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It's taken from the movie The Big Lebowski, in what the police chief says about a man named Jackie Treehorn.

The Dude: Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man.

Malibu Police Chief: Mr. Treehorn draws a lot of water in this town. You don't draw shit, Lebowski. Now we got a nice, quiet little beach community here, and I aim to keep it nice and quiet. So let me make something plain. I don't like you sucking around, bothering our citizens, Lebowski. I don't like your jerk-off name. I don't like your jerk-off face. I don't like your jerk-off behavior, and I don't like you, jerk-off. Do I make myself clear?

The Dude: [after a pause] I'm sorry, I wasn't listening.

Source: IMDb – The Big Lebowski (1998) – Quotes

I believe what he means is that J. Treehorn make lots of contributions to the city, but I'm not sure. Is this a common idiom?

  • Define "common." :) But to risk being corrected, I will say it is not a common idiom. I will generalize and risk saying it is not used as frequently as 1000s of others of idioms. The phrase is not in The urban dictionary, therefore it is not common. :) But seriously, I have a pretty thin book containing 12,000 AmE idioms, and the one in question ain't in it. – user6951 Nov 6 '14 at 21:50
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How much water a boat draws is a measure of the depth of water required to float it: a rowboat ‘draws’ only a few inches, a fully loaded flat-bottomed barge may ‘draw’ eight or ten feet, an ocean-going vessel with a very deep keel may ‘draw’fifty feet.

Figuratively speaking, how much ‘water’ a man ‘draws’ is a measure of his presence and influence. Jackie Treehorn is a very important man in his community; Lebowski is a nobody.

  • ADDED:
    Galactic Cowboy suggests that the idiom here is one of drawing water from a well or other source, and that in water-poor Southern California a man entitled to "draw a lot of water" is marked as particularly influential. He may well be right: one of the earliest instances I have found of the idiom is from a 1938 crime novel set in LA and written by a former LA policeman in 1938 - about ten years after the California Water Wars. One seamier sidelight of that episode was the profits supposed to have been realized by insiders who bought up land in the San Fernando Valley, knowing that LA would have to annex the district to secure rights to the water. However, I also find the idiom in a report of an air show in the Pacific Northwest in the same year.
  • 2
    To "draw [water]" means to pump it or otherwise cause it to flow. This idiom would be much more familiar to an American speaker than the nautical reference to a boat's draw. (In fact, in AmE that would normally be called its "draft", not "draw".) – GalacticCowboy Nov 6 '14 at 16:07
  • @GalacticCowboy StoneyB's correct about the reference; it has nothing to do with pumping water. The larger the boat, the more water it draws; so Mr. Treehorn is a very "large" boat in the community, figuratively. – Joe Nov 6 '14 at 16:15
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    @Joe - you don't have to drink water to draw it. In fact, that's an opposite meaning - one who consumes a lot of water, vs. producing or supplying it. – GalacticCowboy Nov 6 '14 at 16:24
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    Possibly also worth noting that the movie is set in Los Angeles, which is one of the most water-poor regions in the USA. Someone who "supplies a lot of water" to Los Angeles would therefore be pretty notable. – GalacticCowboy Nov 6 '14 at 16:27
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    That would be "draws a lot of water for this town", not "in". "Mr. Treehorn <verbs> a lot of <noun> in this town" doesn't sound like he supplies anything. – Joe Nov 6 '14 at 16:30
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Expansion on usage of the phrase


Tvtropes.org lists this line as an example of the “Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!” trope.

From that page:

A character is able to [ignore] the rules, simply because their friends or family are very influential, powerful, or wealthy people.
Source: tvtropes.org, Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!


In The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, this line is used as evidence of Treehorn’s money, influence and power (my interpretation of “conventionally successful”).

. . .[Treehorn] is probably the most conventionally successful male figure in the film.
Source: The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies, via Google Books


Sam Bloch of the LA Weekly provides the following insightful commentary (emphasis mine):

At one point during The Big Lebowski, our hero, the Dude, finds himself at a mysterious beach party thrown by pornographer Jackie Treehorn. Inside his modernist home — the ultimate bachelor pad — a fire blazes as the Dude takes a seat on a long, orange leather couch beneath a coffered ceiling. Treehorn, played by Ben Gazzara, prepares him a spiked White Russian at the bar. A swimming pool is separated from the angular living room by a wall of glass, the mise-en-scène daring the viewer to look more closely at a villain professing transparency. As the Malibu sheriff later informs the Dude, Treehorn draws a lot of water in this town.


The phrase appears in the context of justice (c.f.: Playback: A Novel and Personal War), with the implication that the person who draws a lot of water can do as they please. In the film, The Dude (who is called a “goldbricker” and a “bum”) is attempting to apply his own moral code in a situation where agents of legal enforcement and society at large are more concerned with someone’s material success than their moral character.

This is a microcosm of the grander struggle between the wealthy Jeffrey Lebowski and his penniless counterpart of the same name, in which the questionable moral choices of the former have resulted in damage to what little property the latter has. “The bums always lose!” quoth the big Lebowski, and, given the trials endured by The Dude in search of meager restitution, it seems that might be right.

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Possibly a reference to Chinatown, the 1974 neo-noir masterpiece by Roman Polanski, in which the story's villain, Noah Cross, is secretly and illegally dumping large amounts of badly needed fresh water from Los Angeles reservoirs into the ocean.

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