June 28, 2006 - From the June, 2006 issue

"Beyond ‘Chinatown'" Recounts History of the MWD-America's ‘Most Important Water Agency'

In Southern California, the simple act of turning on the tap connects 18 million people to one of the most complex and crucial public agencies in the country: the Metropolitan Water District. Often maligned and caricatured, the MWD's history is more subtle than the pop culture and punditry would admit, and UC-San Diego political science professor Steven Erie sets out to tell the true history of the MWD and its role in Southern California's growth, in "Beyond ‘Chinatown'", excerpted below.

Steven Erie

"Water is the life-blood of Southern California."

–Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 1931

"If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water."

–Ismail Serageldin

World Bank vice president and chair of the Global Water Partnership, 1995

Beyond ‘Chinatown'" is a study of complex and contentious politics of water, growth, and the environment in semiarid Southern California. This sprawling megalopolis is now the world's eighth largest economy, encompassing the five-county Los Angeles metropolitan region as well as the San Diego metropolitan area. This is a seemingly inhospitable locale for 20 million-plus inhabitants to live and work, with millions more still coming. Here annual rainfall resembles the Middle East, averaging 15 inches or less along the coast and 10 inches or fewer inland. Local water supplies can support only a fraction of the current population. For this parched coastal plain to grow into a mighty civilization, it had to imaginatively find and tap-even ruthlessly-new water supplies.

The story of Southern California's quest for needed "lifeblood" is remarkable and still controversial. Starting in the early 20th century, regional leaders embarked on a relentless search for imported water from faraway places-the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada, the Colorado River, and Northern California. The sage began with the city of Los Angeles and its still-contested water quest. L.A. water chief William Mulholland pioneered the development of imported water supplies from the distant and rural Owens Valley. Completed in 1913, the 223-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct would furnish water sufficient for a city of 2 million residents. In the late 1920s, Los Angeles and neighboring communities such as Pasadena would play crucial leadership roles in a bold experiment in regional cooperation-the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, also known as MWD or MET-bringing fresh supplies of Colorado River Water needed to fuel region-wide growth. Nearly all of urbanizing Southern California would join the "MET family" to secure this essential elixir.

From its inception, Southern California's water quest has been mired in invective and controversy. Early critics of L.A.'s Owens Valley aqueduct charged that it was a nefarious and secretive scheme led by L.A.'s greedy land barons and conniving water officials to enrich themselves through secret purchases of San Fernando Valley land (made valuable by water) while supposedly ruining Owens Valley farmers through water diversions to Los Angeles. The conventional wisdom is fictively encapsulated in "Chinatown"-Roman Polanski's famed 1974 film noir-depicting and incestuous, developer-driven water conspiracy.

The film "Chinatown" is the fecund offspring, rather than parent, of a long line of L.A. water conspiracy theories dating back to the early 20th century. The film imaginatively encodes the popular understanding of how Los Angeles-and, indeed, Southern California-grew large and mighty. Claiming to draw lessons, policymakers and scholars have creatively used the film to try to shape the water policy debate in California and the West, such as over agriculture-to-urban transfers. Despite accumulating scholarship to the contrary, the noir legend stubbornly refuses to die. To this day, Los Angeles's archetypal "rape of the Owens Valley" haunts L.A.'s Department of Water and Power. The specter also haunts the Metropolitan Water District as a "Chinatown"-like shadow conspiracy of L.A. "water imperialism" and its reigning private developers. But is "Chinatown" an appropriate metaphor or adequate explanation for Southern California water development? Regardless of what did or did not transpire in the Owens Valley, has Southern California's search for new water supplies been tawdry tale of secret backroom deals profiting developers and despoiling communities and the environment?


In these pages we offer an alternative account-based on an extensive analysis of available archives supplemented by interviews-of the Southern California water story, an account that challenges the major themes of the film. We focus on the region's largest and most significant water agency: the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Today, the unheralded organization is arguably the nation's and even the world's biggest and most important public water agency of its kind. We hope to shed new light on this remarkable and little understood public institution, and its strategies and choices aimed at securing a reliable and safe water supply-in an environmentally and economically responsible manner-for one of the world's great regional economics.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2003, MWD remains a dynamic cog in the region's still-prodigious growth machine. But over the years, its roles in the economy and environment have grown more nuanced and balanced. Once castigated as an environmentally despoiling handmaiden of growth and sprawl, Metropolitan is now hailed by many as a global leader in regional resource management and environmental stewardship. MWD also has navigated – albeit with difficulty – the uneasy partnership and rivalry between Los Angeles and San Diego-the nation's second largest and seventh biggest cities-with L.A. historically holding greater political power and water rights.

Not surprisingly, Metropolitan's institutional arrangements, rules and policies have been hotly contested terrain from competing urban, business, environmental, and agricultural interests. Fierce battle have been fought publicly-in the MWD boardroom, in state and federal legislatures, regulatory agencies, the courts, and at the ballot box.

Metropolitan's public history is an epic featuring both cooperation and conflict. In the early years, this extraordinary regional partnership financed and built the Colorado River Aqueduct, annexed most of Southern California into its service territory, and provided vital support for the 1960s-era State Water Project. More recently, with water reliability growing uncertain, conflict has overshadowed cooperation. Since 1990, there have been mounting challenges and battles: San Diego's drive for water independence from MWD and Los Angeles; fierce fights over the Colorado River and fragile Bay-Delta ecosystem in Northern California; and the global rise of water markets and privatization. Regardless of their opinions, these contests ultimately have been fought in public forums, inviting public debate, participation, and outcomes.

Today, Metropolitan is faced with burgeoning population growth-adding by 2025 the equivalent of another city of Los Angeles (4 million people) and San Diego (1.3 million residents)-to Southern California in the face of adverse climate changes, a lengthy drought, mounting water-quality challenges, and new post-9/11 security concerns. In response, MWD had devised innovative new formulas for water reliability, quality, financing, safety, and governance-all of which are being closely scrutinized by national and even global observers.

"Beyond ‘Chinatown'" offers a fresh appraisal of Metropolitan's 75-year plus record and legacy. The MET'S supporters deem it a "magnificent institution" providing responsible and reliable water stewardship under challenging circumstances. Its detractors still depict it as a pawn of L.A. "water imperialism" and pro-growth interests, and even threatening to become an inefficient and unreliable water provider. Is MWD an enterprising and effective public agency and water guarantor, or merely a ‘Chinatown'-style "hidden government" – just another, albeit grandiose, special district captured by entrenched interests-with enfeebled ability to meet the region's needs?

These questions have national and international, and not merely regional, import. As the 21st century begins, water conflicts spawned by urban growth and climate changes are erupting across North America and on other continents. In a now global search for effective water formulas and institutional arrangements, Southern California's historic experiment in cooperative regional water provision – building an urban civilization in a hostile, semidesert environment and promising to secure its water future – deserves the most careful scrutiny.


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