The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1983, Volume 29, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Competition for California Water: Alternative Resolutions. Edited by Ernest A. Engelbert with Ann Foley Scheuring. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Charts. Graphs. 224 pages. $27.50 cloth. $8.95 paper.

Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman, author of Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy (1981).

The defeat in 1982 of Proposition 9, the Peripheral Canal referendum, gave clear indication that California voters are more often motivated by their emotions than their intellect. A media barrage from both sides of the Peripheral Canal issue failed to inform the electorate on the questions involved. It would seem that most Californians made up their minds about Proposition 9 from the slogans they read on billboards or saw on television -not the best ways to become informed on vital issues.

In 1981 various agencies within the University of California system met at Asilomar to discuss California’s water problems and to make projections on the state’s water needs into the 21st century. Scholars from the branches of the University, representing a spectrum of disciplines ranging from agricultural economics to environmental law, working in committees, prepared a series of papers addressing aspects of California water issues. The papers were revised, reviewed, and refereed, and now appear in this volume. The intention clearly is to provide factual, nonrhetorical information on issues confronting state planning for this important resource. The reports deal with agriculture, municipal and domestic use, industry, energy, environmental quality and recreation, lifestyles, and other aspects. Each committee was asked to consider three possible scenarios for the future of California water: a status quo with no major changes in policy, major new projects for producing additional water supplies, and reallocation of existing water resources as possible alternatives for future water policy planning. As might be expected, no consensus was achieved, other than the basic assumption “that California will have continuing water policy problems.”

If the success of the book is to be measured in the factual information provided in the chapter reports, then the Asilomar conference did its work well. Although the claim that the book is written in “non-technical language” may be disputed, and the infelicities of style resulting from authorship by committee make the reading a somewhat arid effort (ironic, considering the topic is water), readers of this book will certainly gain an awareness of the complexities involved in dealing with water policy problems.

Inasmuch as this review is being written for a journal of history, it seems only fair to note that the book is conspicuously lacking in historical perspective. Only one chapter, that on customs, laws, and organizations, makes a substantive effort to provide historical background. The orientation of almost all of the reports is as of the present, with projections for the future (only two historians participated in the conference). There is very little consideration of how California water development arrived at its present situation/dilemma. One chapter even refers to an action taken “as long ago as 1974.” Such major events and developments as the formation of the Metropolitan Water District, the State Water Project, the Central Valley Project, the Hetch Hetchy and Owens Valley controversies, and Sacramento Delta problems are, historically speaking, either barely mentioned or ignored completely, as are demographic growth patterns for the state in the 20th century. Chapter end notes reveal inadequate use of historical studies. With no backward look at how we came to be where we are, and no consensus as to where we may be going, the chief value of this book lies in its informing us of what we are doing with what we have, and the hard choices that will have to be made for the future.