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Knee-Deep Disputes For 'Water Buffaloes';
The Power Of The Metropolitan Water District Long Went Unquestioned.
Now It Is Mired In Inertia, Ineptitude.

By Terry McDermott
The Los Angeles Times, November 1, 1998


The last water buffalo in the lower Colorado River basin grazes in the low green vegetation. The last buffalo in the lower basin is unhappy. The buffalo's days are numbered, and he knows it.

He edges through the burnt brown grains, pushing rejects aside, burrowing on. He doesn't have time for croutons. He came for the crab.

Charles "Chick" Barker is eating lunch, a crab Caesar, at a waterside restaurant in San Pedro. Asked to look back at his life, he looks instead out the window and stares there a while. "You don't really want to hear this crap, do you?" he asks, then starts talking about a time in California when the challenges were clear and the means to meet them apparent.

Barker is the longest-serving member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He's been on the board for half its existence, 35 years. "He did that," another board member says, "and I went to kindergarten."

The Metropolitan, or the Met, as it is often called, is a confederation of 27 cities and local water districts that stretches from Santa Barbara to Mexico. It has, since shortly after its founding in 1928, been the main importer of water to semiarid Southern California. For most of its history, the Met acted as a potent shadow government, shaping the region. It was one of those rare public institutions whose enemies and defenders agreed on what it was: a powerful, impenetrable and arrogant monolith that did as it pleased.

The Met found water and built whatever it felt necessary to deliver it--huge dams, vast networks of canals, pumps and pipelines. Water, Met people like to say, is free. Moving it costs money. No project was too big or costly. The Met engineered solutions.

Barker represents the last of an era of water overlords who, owing to a shared sense of purpose and access to economic might, ran this water business pretty much as they saw fit.

Critics called them the "Water Buffaloes," a slight intended to demean their thickheaded, eyes-down, perpetually plodding approach. Barker takes the name with pride. Plodding is a good thing, he thinks, if you know where you're going. And boy, did the buffaloes know where they were going: To get water, ever and always, to get more water. No matter what anyone said about the impracticality of getting more, the impossibility of getting more, or even the immorality of getting more, they went and got more.

The result is Southern California.

The Met's power to acquire the area's water supplies underwrote--some would say dictated--its stupendous growth. Critics deride the accompanying amorphous sprawl. Defenders praise the creation of the eighth-largest industrial economy in the world and the realization of the American Dream for millions.

Things are different today. There is no more water for the Met to go get. The main problem in the water world is dividing a shrinking supply among more people. Environmental and population pressures are growing. More people and less water mean more fights: farm against city, north against south, Arizona against California. These are largely political, not physical challenges. And the Met's political skills seem to have atrophied. Its inclinations are still those of the old buffaloes and their engineers.

The Met is still at the center of regional water politics. It hasn't shrunk. But it has become a clumsy giant, Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

Who cares?

Southern California prospered because of the Met's ability to deliver as much cheap water as anybody wanted. A less able Met could mean higher prices. It could mean less water. It would mean, almost inevitably, less growth.

A Ditch That Supports 16 Million People

If you're a stranger here--if, say, your idea of what constitutes majesty in a waterway derives from the mile-wide might of the Mississippi or the slippery mysteries of the Columbia River Gorge--then your awe of ditches might be insufficient.

Take this ditch. From on high, it has some beauty; a shiny line of pure, straight-arrow angularity, a bright rope pulled taut across the random warp of the desert floor.

But the beauty is all distant geometry. Up close, every hint of it disappears. It's a ditch, after all, a silver gray concrete culvert; a small, plain thing, maybe 40 feet wide. You could spit across it.

This ditch is, however, distinguished in significant ways.

For one thing, it is the only apparent artificial structure on the dead brown ground of eastern Riverside County.

For another, it is full of water, a swift stream of it moving west. It is in the middle of a desert. The temperature boils above 120 degrees. It hasn't rained in months. And the ditch is full of water, flowing at 1,700 cubic feet per second.

Finally, this ditch, unlike most others, has a name: the Colorado River Aqueduct. The economic well-being and, in some cases, physical survival of 16 million people depend on it.

This ditch is water grandeur, California style. Water here is among the most domesticated natural resources on the planet. It is a measure of its domesticity that if any water does eventually make it to the ocean, water people routinely describe it as having been spilled. This ditch was built to prevent that from happening.

Building it required brute force. Dreaming it was crazy. Imagine Los Angeles of the 1920s. The city government has already completed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, bringing water to the city from the Owens Valley. The place is awash in water. There is no obvious need to import more of it.

Enormous Gamble in Depression Years

It took a quarter-billion dollars, real money even by today's standards, and an almost unimaginable sum when voters approved spending it in the Depression. Given the circumstances, the Colorado Aqueduct was an enormous gamble. It paid off. The aqueduct carries one-third of the water supply for Southern California 300 miles over mountains, under mountains, under roads, over deserts from the Colorado River to the sea.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct built Los Angeles. The Colorado Aqueduct built the rest of Southern California, fueling one of the greatest, most prolonged economic booms in human history, enabling among other things the creation of drive-in hamburger stands, the de-centered city and the technical prowess to win the Cold War.

The aqueduct remains the Met's defining achievement. It set the agency on the way to becoming the country's largest water wholesaler. One of every 20 Americans is a customer. That's more customers than all but three states have people.

The grand conceit of the aqueduct infused the Met with a self-confidence, blurring into hubris, that is so deep it now seems genetic. Even now, the agency is building a $2-billion reservoir in Riverside County. The place is utterly devoid of water to put in the reservoir, so the Met is also building a billion-dollar pipeline to fill it with water from up north. Southern California imports about two-thirds of its water. About half the imports come from Northern California by way of the State Water Project and the Los Angeles Aqueduct. About half comes from the Colorado River via the aqueduct. In the last decade, both these sources have been reduced.

Growing environmental concerns and political power essentially halved the water available from the north. Growing populations and political power in the other states of the Colorado River basin, notably Arizona, have forced California to agree to take much less water from the Colorado.

These tightened supplies have forced Southern California to manage its water use, rather than simply turn the spigot and let growth pour out.

Water creates its own impetus for growth by removing an otherwise unremovable constraint. If you have water, and land, the capacity for growth is limited mainly by the political will to stop it, which, if you look over the huge expanse that is contemporary Los Angeles, has been no match, so far, for the water buffaloes.

When Plenty of Water Meant Endless Growth

One morning in 1954, Chick Barker was sitting at his desk in the operations office of the Chevron oil refinery in El Segundo. His boss, Don Harger, walked in and, in the manner of a boss in 1954, gave an order.

"Barker," he said, "get interested in the water business."

Barker, in the manner of an employee in 1954, didn't discuss or argue or ask why. Chick Barker is a pragmatic man, not much intrigued by questions that start with the word "why." Besides, he already knew why. Next to the raw petroleum, water is the single most critical element in refining oil, a process that involves repeated heating and cooling. On average, it takes five gallons of water to produce a gallon of oil. If nothing else, then, Barker understood the importance of water to the oil industry.

Water, usually, works like this: You turn the tap, it comes out. But a complex assemblage as much political as mechanical underlies the simple turning of every tap. California has a lot of water and a lot of people. The problem is, they're in different places. Almost all of the complications and, not coincidentally, costs in the water business derive from this basic imbalance.

The water world that has evolved to address the imbalance is a confusing place if only by the sheer number of players in it. In Southern California alone, more than 300 public or private water companies have some portion of the water business. Beyond that lies Sacramento and Washington, which are, with water as with much else, virtual festivals of further complication.

Oilman Becomes a Water Man

This was the thicket Chick Barker got tangled in. For a certain type, this can be a pleasing experience. Barker was the type.

While not much interested in whys, Barker is an intuitive expert at how. He has a gift for reducing complex situations to their basics. He knows how to make things work. When, for example, pickets from a longshoremen's strike halted shipments of supplies and people to the refinery, Barker, figuring there were no picket lines at sea, commandeered a surplus landing craft and ferried materials and men directly to the refinery.

So when his boss gave the order, Barker loyally went out and got interested in the water business. Very interested, as it turned out. In short order, he got involved in his local water district and in 1963 was appointed to represent it on the Metropolitan.

When Barker went on the board, the directors were all white, all men. Metropolitan directors in those days served what amounted to life terms. They came mainly from three places--real estate, the water business and industry. They presided as a modern version of knights of the round table, each of the 27 districts a fiefdom. (The number of directors varies over time, according to a formula based on assessed value of real estate in each of the areas. For example, there are currently 51 Met directors; Los Angeles has seven, San Diego six, Orange County five and so on down to San Marino's one.)

Even given their great number and greater differences among the areas they represented, directors had in those days a shared sense of purpose: to get and sell ever more water, enabling perpetual growth. They saw themselves as unsung igniters of a great explosion of prosperity.

Ruling the District With an Iron Fist

"We didn't feel it was self-serving in those days," says Thornton Ibbetson, a land developer who served on the Met board for parts of four decades with Barker. "It was for the development of California. We didn't see any conflict. Who knows more about growth than developers?"

The Met then was dominated by a series of strong leaders. When Barker joined the board, the most legendary of those leaders was at the peak of his power. Joe Jensen, an oilman from Los Angeles, headed the board for 25 years beginning in 1949. Jensen made the Met his job. And he made it clear it was his alone. He patrolled the district in a chauffeured car and didn't hesitate to tell everyone from engineers to local water board directors how to do their jobs. Back at headquarters, he was equally forceful in setting the district agenda.

Discussions within the board were rare. If you didn't agree, you didn't speak. Even if you did agree, you didn't speak up until you had been there for a while.

Jensen didn't give up the chairmanship until he died in 1974, immediately after which the board amended its rules to limit future chairmen to two terms. The effect of this has been to transfer power from the board to the agency staff. No one took fuller advantage of this than Carl Boronkay, general manager from 1984 to 1993.

"Carl Boronkay ran the place with an iron fist. If you wanted to sell something to MWD, I don't care if it was a pencil, you had to talk to Carl," said Ralph Menvielle, a member of the board of directors of the Imperial Irrigation District.

Boronkay, who characterizes his reign as simply that of a corporate CEO, dragged the district into the modern world. The Peripheral Canal, a favored project of the Met that would have brought water from the northern Sierra, around the Sacramento River Delta and eventually to Southern California, had been defeated. Boronkay recognized the growing political power of the environmental movement and tried to make common cause. He often did this to the complete surprise--and sometimes shock--of the board of directors.

Management Changes at a Complex Time

Boronkay eventually accumulated too many enemies on the board and resigned as a forceful new board chairman, Mike Gage, was taking charge. Boronkay's replacement was a more conciliatory professional water manager from Florida, Woody Wodraska.

With Gage as the external leader, Wodraska looked inward. The organization had run pretty much on its own while Boronkay was off politicking in Sacramento and Washington. The separate departments functioned with almost complete autonomy from one another.

"We called them silos," Wodraska said, and he concentrated on breaking them down.

Meanwhile, Gage, an appointee of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, was ousted when Richard Riordan took office. The chairmanship passed to Jack Foley, an amiable grandfather who was spending his Army retirement managing the tiny Laguna Niguel water and sewer district. ("I'd like to get rid of the sewer. Nobody wants to take it," he said.)

Foley is a sharp-nosed, bushy-browed, almost impish Irishman from Brooklyn. He winks and will say of a woman he's had some dealings with, "She's a tough broad." He has not been, all agree, a forceful chairman.

Katherine Moret, a Met director from Los Angeles, said: "God bless Jack Foley, he's a nice man, but he's not a leader."

Meanwhile, the world beyond Met's walls came pouring in. Wodraska now admits he was unprepared for the complexity of California politics and paid it too little attention. In the description of one director: "We've got two peacetime generals and we're in the middle of a war."

"Here's the history of California water in 100 words or less," said Tim Quinn, deputy director of the Met. "We used to think that the way to solve any problem was to build something big. Then came the Peripheral Canal."

The defeat of the canal in 1982 signaled the end of the Met's unchallenged autonomy over water and the new power and persistence of the environmental movement. Moreover, the courts seemed eager to support the environmentalists' persistence. Other changes, including modest broadening of the board's membership, came from within. But with only slight compromises, the Met in many areas did a pretty good job of pretending the world was the same as it had always been.

Then in 1995 the Metropolitan finally met an opponent it couldn't ignore or conquer: itself.

The consensus that had propelled the board for decades disappeared entirely, beginning in a protracted, corrosive fight over an important but relatively straightforward issue: whether to allow one of the 27 member agencies, the San Diego County Water Authority, to purchase its own supply of water. Not only would this challenge the Met's monopoly as the region's water importer, it would cost money because San Diego is the Met's biggest customer. The Met's revenues are overwhelmingly derived from selling water, which creates a sticky contradiction with the district's efforts to encourage conservation and diversification of water sources.

But the substance of the dispute quickly ceased to be the main issue. Name-calling and exaggeration replaced debate. The San Diego delegates to the Met were extraordinarily strong-willed and unrelenting. The rest of the Met board, in time-honored fashion, hunkered down to outwait them.

The debate devolved into bitter personal feuds complete with civic insults. Los Angeles representatives delighted in sarcastically dismissing San Diego as a Podunk one-horse town (or, the modern equivalent, a one-runway town), and began concerted misinformation campaigns. San Diegans persisted in saying, falsely, that the Met board had singled them out for deep cuts in water supplies during the drought of the early 1990s.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent trying to discredit each other. Clandestine meetings were held in both camps. Public meetings of the Met board became a farce. San Diego began bringing its own recording equipment to board meetings, as if saying the Met couldn't be trusted not to doctor the record of its own meetings. Every issue--it didn't matter if it was water quality or building a dam--somehow led back to San Diego's complaints, which, though exaggerated, were genuine.

Met lawyers began requiring San Diego board members--representatives of the Met's biggest customer--to file public information act requests to get data from the district.

Feud Calls Public Attention to Agency

"Met failed to keep its best customer happy," said Christine Frahm, chairwoman of the San Diego board. "That's what it came down to. So we looked elsewhere."

The feud eventually called attention to the agency in a way that its great past successes never had.

The agency did not know how to react. Family secrets were being aired in public.

A powerful state senator spent much of the recent legislative session railing against the Met as "a ghost organization, arrogant and utterly lacking in accountability." U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently characterized Southern California water politics as being in "disarray."

The uncertainty increased this fall with the sudden resignation of Wodraska, the Met's chief executive. Foley is also due to step down as chairman at the end of the year.

The underlying issue in the San Diego dispute has implications far beyond the Metropolitan: Should water be deregulated? Should it follow telephones and electricity into the vagaries of the free market? Water has always been regarded as a natural resource to be protected and distributed by the government. Should it instead become a commodity to be bought and sold in the market like so many frozen pork bellies?

This, critics say, is what the Metropolitan Board of Directors should have spent the last three years deciding. Instead, they were not discussing much of anything. They were stranded on opposite shores of indecision--calling one another names.

Chick Barker is a compact man who, at 83, retains a boxer's round, sloping shoulders. He has thick forearms and fingers. Even with a stride foreshortened by age, he walks like he knows where his Rockports are taking him. He wears double hearing aids, double-thick glasses and short-sleeved shirts, the pockets stuffed full of pens, pads and scraps of paper. He has a rough, florid face and a nearly full head of hair.

He is the kind of man who will kiss a lady's hand. He's the kind of man, in fact, who will kiss a woman's hand even when he doesn't think she's a lady. It's an old-fashioned sense of doing what you're supposed to do that still runs deep at the Metropolitan.

Met board meetings are like family gatherings in a stern great aunt's parlor. They serve chocolate chip cookies and no one speaks out of turn.

"It's like a movie going on for years and years. You could leave the room for a month, come back and not have missed a frame," said David Freeman, the general manager of the city of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power who joined the Met board this year. Freeman has spent much of a 50-year career in the utility business, most prominently as manager of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In other words, he has credentials. Yet when he raised questions at his first board meeting he was taken aside by a veteran director and, in time-honored Met fashion, was counseled to wait a couple of years before speaking again.

For all the changes on the board in recent years, a Met meeting still looks like Thursday night at the Fullerton Elks. Met people look like what people everywhere would look like if they attended a lot of these meetings, ate a lot of those cookies and the Stairmaster hadn't yet been invented.

This combination of homeyness and reserve, many Met directors say, makes for a friendly but ineffectual board that refuses to acknowledge the world has changed, like the Kremlin during the last days of the Soviet Union.

"Real policy questions like 'What are we supposed to be doing here?' haven't been asked," said Bill Luddy, a Los Angeles director.

"The world has changed," said director John Morris of San Marino. "You must recognize you need to. Don't just stand in the middle of the road. You keep getting run over."

Water, in the West, is destiny, and the water future of the region is being decided right now. People talk seriously of letting old government monopolies like the Met die, replaced by open water markets with buyers and sellers bidding to see who gets how much.

The Met seems frozen in place, hampered by its history and unwilling to acknowledge the changing world. Longtime critics have mistaken its inaction for the Met's old arrogance and have stepped up their attacks. Even old Met allies are chiming in. But much of the criticism is aimed at an organization that in some sense no longer exists.

Sin of Ineptitude Replaces Arrogance

The Metropolitan, long accused of running roughshod over all opposition, is today guilty, even its advocates say, of an almost unimaginable sin: ineptitude.

Barker has watched the decline in horror. He says he had always agreed with what a wise man--a taxi driver in Las Vegas--told him: "Water's so goddamned important, I know somebody's going to take care of it." Now, Barker says, "We're in a very serious situation, as serious as I've ever seen. I'm not so sure who's going to take care of anything."

The Met meetings are somber affairs conducted under the pall of gentlemen's club courtesies in rented space in a downtown high-rise. A new headquarters next to Union Station is due to open this fall. Typical of the agency's imperiousness, according to two Met staffers, board members initially did not want anyone to know they had voted to build it. Also typical of the agency, the most heated board debate regarding the new building was where to build a special restroom for the board.

Meetings always open with a prayer, usually written by a board member. One recent example asked that Southern Californians be able to "fill their cups from an ever-full aqueduct." Another sought to "open the intake valves of our hearts" so that its internal divisions could heal.

Every director has a laptop at his or her position. At a recent meeting, one director played solitaire on his. Another member said he and his next-seat neighbor play a game during meetings--they bet on how many board members will fall asleep. The record so far is 11.

When people in the water world today survey the turmoil around them, they frequently refer to "Chinatown," the shadowy movie that depicted the first great Southern California water war.

It's the wrong movie.

There are few shadows in the new water world. Everything is battered by the cruel bright light of a desert noon.

If you insist on a movie metaphor, you would do better to search for one of those safari films in which a rogue elephant terrorizes hapless villages, trampling through them heedless of the damage strewn in its wake. The Great White Hunters set off to trap the rogue. But the plan backfires, and in the climactic scene, the angry beast makes one last charge right at the hunters. They shoot to kill. They let fly round after round and the elephant finally goes down.

It falls with a thunderous cartoon crash, hitting the ground with such force that all the twigs, rocks, leaves, small animals and large men on the jungle floor are tossed up into the air, where they hang, suspended.

That's the shape of the water world today. Shots have been fired. The elephants, and their friends the water buffaloes, have crashed to earth.

Everything else is still up in the air.

Next: Directors of the Met increasingly pursue personal agendas.

Figure (Not availaable) -Water, Water From Everywhere: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is the biggest water wholesaler in the nation, stretching from Ventura County to Mexico and serving 16 million people. Two-thirds of the region's water is imported via three canal systems--the Colorado River Aqueduct, the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the State Water Project.


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