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Environment & Science

Will SoCal's love of pools dry up with the drought?

Baylee Dominguez of Los Angeles swims laps at the Glassell Park Pool on Friday, Sept. 12 during a the start of  heat wave that hit Southern California this week.
Baylee Dominguez of Los Angeles swims laps at the Glassell Park Pool on Friday, Sept. 12 during a the start of heat wave that hit Southern California this week.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Swimming pools are an iconic part of life in Southern California, and more than 43,000 dot the region.

But the historic drought may force people into rethinking that relationship. Where did the love affair start, though, when there's already a huge body of water nearby that people can relax in: the ocean?

"In some ways, the proximity to the water makes it even that much more something you want to have in your backyard," says Ryan Reft who wrote the post, "A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of the Swimming Pool in Southern California."

Writer Joan Didion explained that backyard pools were also a way for people to tame nature.

"A pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable," she once wrote.

The first droplets of what eventually became SoCal pool culture started in the 1920s with actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford who built a grand pool at their Beverly Hills estate, as well as the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle.

Americans were enraptured by what celebrities were able to create in their own backyard.

It wasn't until the 50s and 60s, however, that there was a boom in home swimming pools because it then became more affordable for the middle-class.

The blue waters on the silver screen

"The image of pool -- particularly in Hollywood -- it's about as much as what you put into it, like what emotions you imbue into the pool as the pool itself," says Ryan Reft. "The pool is like a mirror or a reflection of us."

In movies, it's a powerful symbol of malaise, sex and temptation.

In "The Graduate," for example, Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock idles away his life relaxing in the pool, avoiding any decisive action he's forced to make.

Meanwhile, in "Boogie Nights," the opening pool scene was a great image of hedonism, and it also became a way to illustrate the ambition of porn stars in the 1970s.

"It's supposed to be symbolic of the wide-open lifestyle of Southern California," says Reft, "but then when you get to the 80s, they open up with the pool but it's empty. Everybody's inside and it ends much more tragically."


The pool also became a symbol of reinvention in the documentary, "Dogtown and Z-Boys."

It showed that many pools were empty during another drought in the late 1970s. It was that time that people used the abandoned, concrete crevices as a new way to skate.

"A bunch of kids from Venice located empty pools and basically changed skating forever," say Reft.

Will SoCal's love for pools dry up?

California is in the midst of another historic drought. Having a cool, standing pool of water in the backyard isn't the best way to convey that you're passionate about conservation.

However, Reft says he's yet to witness people outright shying away from having a pool.

"It's rare that the people asking to have the pool filled in is because of the drought," he says. "And people will tell you that pools will hurt the value of your house in the longterm. But you talk to real estate agents today and they tell you people still want those pools."

Homebuyers are still entranced by the idea of a pool, even if it comes with a dark side: it's a symbol of upward mobility, even if it doesn't make logical sense.

But pools are an easy target, says Reft. "Pools did increase your water usage by 25 percent. However, just having a sprinkler system increases your water usage by 54-60 percent."

So he personally hopes that pools never dry up forever.

"They do have this iconic grasp in our imagination of Americana," he says.