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Not going with the flow

Beyond Chinatown The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California Steven P. Erie Stanford University Press: 384 pp., $55; $24.95 paper

April 30, 2006|D.J. Waldie | D.J. Waldie is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles."

AT the end of the movie "Chinatown," after clueless private eye Jake Gittes has doggedly run down all the false leads about water and power in Los Angeles, his partner pulls him back from Evelyn Mulwray's bullet-shattered face as gawking Chinese bystanders crowd around, and sums up the story's essence with the despairing line: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Robert Towne's noir fable of murder, greed, incest and hydrology insists that we are only along for the ride in a city full of ugly enigmas. "Beyond Chinatown," Steven P. Erie's brisk history of the rise of Southern California's empire of water, the Metropolitan Water District, won't supplant the movie version's stylish nihilism. As a character in the movie might have reminded him, there's no percentage in remembering anything in L.A.

Erie's persuasive argument that the Metropolitan Water District is one of the creative but flawed designers of Southern California is haunted by forgetfulness: We forget where our water comes from (less than you might think from the tragic Owens Valley). We forget who manages it for us and why water policy is still the most important political decision we never get to make.

"Beyond Chinatown" is Erie's second in a projected trilogy chronicling the making of Southern California through its titanic infrastructure. The first, "Globalizing L.A.," examined the history of -- and the economic power wielded by -- the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In the third, he plans to tackle the contentious history of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Owens River deal. In this book, he captures the imperial reach of the Metropolitan Water District with its network of big abstractions in concrete and steel that seems to have been here forever and to have an inner life that is, as Erie quotes one critic, "alien, unmanageable, unfathomable, untrustworthy."

"Met," as it's called by intimates and enemies alike, has been all of these things during its 78-year history as it became the ultimate provider of water for the 20 million of us who live at the faucet end of pipelines tapping the Colorado River and the rivers of Northern California. The district, as Erie sees it, is salesman, architect, destroyer and jealous custodian. It exploits and it conserves.

Met also is a specialized regional government run by an appointed board of 37 directors, most of whom you've never heard of. It is driven by internal politics -- in fact, it was designed to manage the competing interests of its 26 member water agencies and cities stretching from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. But it is immune from normal elections and referendums and measures itself only by its vision, as if this mid-20th century assemblage of technicians, bureaucrats, politicians, old-time water-system operators and all their ambitions added up to the creative will (historian Mike Davis calls it a "Bismarckian will") of a single master builder.

It was through this model of public ownership and corporate stewardship -- of exclusive management of inclusive infrastructure -- that Southern California willed itself into existence in the years after World War I. The Met is the model's consummate success. Between 1928 and 1941, the district dug and blasted into existence some of the greatest public works in history, wrested water from rivers hundreds of miles away, and poured what it had taken on the slightly dusty house lots of postwar suburbs from Oxnard to San Diego.

Met's remarkable network was heroic to the ordinary people who voted for its creation and watched how it grew their towns and businesses, Erie writes. Then, either for reasons of organizational efficiency or to maximize development (as their critics say), the old "water buffaloes" of the district remained largely invisible until it began pulling itself apart in the 1990s because rebellious directors from San Diego County feared their dependence on the district's water and Met's implicit control of the county's further growth.

Met endured that turmoil but faces even more trouble now. For reasons of pride and recent legislative prodding, the district must give current and future customers "100 percent assurance that retail-level demands can be satisfied under all foreseeable hydrologic conditions." Shorn of jargon, that's a politically necessary promise to fill your tub, crockpot and water glass regardless of global warming, drought, the draining of the Colorado by new Arizona and Nevada boomtowns or the anticipated arrival of at least 6 million additional Southern Californians by 2025. And none of them will have a clue about the sources of their water or how water is managed -- the real Chinatown-like aspect of living here.

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