Martin on Walker, 'Thirst for Independence: The San Diego Water Story'

Daniel Walker
Eliza L. Martin

Daniel Walker. Thirst for Independence: The San Diego Water Story. San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 2004. xi + 163 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-932653-62-8.

Reviewed by Eliza L. Martin (UC Santa Cruz) Published on H-Water (November, 2010) Commissioned by Justin M. Scott-Coe

The Cost of Dependence

San Diego, California, located in the southwestern corner of the United States just north of the Mexican border, sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the desert, currently imports approximately 90 percent of its water.  Most comes from the Colorado River, hundreds of miles to the east.  Daniel Walker’s Thirst for Independence takes a closer look at this region’s relationship to water resources.  The book examines the development of San Diego County’s water supply, including the physical systems and the bureaucracies currently in place to convey water to this rapidly expanding community.

Walker begins his book with the acknowledgement that “this account of San Diego County’s past, present, and future water problems is written more for those who live and work in the county than for historians or scholars,” and I agree with this assessment (p. vii).  With this popular history based mostly on interviews and secondary sources, Walker, a long-time resident of San Diego County, intends to reach a broad audience instead of specialists.  The book offers a useful source for those seeking basic background information on how San Diego has arrived at its current water challenges, and successfully explains in simple terms where the water that supports Southern California originates.  A concise history of water in San Diego, this book covers quite a bit of ground in only 152 pages. 

This top-down, political history focuses mostly on San Diego’s relationship with the Colorado River, currently the county’s main source of water.  Yet Walker begins much earlier with a summary of the major developments in the history of San Diego’s potable water infrastructure.  He starts his narrative with the arrival of Spanish explorers and missionaries, and their difficulties negotiating both drought and floods as they attempted to build a new type of settlement in Southern California.  Walker gives short shrift to the next pivotal stage in this story--the early period of water infrastructure growth in the county, the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when entrepreneurs and engineers built a large number of massive dams across the county.  He then takes a few detours away from San Diego proper to discuss Los Angeles’s claims to the Owens River, the growth of the Imperial Valley, and the construction of Boulder Dam and the Colorado River Aqueduct. 

Walker hits his stride in the second half of the book, when he reaches the post-World War II period, from the construction of the San Diego Aqueduct onward.[1] The last section of the book is the most detailed.  Here, Walker discusses more recent events, including the animosity between the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA).  This latter section focuses on what Walker paints as the antagonistic relationship between MWD, the Los Angeles-based administrative body that transports and sells Colorado River water to Southern California, and SDCWA, a member agency of MWD formed to distribute San Diego’s allotment of the river.  He argues that MWD and SDCWA are locked in a battle for access and control over Southern California’s imported water supply, and therefore San Diego’s water future.  Walker makes a strong case that MWD substantially profits from sales to San Diego, while the city feels underrepresented on MWD’s board of directors.  Yet with its reliance on imported water, there is no way San Diego could split from MWD completely, leaving this argument as perhaps a moot point.

Walker’s analysis of the MWD and SDCWA, along with his recounting of San Diego County’s current plans to diversify its sources of water and the ongoing, expensive preparations for drought and emergency situations, takes his study into the twenty-first century.  Walker discusses possible ways to address San Diego’s future supply challenges, including increased groundwater use, conservation, water recycling, and desalination, but he ultimately sees San Diego’s water future lying in the transfer of water from agricultural to urban use.  While San Diego wants to diversify the sources of its water supply, pushing to lessen its reliance on MWD, Walker fails to mention that transferring water from agricultural use in the Imperial Valley to urban markets still leaves San Diego utterly dependent on imported water from the Colorado River. 

There are many areas where Walker could possibly flesh out his work.  Though Walker puts a new twist on the familiar Southern California water story by placing San Diego at the center, he could tell the reader more about what makes San Diego unique.  How is San Diego’s water story different from Los Angeles’s?  While the book is about water in San Diego, San Diego as a place is missing from the narrative.  More information about the people living in the city and the growth of the city itself would have helped ground the book in Southern California’s environment.  Walker could have offered more regarding why San Diego constantly called for more water, and who exactly was calling for it, especially in the late twentieth century--the focus of his study.  He also does not address the most recent debates in the county surrounding privatization versus municipal control of San Diego’s water supply.

The book also does little to question Southern California’s leaders’ assumptions, both historical and current, regarding population growth and the concomitant constant search for more water.  Perhaps to address the larger systemic issues at work here, local business and political leaders need to reevaluate their pro-growth agenda in light of the region’s environmental limitations.  Walker embraces the regional water agencies’ constant search for more water, but fails to question its sustainability.  The international implications of San Diego’s relationship to water, considering its placement along the U.S.-Mexico border, is another facet of the story that remains unexplored.

A bit one-dimensional in terms of the history, Thirst for Independence does not offer much in the way of critical analysis of San Diego’s early water history.  But, if you are looking for a concise, blow-by-blow account of the creation of San Diego’s water system, especially with a focus on the challenges San Diego is facing in the twenty-first century, and the contentious relationship between MWD and SDCWA, Walker’s book can be a valuable starting point.


[1]. This is the aqueduct that taps into the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s system to bring water from the Colorado River to San Diego.

Printable Version:

Citation: Eliza L. Martin. Review of Walker, Daniel, Thirst for Independence: The San Diego Water Story. H-Water, H-Net Reviews. November, 2010. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.