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COPING WITH THE WATER SHORTAGE : Metropolitan Water District: A Giant in Southern California's Success : Growth: Formed in 1928 to finance the Colorado River Aqueduct, its membership has mushroomed from 13 cities to 27 agencies covering more than 300 cities and unincorporated areas.

April 01, 1990|SCOTT HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On occasion, it was a wild torrent; in droughts, it dried up. More often, however, the Rio Porciuncula just bubbled up from the soil, trickled a few miles, then seeped back underground. It was the region's most reliable source of fresh water, and when the Spanish king approved the creation of a pueblo in 1781, the 44 original settlers of Los Angeles knew where to locate.

Once a simple matter of mother nature and royal fiat, California's struggles with water and urban growth in this century have created political maelstroms, engineering marvels and bureaucratic migraines. Today, with more than 1,000 miles of aqueducts in operation--and the Los Angeles River now serving as a big concrete drain--nearly 15 million Southern Californians in a 5,200-square-mile service area look to the massive Metropolitan Water District (MWD) to help sate their thirst.

In an era of urban congestion, slow-growth politics and heightened sensitivity to the environment, some suggest that a little thirst is not necessarily such a bad thing. But historically, the influential, little understood MWD--or "Met," as it is called--has simply been devoted to getting the water.

"We run after the demand," says MWD General Manager Carl Baronkay. "All we do is study, make projections. We don't decide where people should be. We make calculations about the number of houses and people, and we follow what we believe will be the demand. That's our statutory purpose."

"We can't change who's born, and we haven't figured out a way to keep people out of the state of California," said Lois Krieger, chairwoman of the MWD board. "There's still a lot of property undeveloped within Metropolitan.

"I tend to think the scientists who think we can solve our problems with technology are more nearly true than people who want to limit things."

There is no doubting that MWD helped make Southern California what it is.

Though MWD has its internecine fights--Los Angeles and San Diego scuffle often--the agency presents a powerful, united front in the perennial water wars pitting Northern vs. Southern California and urban vs. agricultural uses. Often it is portrayed by critics as a political bully but, Krieger contends, the sheer size of the MWD "is the secret of Southern California's success."

Turn-of-the-century Los Angeles had been struggling with water for years when it turned north for its water. After buying up Owens Valley water rights, the DWP opened the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. William F. Mulholland, the visionary engineer who conceived that aqueduct, then looked to the east and conducted early surveys for plans to tap the Colorado River.

In 1928, Los Angeles was joined by 12 other Los Angeles and Orange County municipalities in forming the MWD to finance a 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct. An early example of regional thinking, the MWD's original members also included Anaheim, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Compton, Glendale, Long Beach, Pasadena, San Fernando, San Marino, Santa Ana, Santa Monica and Torrance. The MWD is the wholesale water distributor for its member districts.

After the federal government built Hoover Dam to tame the Colorado in 1935, the construction of Parker Dam created Lake Havasu. The Colorado River Aqueduct delivered its first water in 1941, just in time for the boom of the war years.

The MWD later pushed for the State Water Project, delivering water south from the Sacramento Delta through the California Aqueduct to serve the San Joaquin Valley and the Southland. The state project, approved by California's voters in 1960, commenced deliveries to MWD in 1971. It is now the MWD's largest supplier.

As Southern California grew in size and complexity, so did the MWD. From the original 13 cities, it now includes 27 member agencies, covering more than 300 cities and unincorporated areas. A board made up of 51 directors establishes its policies, with agency representation based on tax rolls. Thus, while most member agencies have one representative, the city of Los Angeles has eight representatives, the San Diego County Water Authority has six, and the Municipal Water District of Orange County has five.

Today MWD delivers more than half of the region's water. About one-third comes from wells, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, managed by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) delivers about one-sixth. The amount each district takes from MWD varies greatly.

But MWD directors agree there is little political will to build new aqueducts and there is increasing pressure on existing resources. The state is in its fourth year of drought conditions, ground water supplies are threatened by contaminants, environmental concerns have reduced the water flow from the Mono Basin and Arizona is now a stronger competitor for Colorado River water.

A key to the future for MWD is expanding its reservoir system to allow storage of more water during wet years. One example is the proposed development of a new reservoir in Riverside County's Domenigoni Valley, southwest of Hemet. The reservoir could have five times the capacity of Lake Matthews, and would rival Lake Castaic (a State Water Project reservoir) as Southern California's largest man-made lake.

The MWD has already bought the land, but there is a hitch. The Mission Viejo Co. is suing, claiming it had an pre-existing option to purchase the property.

Where the MWD envisions a vast lake, the developer wants to build homes.

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