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Q & A with Steven P. Erie

Professor Steven P. Erie is a professor of political science, an adjunct professor of history, and the director of the Urban Studies and Planning program at UCSD. Erie's research interests include urban politics, public policy, ethnic/minority group politics, and American political development. He is an expert on Southern California infrastructure issues, and his new book, Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water Distinct, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California (Stanford University Press), is due out in April.


Your new book is called Beyond Chinatown, a reference to the noir film about shady Los Angeles water politics. What was depicted in that movie?

Erie: The 1974 movie Chinatown is about a corrupt, secretive L.A. water deal orchestrated for the benefit of a powerful developer while impoverishing unsuspecting farmers by diverting their water to further L.A.’s growth. The film supposedly was based upon real events in the Owens Valley, where L.A. built an aqueduct to bring water to a thirsty city and allegedly ruined a prosperous agricultural community. The movie plot has become the conventional wisdom about Southern California water politics. It has shaped public perceptions of Los Angeles as a water bully, with rapacious developers serving as the real powers behind the throne of water agencies such as the Metropolitan Water District, which serves Southern California from Ventura to San Diego.


What has your research shown that presents a different, or more realistic, picture of the region’s water politics?

Erie: Chinatown is a great movie but lousy history. L.A. public officials, not private developers, initiated and guided the aqueduct project. Developers made money on San Fernando Valley land speculation, but their role did not extend much further. The Owens Valley farmers were not ruined. In voluntary sales, L.A. paid them above-market prices for their land and water rights; many sellers leased the lands right back from L.A. Yet the so-called “rape of the Owens Valley” has profoundly shaped the subsequent California water debate, particularly over agriculture-to-urban water transfers, including San Diego’s recently completed deal with the Imperial Valley.


Why has water been such a big problem in California, and what innovative solutions have been adopted by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD)?

Erie: Water is a huge problem in Southern California because nearly 20 million people live in a semi-arid desert environment than can only support a fraction of that population with local water supplies. Historically, the region has had to import water from Northern California and the Colorado River in order to prosper and grow. With imported supplies now limited, MWD is encouraging conservation, reclamation, water transfers, desalination, and other local initiatives to diversify the region’s water supply.


What is the outlook for the future availability of water in Southern California?

Erie: It certainly is a big challenge. The region likely will add 5 million more people in the next 20 years. With limited imported water supplies, we need to do more with conservation and reclamation. And we need to find new urban supplies, either by purchasing more agricultural water or by desalination.


Can you give us a description of San Diego water politics?

Erie: In the MWD boardroom, San Diego likes to call itself “David” fighting the dictatorial L.A. “Goliath” for ever-scarce water supplies and for independence. At home, though, we have our own “David and Goliath” battles, with the City of San Diego pretty much calling the shots at the County Water Authority and leaving many smaller suburban and agricultural agencies with limited influence. This irony has not escaped notice.


Can you discuss the differences in infrastructure development and their politics in San Diego versus Los Angeles?

Erie: Ironically, San Diego started out with key infrastructure advantages: a natural harbor, and an early, state-of-the-art airport. But, Los Angeles possessed “Bismarckian municipal will”--visionary leadership and voter willingness to spend huge amounts of public money on infrastructure. Thus, L.A. won the region’s infrastructure wars, securing the transcontinental rail line, building the world’s third largest container port facility and fourth busiest international airport. L.A. also pioneered water development, with L.A.’s Owens Valley project and in 1928, the creation of the Metropolitan Water District. Today, San Diego heavily depends upon L.A.-based and provided infrastructure, from the region’s water system to L.A.’s superior port, airport, and rail systems.


Since we are on the topic of imported water, what do you have to say about the politics of bottled water?

Erie: Bottled water represents the triumph of marketing and snobbery over science and economics. Municipal water is generally safer to drink, and costs a fraction of the price. For example, an acre-foot of municipal water (an acre of water one foot high--enough to support two urban families of four for a year--retails for roughly $700. An acre-foot of Evian costs $1.5 million. Think about that the next time you purchase imported bottled water.


Your new book discusses water and post-9/11 security. Has anything been done - or planned - to protect Southern California's water sources?

Erie: Yes. There are new post-9/11 water-quality testing and supply storage protections in place. But, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, the biggest threats to the region’s water supply may come from nature: earthquakes and (with human assistance) climate changes.


As an urban political scientist, what moved you to focus on water?

Erie: I’ve lived most of my life in Southern California, growing up in L.A. and later living and teaching in San Diego. Thus, I have long appreciated the importance of water in a semi-arid desert environment. Starting in the early 1990s, I closely followed San Diego’s combative quest for water independence from MWD and L.A. Critics, myself included, see this quest as quixotic and costly. My new book is in part a rumination on San Diego/Los Angeles relations, or the lack thereof. It is also an examination of MWD—one of the world’s great regional experiments in water provision and cooperation—from its humble origins in the 1920s to recent epic water battles involving San Diego, the Colorado River and northern California Bay-Delta, to the region’s uncertain water future.


What do you do to relax?

Erie: My partner, Kathleen, and I play with our cats, take long walks, read books and magazines (I like detective novels), and watch old movies.