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Flexing its muscles, working in secret, and stifling dissent, San Diego in the early to mid-1990s tried to assert water independence. It got hosed. The San Diego County Water Authority wound up paying 50 percent more for water than it had been paying earlier.

So writes Steve Erie, UCSD political scientist, in his new book, Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California. It is being published this month by Stanford University Press.

Why the title? Erie is setting up a straw man and knocking it down. In 1974, Hollywood's Roman Polanski came out with the film noir Chinatown, claiming that greedy Los Angeles developers in the early part of the 20th Century had strong-armed Owens Valley farmers into selling their land to bring water to L.A. It was called the "rape of Owens Valley," and the specter still haunts the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which brings Colorado River water to Southern California, including San Diego.

Erie takes another point of view. The Metropolitan Water District didn't drain farmers dry to further a conspiratorial water imperialism, he says.

San Diego was getting 90 percent of its water from Metropolitan in the early 1990s when it decided to team up with the Texas billionaire Bass brothers to bring water from Imperial Valley to reduce its dependence on the giant to the north. Now it pays half again as much to Imperial as it pays to Metropolitan to get water from the same source: the Colorado. San Diego just changed water brokers and paid a higher price, argues Erie.

In the early days of its relationship with Metropolitan, beginning in 1946, San Diego stayed loyal, even though it was underrepresented in voting power. In 1960, San Diego, the largest customer, accounted for almost one-third of Metropolitan water deliveries but had only 10 percent of the vote. Los Angeles got 17 percent of the water but had more than one-third of the voting power.

In the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s, San Diego became restless. Metropolitan reduced its water allocation to users. Among many things, some local officials claim that Los Angeles said it would protect its water supply at San Diego's expense -- a charge that Los Angeles denied.

According to Erie, the San Diego County Water Authority launched a hate campaign against Metropolitan. The vitriol was mainly spewed by City representatives; outlying areas in the county were restrained. The editorial page of the Union-Tribune joined in the orchestrated vilification. "The inner circle owned the editorial page of the Union-Tribune," says Erie in an interview. "It was their mouthpiece; it was writing a fusillade of editorials" slamming Metropolitan and Los Angeles.

San Diego water officials rewrote history, charges Erie. They asserted that San Diego's joining of Metropolitan in the 1940s had been a shotgun marriage caused in part by the exigencies of World War II. "But it was mutually consensual," says Erie, and was beneficial to both sides.

Into such a hornet's nest strode -- to no one's surprise -- Texas billionaires Sid and Lee Bass, always looking to exploit chaos. In 1993, they bought 45,000 acres in Imperial Valley, 10 percent of its irrigated land. The Imperial Valley Press flayed the brothers as "carpetbaggers" who had no intention of raising cattle but were in it for the water. (They were.) The brothers would turn the valley into another Depression-era Dust Bowl, charged the locals.

The swaggering brothers boasted that they had political influence inside Metropolitan. One of their former consultants became general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. The Imperial County grand jury looked into the matter and found undue influence exercised by the Bass boys. The Basses were then political poison. So they swapped their land for $250 million in U.S. Filter stock, so it would appear they were out of the deal. U.S. Filter ran water plants and provided engineering for utilities. Because they were the largest U.S. Filter shareholders, "the Bass brothers were still at the controls," says Erie. Eventually, France's giant Vivendi bought U.S. Filter.

Working behind closed doors, brushing aside environmental concerns, scolding dissidents in the ranks, San Diego water officials got a long-range contract with Imperial paying $600 per acre-foot versus the $350 per acre-foot it was paying Metropolitan for superior water -- a blend of Colorado River water and State Water Project water. "It was a case of an overeager buyer and a monopoly seller," Erie says. "It was poor negotiating on our part."

San Diego was done in by "bruised personal egos and bruised civic egos," irate at "the relationship with Big Brother Los Angeles," says Erie. In the early days of that relationship, "We got almost everything we wanted from Metropolitan, even though we were a little David to L.A.'s Goliath. We were skilled at coalition building. It was all about soaking L.A." That ended in the 1980s when San Diego began pursuing its "quixotic" drive for independence, fueled by hubris and paranoia, he says.

As a local political scientist, Erie had opposed the Bass brothers deal. San Diego County Water Authority officials "would come to my talks and heckle me," he says. "The dean was appalled it was happening on university grounds. They all but declared war on me. They wrote protest letters to the chancellor." They charged Erie was on Metropolitan's payroll; he denies that. The water authority insiders, dominated by City officials, targeted their dissonant colleagues from outside the city and tried to get them fired, says Erie.

"Dissent in this town is a punishable offense," says Erie. "San Diego was created as a presidio. It was authoritarian from day one." Then came the Navy in the 20th Century. "The Navy is an authoritarian culture. Most of San Diego's civic organizations took on a military ethos. San Diego is not friendly to opposing points of view."

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Click here for more on Steve Erie and Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California.

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