Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sarah S. Elkind's "How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy"

Sarah S. Elkind is associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at San Diego State University. She is author of Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston and Oakland, which won the Abel Wolman Prize from the Public Works Historical Society.

Elkind applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles, and reported the following:
The year was 1938, two decades into the campaign to curb flooding in Los Angeles County. But in spite of all that effort, the worst flood in Southern California history had just roared down the mountains, overwhelming a third of the flood control channels and reservoirs, damaging $40 million in property, and killing 49 people. Nineteen-thirtyeight was also the year that the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building the flood control basin at Whittier Narrows to protect Long Beach from the rampaging San Gabriel River, and to reduce floodwaters from the Rio Hondo into the Los Angeles River. This flood control basin, the first proposed for Los Angeles County, ultimately displaced a community of truck farmers and industrial workers. Residents of this community took their objections to their Congressmember, Jerry Voorhis. Voorhis called upon the Army Corps to hold a public hearing. The Army Corps refused because they did not recognize Voorhis or his constituents as legitimate representatives of the public interest in the debate over Whittier Narrows Dam.
While the Los Angeles District replied to letters from opponents and discussed the merits of the dam with the El Monte Citizens Flood Committee [the main opposition group], the Army Corps actually helped organize supporters of the dam. This collaboration showed in the supporters' correspondence and activities. The Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners passed resolutions in April 1938 and again in February 1940 calling the dam the best means to protect the population and property below the Narrows. … The 1938 resolution not only used the Army Corps’s data on flood sizes and runoff rates, but also Army Corps’s wording. The resolution stated, "the erection of said Whittier Narrows dam will create no engineering problem that cannot be solved to the entire satisfaction of residents of that area" and that "any economic problems affecting the residents of that area can also be solved without working a hardship upon such residents;" nearly the same language appeared in the Army Corp’s responses to Voorhis’ 1938 enquiries on Whittier Narrows Dam.

A 1938 resolution passed by the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce repeated the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners' resolution almost verbatim. … Both the Norwalk and Long Beach resolutions mention the Army Corps' warning that, in view of the El Monte opposition, the corps would not seek congressional appropriations without a stronger show of support for Whittier Narrows. (How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy, p. 99; footnotes not included)
Whittier Narrows Dam proved successful by many measures: it cost less, displaced fewer people, and controlled floods far better than any of the alternatives demanded by opponents. If the Army Corps succeeded in controlling floods, however, they failed the people. The Army Corps of Engineers engineered Los Angeles County politics as surely as they redesigned the San Gabriel River. By recognizing supporters of their plans as legitimate representatives of the public interest while dismissing opponents as "special interests," the Army Corps drove a wedge between the people of the Whittier Narrows basin and the federal government. The story of Whittier Narrows Dam offers one explanation of why Americans have lost faith in the federal government. The other 183 pages in How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy reveal how the groups identified as the legitimate voices of the public earned that status, how their priorities shaped federal as well as local politics, and finally, how Americans rejected federal authority as a threat to private enterprise and autonomy in the twentieth century. As the Occupy movement suggests, these trends have left too many Americans on the sidelines of democracy.
Learn more about How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy at the the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue