Steven P. Erie. Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. 384. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-5140-7.
Reviewed by Margaret A. Bickers (Kansas State University)
Published on H-Water (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Justin M. Scott-Coe
Laying the Ghost of Owens Valley
Most students of water development, water history, or the twentieth-century environmental movement learn the story of Owens Valley, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and the larger Metropolitan Water District (MWD), and how these became part of the movie Chinatown. Dr. Steven P. Erie uses Chinatown (1974) as a lens for viewing a more complete story of Southern California's water politics. In so doing he demonstrates that the MWD, although not perfect, is more victim than villain, at least where secret negotiations and political machinations are concerned.
Erie begins by describing the scale and scope of the Metropolitan Water District, the administrative body that provides some or all of the water for cities and rural areas stretching from San Diego to as far north as Simi Valley and Oxnard, drawing water from the Colorado River to as far afield as Sacramento. He then sets the MWD system in the larger context of national and international water disputes and regulation. Erie also discuses the legends surrounding the district and how the call to "remember Owens Valley!" appears in histories, policy studies, and popular memory.
Chapter 2 traces the history of the MWD and the film Chinatown. Erie outlines the movie's plot, then takes it apart to show where fact and fiction diverge. Among other points, the author argues that valley residents actually benefited from the purchase of Owens Valley water, since they "did substantially better in selling their land and water rights to the city than if they had stayed in agriculture and ranching" (p. 39). However, the legend of Owens Valley and the supposed shady dealings behind the water acquisition lived on in popular memory and were often resurrected as a tool by opponents of the MWD's plans and policies. Erie points out Robert Gottlieb, a member of the MWD board of directors, as a notable recent popularizer of the Chinatown-style conspiracy charges against the MWD in works such as Thirst for Growth: Water Agencies as Hidden Governments in California (1991).
Chapters 3 and 4 show how the economics of water acquisition and delivery, and the effects of changing the method of billing (from property taxes to charges for water), reveal the actual distribution of burdens and benefits among MWD members. Erie draws from MWD archives to show that the MWD directors, or "water buffalos," did not set out to favor one area or entity over others. Despite accusations by the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), Los Angeles subsidized San Diego instead of suppressing it, if all expenses for infrastructure and water dating back to the 1920s are included. Erie describes how the SDCWA secretly negotiated to purchase water from the Imperial Valley in 1993-94, then demanded that the MWD transport that water to San Diego. Political manipulation within the SDCWA pitted rural county residents against urban customers as well as the MWD against the SDCWA. The author clearly sides with the MWD in this case, and readers looking for examples of water-based conspiracies in California will find rich veins in chapter 4.
Chapter 5 expands beyond Southern California to study external challenges to the MWD. Urban growth combined with droughts led to greater demand for water at the same time that states upstream on the Colorado River began agitating for California to restrict its share of water to that allowed by the Colorado River Compact. The ghost of Owens Valley returned when the MWD proposed a canal around the periphery of the San Francisco bay and estuary (the Peripheral Canal) to transport water to the southern part of the state. Environmental concerns, a growing regional rivalry between northern and southern Californians, and increasing distrust of the MWD in the state legislature combined to force the district to focus more on conservation than on supply expansion. Severe droughts in the 1990s and early 2000s encouraged new calls for water stewardship rather than development.
Interstate and intrastate rivals to the district were not the only challenge the MWD encountered at the end of the twentieth century. Erie shifts to the growing privatization of water supply, beginning with a history of private water companies in general. He then turns to the idea of water markets before tightening his focus to the MWD and possible competition from private companies. The question of selling water from rural areas to "favored" urban subdivisions and towns stirred debate among environmental groups as well as rural residents, while the public vs. private question of utility provision continues unabated. Erie shows that the MWD has managed to remain a public entity despite the challenges of navigating between "the Scylla of authoritative, potentially authoritarian politics and the Charybdis of efficient, potentially soulless economics" (p. 204).
Chapters 7 and 8 look ahead to the future of the MWD. Climate change, a rapidly growing population, changing priorities for water use including in-stream flow protection, and the problem of security from terrorism all face the MWD and those who depend on the water it provides. In the end, Erie argues, the district will have to balance increased numbers of consumers with increasing conservation, a process that has already begun. Member agencies and formerly underrepresented groups demand greater voice in the MWD board's decision making process, but the tradition of disinterested service and aversion to politics needs to remain strong among the new members. The MWD must find a path somewhere between water pipelines from Alaska and Canada (ideas floated in the 1980s) and planning for no-growth, a path that others can follow and learn from.
The author reaches his goal of breaking the MWD free of the Chinatown legend. However, this is an institutional study, not a popular account. Erie's careful use of district archive sources and statistical data makes the book rather bloodless in places and may turn away casual readers interested in the human side of the story. Erie also assumes that the reader is familiar with the overall history and arguments about water in Southern California, although there are enough maps and illustrations to keep the reader from getting lost. Given the topic, the large number of acronyms is no doubt necessary to keep the book from being repetitious and long, but it can be confusing for a reader who is not used to the intricacies of Southern California water agencies, and an appendix of acronyms would be appreciated.
Since this book was published, a combination of legal and meteorological events have complicated the MWD's tasks. The Colorado River basin has been plagued by drought since 2006, affecting California to the extent that in June 2008 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of drought emergency. At the same time, the need to protect endangered species within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta led to a 30-percent reduction in the amount of water the MWD is allowed to pump through the delta. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the working document for habitat restoration and water supply protection, includes provisions for fish screens on pumps and diversion channels, tidal gates to allow more saline water into the estuary, and a much smaller extra-delta canal system that would allow the MWD to bypass large portions of the delta entirely. This latter element would also protect the MWD supplies from contamination should a major earthquake hit the bay, an event that many seismologists feel is likely.
Although the work does not include the new events and the MWD's responses to them, Beyond Chinatown remains a valuable addition to the California and western water library. The district will continue to be an important player in local and regional water matters, and Erie's history and analysis of the MWD, although slightly dated due to recent events, fills a niche and one hopes will encourage other historians and policy scholars to look beyond the legends of other local, regional, and national water organizations. Erie has done good work shining light on the purportedly dark doings of the Metropolitan Water District. Whether he will rescue the district from popular legends remains to be seen.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-water.
Margaret A. Bickers. Review of Erie, Steven P., Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California.
H-Water, H-Net Reviews.
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