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

Author(s):Erie, Steven P.
Reviewer(s):Libecap, Gary D.

Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

Steven P. Erie, Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. xvii + 364 pp. $22 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8047-5139-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary D. Libecap, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Steven Erie, of the Department of Political Science at UC-San Diego, is the foremost authority on the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) and water politics in Southern California. And water is everything in Southern California. It is a region blessed with a benevolent climate, good soil, arable land, and magnificent harbors, but cheated by nature with too little water. Annual precipitation ranges from 10 to 15 inches. To support Southern California’s booming cities, burgeoning local economies, and bountiful agricultural production water had to be brought from elsewhere — the Colorado, Sacramento, and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries, as well as from Owens Valley, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, just east of Mount Whitney. As the region’s giant water wholesaler and policy maker, providing water for twenty-six cities and water districts representing eighteen million people in six counties, the Metropolitan Water District has played a direct role in bringing and distributing water to Southern California. Water markets historically have been limited, in part due to the lack of clearly specified property rights to water which would underlie voluntary exchanges, and there have been many competing claims for scarce water. Bringing the water to San Diego and the Los Angeles Basin also has required the construction of elaborate infrastructure investment in canals, pumping stations, and reservoirs. For all of these reasons, most delivery and allocation has involved politics and bureaucratic decision-making, making water the most political of resources.

Erie’s new book is an important addition to the literature on western water. There are three parts and eight chapters in the book. Part I, with Chapters One through Three, addresses the historical development of the Metropolitan Water District and its efforts to bring water to Southern California. Part II, with Chapters Four through Six, addresses recent contemporary problems facing the regional agency — opposition to the delivery of additional water from the Colorado River and Northern California to Southern California from environmental groups, as well as from expanding agricultural and urban areas in Arizona, Nevada, and the Bay Area, and the rise of water markets that provides opportunities to secure more water and, at the same time, threatens to undermine the authority and structure of the MWD. Part III, with Chapters Seven and Eight, summarizes the rise of other problems and the efforts of the utility to respond to them. This book represents a major scholarly endeavor, with extensive endnotes, tables, and figures.

In Parts I and II of the book, Erie describes the formation of the MWD in 1928 to coordinate access and delivery of Colorado River water to Los Angeles and ten other cities via the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct. In the 1970s the regional cooperative also imported water from Northern California via the State Water Project and the California Aqueduct. It now supplies 60 percent of the water for Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Diego Counties. Erie traces the historical development of the MWD as it replaced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as the region’s chief water organization. He describes the political and bureaucratic pressures placed on the agency, which have molded its behavior. While it is an extremely powerful organization, the MWD is subject to internal conflicts among member water agencies reflecting the sometimes competing demands of San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County, among others. It also is affected by changing external political conditions elsewhere in California and the West, including the Supreme Court’s ruling in Arizona v. California that reduced the amount of Colorado River water available to California, the Endangered Species Act which requires more water be left in the San Francisco Bay Delta rather than being shipped to Southern California, as well as overall resistance to water transfers from rural areas to urban ones. Erie describes how the MWD addresses these conflicting demands as it has responded to its mandate for providing water to Southern California’s urban regions. An especially useful part of the book is his description of the long and contentious negotiations between the MWD and the Imperial Irrigation District Board (IID) for the transfer of agricultural water to San Diego. The IID uses about 80 percent of California’s allocation of Colorado River water, which is about 75 percent of the total water available to all lower basin states. Erie describes the underlying political pressures and institutional objectives that made the bargaining between the MWD and the IID Board so difficult. Understanding these factors will help make future water trades less controversial and perhaps quicker. Certainly, more water will have to be re-allocated from IID and other similar organizations as Southern California’s urban areas expand. Erie also points out that these water exchanges are complicated by climate change that adds uncertainty to any long-term arrangement regarding water.

The final chapter in Part II, Chapter 6, discusses how the MWD is responding to the rise of water markets and the opportunities afforded it to lease water or purchase water rights from irrigators in California’s vast Central Valley and along the Colorado River. Many of these purchases have been highly controversial, especially among those who oppose the flow of water from rural areas to support greater urbanization and population growth in Southern California.

Part III summarizes the current demands and dilemmas facing the agency. It has a mandate to provide water to a growing population in a semi-arid region at a time of increasing scarcity and competing uses. Indeed, as Erie points out, there is a fine balancing of water demand and supply that could unravel if climate change brings more serious drought. In the face of this, the MWD is moving forward ambitiously to secure additional water sources for, as Erie describes, a growing “desert civilization.”

Beyond Chinatown is a valuable blend of economic history, policy analysis, and political science about a huge governmental institution charged with bringing water to the part of the country that best typifies the American economy and society in the latter half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries — Los Angeles and Southern California.

Gary D. Libecap, of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, is working on the extent and development of water markets in the American West and the role of legal and regulatory factors in molding water markets. He also is exploring the transaction cost advantages of the rectangular survey of land, put into place by the Land Ordinance of 1785, relative to the previous use of metes and bounds in demarcating property boundaries. Similar property bounding issues arise in contemporary economic development policies.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII