 1928, to bring in water from the Colorado River.

In recent years Santa Monica has focused more upon reducing demand—- a strategy that makes even more sense as climate change makes it more likely that future droughts will be increasingly severe. Since the adoption of the City’s Sustainable City Plan in 1994, Santa Monica has adopted a range of ecologically-oriented water conservation, efficiency, storage and reclamation strategies and practices. In 2012, the City Council declared a goal of water independence by 2030. Today the City is already close to 80% local water and 20% from the MWD.

Public transit and mobility independence

Here in Santa Monica we are rightfully celebrating the arrival of the Expo Line light rail, which gives us a major new east/west public transit option — after almost 30 years of advocating for its financing and construction. At the same time, we are about to lose a far more modest north/south option, although most Santa Monicans probably don’t know it.

I only found about this loss by chance, after recently returning to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) from South America. After clearing customs, I went to the curbside FlyAway bus stop, only to find that their Santa Monica service was scheduled to terminate Sept. 6. At $8 point to point between LAX and 2nd/Colorado (or vice-versa), the service has been the right combination of cost and convenience for me since it first opened in July 2014. Now this route is soon to be gone — which raises the painfully slow progress we are experiencing in Southern California to build a regionally viable public transit system.

When I was first elected to the City Council in 1996, there was already a working group in place of representatives from Santa Monica, Culver City, the City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles, to look at some form of rail/trolley line that would eventually run from Santa Monica to the South Bay, including a stop at LAX.  Today that north/south public transit corridor concept is no closer to reality, and the new Airport Metro Connector/96th Street Transit Station that will connect LAX to the regional rail system in 2024 will be built with out any such connection.

To fund our regional system, county voters have been asked to approve bond measures, which which owing to a requirement in Proposition 13 from 1978, require a two-thirds vote for approval. In 2008 Measure R passed with 67.22% of the vote, authorizing a half cent sales to raise approximately $40 billion over 30 years. In 2012 Measure J ‘failed’ with 66.1%, which would have extended the half cent tax another 30 years.  On the state level, high speed rail between Los Angeles and the Bay Area remains a mostly unfunded dream.

On the federal level, American Public Transit Association estimated in 2013 that authorization levels for federal public transportation programs in Fiscal Years 2015 through 2020 should total approximately $100.4 billion, including approximately $24 billion to maintain and expand existing bus services, $37 billion to do the same with existing rail services and another $34 billion for projects in the federal “pipeline” for 45 new fixed-guideway starts and extensions.

Public transit or war?

This all seems like a lot of money — but what about the costs of U.S.-sponsored wars in far off-lands to control the supply of oil and other natural resources? Between 2003 and 2015, the direct annual costs of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ranged between $68 billion and $186 billion. In 2010, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimated the direct and indirect costs of the war in Iraq alone up to that point was $3 trillion. These numbers dwarf the costs associated with funding our public transit needs.

Had we chosen to redirect those funds into public transit — instead of wars to occupy other countries to control their natural resources and distribution lines, we could have had a 2050 public transportation system in place today. With it, we could have already greatly reduced our use of oil, our ecological footprint, while minimizing geopolitical conflict and the accompanying pressure to trade in our civil liberties in the name of “security.”

Ecological sustainability means real independence 

An economy based upon unlimited consumption of finite resources on a finite planet is inevitably destined to create Darwinian-like conflicts within our species. By contrast, an ecologically oriented lifestyle promoting the use of renewable resources can enable us to realize a more equitable and lasting abundance.

With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper, while creating half of the globe’s solid waste.

As we celebrate our nation’s political independence, let’s also ponder the relationship between this per-capita consumption and the full-cycle sustainability and well-being of ourselves and others — and adjust our personal habits and our political choices accordingly.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) .  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.