Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth and the Environment in Southern California

Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California


As urban growth outstrips water supplies, how can the global challenge of providing water be met? Mixing history and policy analysis, Steven Erie tells the compelling story of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) -- one of the world's largest and most important public water agencies -- and its role in building the world's eighth largest economy in a semi-desert. Using untapped primary sources, the author reexamines this great regional experiment from its obscure 1920s-era origins, through the Colorado River Aqueduct and State Water Projects, to today's daunting mission of drought management, water quality, environmental stewardship, and post-9/11 supply security. A key focus is MWD's navigation of recent epic water battles: San Diego's combative quest for water independence.


"Erie's persuasive argument that the Metropolitan Water District is one of the creative but flawed designers of Southern California is haunted by forgetfulness: We forget where our water comes from.... We forget who manages it for us and why water policy is the most important political decision we never get to make."

-- L.A. Times Book Review


Dr. Steven Erie is Director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at UCSD, and Professor of Political Science. He is the author of two other books: Rainbow's End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985 (California Series on Social Choice & Political Economy), and Globalizing L.A.


"Dr. Erie, you are originally from California. A native." "I was born in Glendale and raised in Eagle Rock and Arcadia. The first half of my life was spent in L.A. But for a while I lived in Washington, D.C. I'm a refugee from the Reagan revolution."

"You're happy in California."

"I spent great weekends in New York City, Washington, Boston, Montreal. But listen, when I went to Albany, N.Y., and discovered winter wasn't optional, I couldn't get back to Southern California quick enough."

"I'm going to ask some simple questions. Who owns water? Is it a private resource?"

"There's a big debate about whether it's a public resource or a private commodity. That has been one of the big issues about the growth of water markets and water transfers. There are many who still see it as a public resource. But certainly rights to it, as property, have grown in the last 40 or 50 years."

"We've got six billion people on the planet now. You say [in the book], only three percent of the planet's water is drinkable. The rest is oceans."

"Yes, most of it is seawater -- salty. What we're thinking about doing here in San Diego, is desalination -- tap into the huge amount of water immediately to the west of us."

"Professor, has anyone estimated how many people that three percent -- that drinkable water -- can support? When do we reach critical mass?"

"I'm sure somebody has. I haven't. I'm just not a global person, I'm a regional person. I can talk knowledgeably about Southern California. And certainly I can tell you, we could not have a population of more than 750,000 living from Santa Barbara to San Diego without imported water."

"How many folks are there now residing in that arid area?"

"We're at about 18 million in Southern California."

"But you're saying local water sources alone could only support 750,000 people?

"Maybe a million, with conservation."

"How close," I ask, "are San Diegans to turning on their water taps and having nothing come out?"

"We're not there yet. We bought a little bit of time with this very controversial Imperial Valley deal, the cost of which has still not been fully estimated. Salt and sea restoration, lining of the canals and things like that [help too]."

"Yes," I interject, "could you explain the purpose of lining canals?"

"Well, when the All-American and Coachella Canals were constructed way back when, they were earthen. Water leaks out of them. Ironically, [this] seepage helped replenish the Salton Sea and it allowed the Mexicali farmers to grow crops. Lining involved sealing the porous surfaces of canals. It was intended as a conservation measure to limit water loss, but in the process we created real problems for the Salton Sea. Seepage is not replenishing it nor the Mexicali Valley farms on the Mexican side. It's the reason that they've been in court."

"How many water systems -- aqueducts, reservoirs -- are there supplying the Southern California region?"

"There are 7 Colorado River states in the south, and also 7 northern states. So 14 states are drawing from the river. Anyway, the Colorado River Aqueduct is one source, the State Water Project (passed by the voters in 1962) is a second, and then there are two Los Angeles City aqueducts, I and II. So there are roughly four sources of imported water coming into Southern California."

"Is there any one agency or body that governs it all?"

"If there is a [water] policymaker in the region, it's MWD [Metropolitan Water District of Southern California]. It was set up to provide a supplemental source of water for Los Angeles and all of its suburbs. It's municipal. MWD is a special district created by the state legislature. It started small. It included only L.A. and 12 of its suburbs back in 1928, and it started out as a water wholesaler. The retailers were the Department of Water and Power, and the Beverly Hills, Pasadena, and Glendale municipal water departments. Since then, its responsibilities have grown significantly. MWD now motivates member agencies and retail water-users with incentives like subsidies for conservation and for desalination projects."

"Is desalination a practical answer -- any kind of help at all?"

Dr. Erie pauses. "That's a complicated question. Gathering the water is still costly, and people don't realize that there are hidden costs to 'desal.' There's the treatment process, to make it drinkable. There are also the power costs, which are extremely high in many places, for pumping the water back up hill, because our whole water complex is a gravity flow system. The reservoirs are elevated, and you've got to pump the water upward to put it in those reservoirs. And there's been a big debate about the impact of the required power plants on the marine environment, and on the coast by the intake and discharge of seawater. These are very contentious issues. Environmentalists are trying to fight desalination, saying that we really ought to move toward better conservation [first], including desert landscaping. But I think there's a role for desal, particularly as [water] carrying capacity reaches its limits. By 2030 all of those aqueducts literally won't bring enough imported water into Southern California, so there's going to be growing pressure. The bottleneck we're facing in the next 20 years is that the conveyance system is only so big, and we're not going to make it any bigger."

A sobering thought. I press on: "I realize that there's scarcity, but to what degree is the Los Angeles/San Diego battle over water political? Is it an ego fight?"

"I think it's largely a political or ego fight. MWD is never going to cut off its biggest customer, San Diego. That would be suicidal. In fact, every time we've had a drought, they've devised plans to make it easy on San Diego. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, we were looking at cutting agriculture water supplies totally, because they get discounted [water] prices because it's 'interruptible.' They're the first who could be cut off. Yet MWD didn't do that as it would have harmed the economy of the county. MWD has bent over backwards to try to accommodate San Diego. But the threat of drought and the threat of cutoff remains a rallying cry down here."

"Why is it," I ask, "that L.A. doesn't have priority over San Diego?"

"Well, L.A. does -- on paper. It has 'scarcity rights.' About half of the Colorado River Aqueduct was paid for by Los Angeles taxpayers and rate payers. We paid a much smaller share of the capital costs. But everybody that I have talked to -- every lawyer -- says that these scarcity rights are unenforceable and are superseded by the California Water Code. By the way, in the next ten years we will have more [so-called] scarcity or preferential rights than Los Angeles. Ours are growing, theirs are decreasing, because we're such a large customer and contributing [accordingly] to the capital costs."

"What," I want to know, "is the effect of global warming on all this?"

"Global warming ultimately means that the snow pack will melt much earlier, so water will flow to us sooner. Which probably means that we're going to have to build more storage facilities to capture that earlier runoff."

"What's the effect of earthquakes on the water supply?"

"The effect. Well, levees can break, aqueducts can be torn apart. One of the reasons for building Diamond Valley Lake Reservoir, with half a year's storage, was to have a facility south of the San Andreas Fault Line, away from possible earthquake centers."

"You write that water to the 21st Century is going to be what oil was to the 20th. That there are states in the eastern U.S. vying for water sources, and you point out that there are cities overseas (like Bangkok) that are sinking because of water depletion. Iran is threatening Syria over a dam. India is competing with Pakistan over the Indus River system. At what point does this all come to blows? Could we really have a water war, Professor?"

"We've got massive growth in metropolitan areas, huge mega regions around the world with limited water supplies. These are flash points for conflict. There could easily be disputes between urban and rural zones. In many places in the world, farmers and ranchers settled near established water sources and simply have more water [than city dwellers]. The urban areas need it and they're going to go after it. Oh, yes, you could have wars over water."

"Do you think water will be increasingly treated as a private-sector commodity or a public resource? Which view will prevail?"

"Worldwide you've got these huge private providers now, big European companies, French and English, that supply water. Investors in such firms will see scarcity as a chance to make a windfall profit as demand increases. So there will be greater and greater pressure to privatize water. And we're likely going to find the price of water going up."

"Professor, how was it made possible for those 18 million Southern Californians to be supplied with extra water in a region so arid that it can only support 750,000?"

"Some call it a miracle, others call it a curse. It took an awful lot of leadership, foresight, and enormous public investments to build this massive infrastructure system. In 1931 we were slipping into a depression. The voters of L.A. and 12 of its suburbs -- the founding members of MWD -- were asked to add the equivalent of 13 Proposition 13s to their tax bill. That is, 13 percent of assessed property valuation. (Proposition 13 caps your property tax bill at one percent.) They were asked to add the equivalent burden of 13 percent. Eighty-four percent of them said yes . Can you imagine that happening today? It really was foresight and leadership."

"And was Mulholland the chief architect in this?"

"No, William Mulholland was the chief architect for the City of Los Angeles, and certainly he is the one who filed for the Colorado River rights on behalf of L.A. Once he had those, he pioneered the early work exploring the possibility of an aqueduct. But L.A. didn't have the money to do the project alone."

"Your book is called Beyond Chinatown. Back in April, in a Reader City Lights column, you were quoted as saying that you wanted the book to lay to rest the noir legend the film Chinatown promulgated. What is that myth or impression you wanted to correct?"

"It's that water decision-making in Southern California is secret backroom deals with developers that benefit the plotters and hurt the public and ruin unsuspecting farmers in outside areas. What I'm trying to point out is that most Metropolitan Water District decisions have been made in public forums and some of them, the early ones, required public votes."

"But you do have situations like the Bass brothers' secret negotiations that feed the Chinatown legend, no?"

"Oh, absolutely. Not only feed it, but the Bass brothers [episode] comes closer to the movie script than anything L.A. ever did up in the Owens Valley." Professor Erie's voice turns plaintive. "Of course, we're never going to get beyond 'Chinatown,' Juri."

Stanford University Press, 2006, $21.95, 364 pages. By Steven P. Erie, with the assistance of Harold Brackman

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