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  • Recognizing Multiple Values of Water "from the Bottom Up":Historical Lessons from the Metropolitan Water District- Imperial Irrigation District Water Transfer in Southern California
  • Kazuto Oshio (bio)


The purpose of this paper is to closely re-examine historical lessons of the 1990 water transfer agreement from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), particularly from the "bottom-up" perspective so that it will recognize not only the "dominant" economic value of water but also communal and "least recognized" ecological values of water—a perspective and values that Professor Helen Ingram, whom I count among my most valued scholarly mentors, emphasizes in her work. The IID, formed in 1911, is both an irrigation district, established under the state water code, that supplies roughly 500,000 acres of Imperial Valley farmland with raw Colorado River water to support irrigation and an electrical energy utility to the Valley. Meanwhile, the MWD, established in 1928, is a regional wholesaler and the largest supplier of treated water in the United States, providing water to 19 million people in its 5,200-square-mile service area through the Colorado River Aqueduct as well as the state water project (see map). [End Page 338]

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Southern California waterscape.

The significance of this particular water transfer was evident from the numbers of professional recognition: a 1989 Water Conservation Award from the Bureau of Reclamation, a 1990 National Water and Energy Conservation Award from the Irrigation Association, and a 1991 Clair A. Hill Agency Award for Excellence, sponsored by the Association of California Water Agencies, just to name a few. Thus, it was natural for Haddad to state 10 years later that this agreement still was "the highest-profile example of a successful water market transaction in California, perhaps in all of the West" (Haddad 2000, 81), and yet, he cautions, "least understood" (63). Since the process of negotiation and agreement between the two agencies has long been examined mainly from economic, administrative, and legal perspectives, various important issues have been left out. In order to fully comprehend the process and impact of this water transfer, one needs to closely analyze how the local residents and water officials had perceived the potential problems and reacted to them. This paper's particular contribution is the detailed identification of complicated local obstacles which stand in the way of implementing water transfer policy, an identification which could not have been accomplished solely by abstract theoretical analysis of the policy process, with little consideration of the on-the-ground involvement of ordinary people.

The origin of this paper was in the Resident Fellow Seminar of the University of California Interdisciplinary Humanity Center on October [End Page 339] 17, 1990, entitled "From Theory to Practice: 'Water Transfer' from Imperial Irrigation District to Metropolitan Water District of Southern California," to which historian Robert Kelley and political scientist Dean Mann of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and water officials Charles Shreves of IID and Tim Skrove of MWD contributed. It was my response to a "historic" hydrologic cycle of California's drought, from its inception in 1987 until Governor Pete Wilson's declaration that the drought was over six years later. At that time, the National Research Council concluded that this water transfer "was an 'easy' case because no existing users were displaced and third party effects were minimal or indirect enough to be ignored" (National Research Council, 1992, 234). If it was truly "easy," however, why is it that "water marketing has not prospered…even though there were number of reasons why it should" (Reisner and Bates, 1990, 149). Why, still, asked David Lyon of Public Policy Institute of California 10 years later, has the development of water markets taken so long to gain acceptance? Lyon noted obstacles to the expansion of water markets and pointed out as follows:

Local officials, especially in rural areas, are fearful of losing a resource that is a key component of future economic growth. And the specter of bone-dry Owens Valley haunts residents, officials, and investors alike. For these and other Californians, the problem can be put very simply: "No water, no...


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