A sobering thought. I press on: "I realize that there's scarcity, but to what degree is the Los Angeles/San Diego battle over water political? Is it an ego fight?"
"I think it's largely a political or ego fight. MWD is never going to cut off its biggest customer, San Diego. That would be suicidal. In fact, every time we've had a drought, they've devised plans to make it easy on San Diego. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, we were looking at cutting agriculture water supplies totally, because they get discounted [water] prices because it's 'interruptible.' They're the first who could be cut off. Yet MWD didn't do that as it would have harmed the economy of the county. MWD has bent over backwards to try to accommodate San Diego. But the threat of drought and the threat of cutoff remains a rallying cry down here."
"Why is it," I ask, "that L.A. doesn't have priority over San Diego?"
"Well, L.A. does -- on paper. It has 'scarcity rights.' About half of the Colorado River Aqueduct was paid for by Los Angeles taxpayers and rate payers. We paid a much smaller share of the capital costs. But everybody that I have talked to -- every lawyer -- says that these scarcity rights are unenforceable and are superseded by the California Water Code. By the way, in the next ten years we will have more [so-called] scarcity or preferential rights than Los Angeles. Ours are growing, theirs are decreasing, because we're such a large customer and contributing [accordingly] to the capital costs."
"What," I want to know, "is the effect of global warming on all this?"
"Global warming ultimately means that the snow pack will melt much earlier, so water will flow to us sooner. Which probably means that we're going to have to build more storage facilities to capture that earlier runoff."
"What's the effect of earthquakes on the water supply?"
"The effect. Well, levees can break, aqueducts can be torn apart. One of the reasons for building Diamond Valley Lake Reservoir, with half a year's storage, was to have a facility south of the San Andreas Fault Line, away from possible earthquake centers."
"You write that water to the 21st Century is going to be what oil was to the 20th. That there are states in the eastern U.S. vying for water sources, and you point out that there are cities overseas (like Bangkok) that are sinking because of water depletion. Iran is threatening Syria over a dam. India is competing with Pakistan over the Indus River system. At what point does this all come to blows? Could we really have a water war, Professor?"
"We've got massive growth in metropolitan areas, huge mega regions around the world with limited water supplies. These are flash points for conflict. There could easily be disputes between urban and rural zones. In many places in the world, farmers and ranchers settled near established water sources and simply have more water [than city dwellers]. The urban areas need it and they're going to go after it. Oh, yes, you could have wars over water."
"Do you think water will be increasingly treated as a private-sector commodity or a public resource? Which view will prevail?"
"Worldwide you've got these huge private providers now, big European companies, French and English, that supply water. Investors in such firms will see scarcity as a chance to make a windfall profit as demand increases. So there will be greater and greater pressure to privatize water. And we're likely going to find the price of water going up."
"Professor, how was it made possible for those 18 million Southern Californians to be supplied with extra water in a region so arid that it can only support 750,000?"
"Some call it a miracle, others call it a curse. It took an awful lot of leadership, foresight, and enormous public investments to build this massive infrastructure system. In 1931 we were slipping into a depression. The voters of L.A. and 12 of its suburbs -- the founding members of MWD -- were asked to add the equivalent of 13 Proposition 13s to their tax bill. That is, 13 percent of assessed property valuation. (Proposition 13 caps your property tax bill at one percent.) They were asked to add the equivalent burden of 13 percent. Eighty-four percent of them said yes . Can you imagine that happening today? It really was foresight and leadership."
"And was Mulholland the chief architect in this?"
"No, William Mulholland was the chief architect for the City of Los Angeles, and certainly he is the one who filed for the Colorado River rights on behalf of L.A. Once he had those, he pioneered the early work exploring the possibility of an aqueduct. But L.A. didn't have the money to do the project alone."
"Your book is called Beyond Chinatown. Back in April, in a Reader City Lights column, you were quoted as saying that you wanted the book to lay to rest the noir legend the film Chinatown promulgated. What is that myth or impression you wanted to correct?"
"It's that water decision-making in Southern California is secret backroom deals with developers that benefit the plotters and hurt the public and ruin unsuspecting farmers in outside areas. What I'm trying to point out is that most Metropolitan Water District decisions have been made in public forums and some of them, the early ones, required public votes."
"But you do have situations like the Bass brothers' secret negotiations that feed the Chinatown legend, no?"
"Oh, absolutely. Not only feed it, but the Bass brothers [episode] comes closer to the movie script than anything L.A. ever did up in the Owens Valley." Professor Erie's voice turns plaintive. "Of course, we're never going to get beyond 'Chinatown,' Juri."
Stanford University Press, 2006, $21.95, 364 pages. By Steven P. Erie, with the assistance of Harold Brackman