Steven P. Erie, Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California , 2006

The 21st century resource that will create the most discord and controversy is water. Increased populations, environmental degradation, energy needs, and other factors contribute to make access to water the flashpoint of the new era. With this in mind, Steven P. Erie follows Globalizing L.A. with a study of the MET in Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California.

Pushing back against the Chinatown myth that presented the MET as an organization bounded by secrecy, supporting the interests of corporations and greedy land speculators, Erie argues much of the MET actions occurred in the light of day, subject to public debate. According to Erie Los Angeles’ Progressive Era voters, who supported its creation and the bonds that provided funding for infrastructure deserve credit or blame for the MET(“ballot box growth” and public bond approach). Moreover, Erie suggests that from the outset, the MET engaged in a regional approach rather than one that benefited Los Angeles alone. While certainly “regionalism” probably emerged in part from broader speculative interests, the MET embraced the whole of Southern California rather than simply Los Angeles. Erie also tackles one of the MET’s most famous controversies, the Owens Valley episode. Erie argues that contrary to popular beliefs, most farmers in the valley were treated well and received more than adequate compensation for their properties. If anybody deserves blame for Owen Valley and similar growth by the MET and the surrounding region, its real estate developers. The speculation that did occur resulted from the Owens Valley aqueduct, rather than the other way around as commonly perceived. In fact though the movie presents the shift from private to public control as inconsequential (it was still run by unscrupulous elite), Erie notes the “end of the reign of “the water ring” marked the emergence of a newly energized “local state” committed to accelerated urban and regional development by public means and resources” (35) Even the controversial St. Francis Dam disaster (as seen in the movie when the local sheepherders protest) was not as it seems. Instead, the author writes, “Mulholland overly relied on the fatally defective [dam] as part of a strategy to store emergency water south of the San Andreas earthquake fault line in the fact of rampant population growth and drought conditions in the early 1920s.” (37) The importance in disputing these claims resides in the frequent marshaling of the public perceptions in protest against MET operations (the Owen’s Valley incident seems to resonate the most deeply since politicians and others repeatedly invoke it throughout the book well into the 1990s).

As the MET gradually accumulated strength, more and more Southern California communities and municipalities joined. Arm twisting did not occur, rather low water costs, infrastructure expenses absorbed by LA voters encouraged the MET to embrace annexation and growth. The larger the area it served, the greater its tax base, reducing burdens on LA taxpayers. According to Erie, the MET kept water prices low out of “a sense of community”, of course he also acknowledges that LA officials recognized the increased benefits from the MWD so subsidies were tolerable. However, Erie promotes the MWD’s general organization culture as communitarian with a long term perspective, suggesting they saw Southern California’s future explosion. The long term benefits amounted to three major issues – 1) the MET as an “insurance policy” to protect against city water shortages from drought etc 2) meet the demands of future growth and 3) confirmation of its status as regional capital. (83). By the 1960s, however, MET officials agreed to shift its capital financing from a tax based revenue to one accumulating from water charges which rival municipality San Diego resented but could do little to prevent.

Conflict plagued the MET in its relations with San Diego and the SDCWA. The institution of preferential rights upset the SDCWA since it utilized the greatest proportion of the MET’s water resources but received less of say in its operation than Los Angeles. Though San Diego officials long demanded water independence, the 1987-1992 drought catalyzed the movement. Behind the caustic editorials of the local newspaper The San Diego Union Tribune, the SDCWA attacked MET policies and practices in its drive for water independence, despite the irony of the fact that even if San Diego achieved this independence it would remain dependent on MET infrastructure to a great degree in order to deliver it. Moreover, its very likely this independence would simply raise water costs for residents of the Southern California city. The SDCWA believed Imperial Valley remained the solution to its independence dreams. Often SDCWA decisions seemed purposely combative and even contradictory, while municipalities north of San Diego resented its actions enough to form the ESG to oppose SDCWA attempts since they adversely affected northern communities. [note- Erie also discusses the Bass Brothers debacle that occurred in Chinatown secrecy itself pointing to an ironic aspect of the whole ordeal since SDCWA officials seemed to engage in the same practices it chastized the MET for]. For Erie, the reality of the SouthernCalifornia situation is that no one can be water independent, the region remains tied to interdependence for survival.

By 1996, the MET shifted its priorities from water importation to water management. The 1995 accord CALFED attempted to save the local Bay Delta and articulated four major objectives: ecosystem restoration, efficient water use, improved water quality, and safer levees [watershed management and water transfer policy later were added as well]. However, interest group politics and internal state divisions greatly hampered efforts such that by 1998 CALFED was forced to revised its plans for a more specific blueprint [opposition drew strange bedfellows as environmentalists found themselves split over the issue.] Eventually, Prop 50 bailed CALFED out but the episode illustrated that if anything the MET’s greatest role was to organize regional water consensus, a far cry from accusations of “water imperialism”.

Erie also focuses on the development of water markets and the MET’s role in this approach. However, though a growing industry, it remains limited by “an irresolvable tension between “public good” and “private property” conceptions of water … the water market never entirely freed itself fomer the intrusive politics of the public trust and regulatory impulse” (179). This tendecy “remains an irreducible bedrock in California water law.” (179). The 1992 CVPIA provided some relief to torn environmentalists as it “was a compromise [betweem] environmental mitigation and market incentives.” (191) Of course this helped shift conceptions of water as a property right that could be bought or sold, it privatized a “publicly developed, common property resource.” (191) When the MET attempted a public private partnership with Cadiz, an effort to assuage private market supporters, it met with broad opposition forcing it to abandon the partnership revealing “how political influence peddling, real or perceived, can poison the prospects for public private partnerships in water marketing.” (199)

In its future, the MET needs to consider paleogeololic concerns, climate change and the varying natural disasters that could occur such as mudslides. Such events need to be accounted for in costs. Furthermore, the MET in recent years has become somewhat more conciliatory toward those seeking water independence, moving away from its tendency to punish dissent such as that from the SDCWA [note- Erie points out that SD has been given greater representation with the MET in recent years] Clearly Erie supports the regional approach and the granting of autonomy to agencies like MET which gives it financial independence and the ability to pursue long term goals rather than shot trem political ones. Its board provides continuity encouraging smooth developments. To critics who argue its inefficient and lacks the private sectors’ business principles, Erie responds “water privatizers … fail to recognize that MWD was created to operationalize a “public utility model” of how to conduct business in the public interest” which appeals to reformers globally. He acknowledges criticism around its apparent bias toward growth but suggests that divorcing water access from real estate interests makes this a complex and confusing proposition. Erie concludes, “MWD has successfully mixed economic, member agency self interest, and public policy to conjure into existence a might yet fragile regional archipelago on the Pacific Rim. (265)

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