MWD GM Adel Hagekhalil & Tetra Tech’s Brian Jordan on the Colorado River’s Place in Southern California’s Water Mix in 2023 and Beyond


Highlighting Measure W and regional investments in stormwater capture, this week LA County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella notes in the LA Daily News that Los Angeles county has captured 33 billion gallons of stormwater this rainy season—enough to supply  816,000 people with water for a year. However, despite the recent epic rain storms and record levels of snowpack now in the Upper Colorado Basin, climate scientists still predict shortages for Southern California's imported water supplies.  VX News interviewed Metropolitan Water District General Manager, Adel Hagekhalil, and Tetra Tech Vice President Brian Jordan to discuss how one month of heavy precipitation is, or is not, impacting Southern California’s water supply paradigm. Hagekhalil and Jordan underscore the importance of efforts to reduce demand for imported supplies from the Colorado River and State Water Project and elaborate on the opportunities to increase local supplies through stormwater capture, water recycling, desalination, and more

As recently as this past December,  national and local media were reporting of warnings that Lake Mead could fall to ‘dead pool’ levels by 2025, please further elaborate on the present challenges that Met and the region face with respect to the impacts of projected future water shortage.

Adel Hagekhalil: We all know climate change is real. The new normal is upon us. We're seeing hotter, drier days. About half of Southern California’s water supplies are imported from the Colorado River and from Northern California via the State Water Project. The snowpack from the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada is no longer serving as the natural storage we’ve come to depend on. Even with normal precipitation levels, we're seeing very low amounts of runoff into the rivers and the reservoirs. Unprecedented conditions require unprecedented actions.

Yes, we are facing continued stress on our reservoirs and the Colorado River. We're also seeing it on our State Water Project supplies, fed by runoff from the Sierras. What that tells us is we need to respond quickly to stabilize the system; we need to reduce our demand on our imported water sources.

We need to find ways to immediately reduce the amount of water we're using across all of our watersheds. Then, we need to figure out how we can make this a permanent reduction. Lastly, we need to create alternative sources of water to augment what we've used in the past from imported water.

It's an alarm for all of us. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to reduce demand, which is what the Bureau of Reclamation asked for: 2 to 4 million acre-feet of cuts from the Colorado River.

That leaves us with two courses of action. One is a voluntary action by all of us to make those cuts. The other is the Bureau of Reclamation initiating the process to enforce cuts upon us. The preference from all of us, as we've provided in our comment letter to Reclamation, is the voluntary option. However, we want to make sure that whatever is done, the availability of water for the health and safety of Southern Californians is protected.

We’ve invested millions of dollars in storing water in Lake Mead and have more than a million acre-feet of water stored. That is our water, and we want to be able to have access to it, even under the worst conditions.

I think there's a lot of work ahead of us, but I'm optimistic that people now see the writing on the wall. We either do it together, or we're going to be forced to live with what the Feds will tell us to do.

Adel, you highlighted, when you first sought the position of General Manager of Metropolitan Water District, the need for a new water supply paradigm. Elaborate on this new paradigm and your Board’s support for a new vision and direction for water management.

Adel Hagekhalil: I appreciate the board's support and look forward to this year. We did a lot last year to put us in a place to start moving the needle on building our resiliency and climate action.

In February, with the board and the new leadership, we will be having a retreat to set the path forward for what we at Met need to do for the next 100 years. We will build on our long-term vision to ensure reliable water supplies in a changing climate. It's going to be about looking at the role of Met as an agency. The vision is that we should be in the business of not only importing water, but also creating local water, storing it, and distributing it equally with no one left behind.

Our One Water vision continues to be that of a diverse, resilient water supply for everyone through planning, conservation and greater investment in local water supplies, a flexible water system and storage.

We are currently in the environmental review process for our Pure Water Southern California project, one of the largest recycled water programs in the world. Once built,we will be recycling 150 million gallons of purified wastewater a day in Carson. Thanks to earmarked funds from the state and the Governor , the project is being accelerated because they believe in what we can do here. Investments in us are investments in the future of California and the Southwest.

In addition, through legislation, the state has given us the ability to use a progressive design-build approach that will  help us accelerate the timeline for this  project. I want to thank Assemblymember Calderon, the Assembly, the Senate, and Gov. Newsom for their support for this effort. We are looking at the delivery of around 40,000 acre-feet of water by 2028 through an initial phase.

We also are looking at the future of water management in Northern California, where we see that the hydrology will provide us water in a few short, but intense storms each year. We need to be able to capture that heavy rain and move it around the system to store it and be able to use it when we have these dry conditions.

The future is about how we move water quickly and find different places to store water. We have to expand on both our current surface storage reservoirs and our groundwater storage programs. One place is Sites Reservoir. Another is the large-scale groundwater banking program we have under construction in the Antelope Valley. Whether it's in our local basins or elsewhere, how we move water quickly and put it in the ground when we have it then allows us to reduce our dependency on annual fluctuations in precipitation.

As we learned from the record-low deliveries we’ve received from the State Water Project recently, communities in the western part of our service area were so dependent on state supplies that, even with the storage we had, it was not enough to last us for the entire year. So, we took some drastic action in April 2022,to cut 35 percent of the usage in these areas on average. People took action, and we were able to meet that goal and stretch the amount of water available for these communities.

But as our board declared in a resolution last month, our entire region is in an emergency drought condition.

Conservation is now a way of life, and we're going to continue conserving. We're looking for more action on removing non-functional turf, and we're going to see more money going to rebates to incentivize replacing turf with more sustainable, water-efficient native plants. We're going to be working hard on ensuring that our groundwater basins are in good quality so that we're not losing our groundwater basins to  contamination issues.

It's going to be exciting. I think we moved the needle last year, but more needs to be done and our One Water vision and these holistic, collaborative solutions are the future. I think we're all on the right track now.

Despite concerns both locally and nationally about SoCal & the Western States’  ongoing years-long drought,  California is currently experiencing a “bomb cyclone.” What impact does this deluge of rain and snow have on the water availability concerns and investment priorities of Met?

Adel Hagekhalil: We are certainly grateful for the water supply and ecosystem benefits these recent large storms are bringing to our state. But we know that it will take more than one wet month to end the multi-year drought that has brought unprecedented dry conditions to communities and farms across California. We learned this lesson well last year, when we saw record precipitation in December followed by the driest January, February and March in our history. So far these storms are producing even more rain and snowfall than we saw last December, so we’re hopeful they will have a lasting effect. But we just won’t know for several months. We also recognize that these storms and the flooding they are causing are having destructive and devastating effects on some communities and critical infrastructure; those immediate needs must be addressed.

Regardless of whether this winter brings an end to the immediate drought crisis, we have to understand that California’s climate is changing, and we must adapt. Our state has always had a dynamic hydrology, with dramatic fluctuations in precipitation from year to year. But climate change is bringing never-before-seen extremes – from record dry periods with temperatures reaching new heights, to intense storms that produce rivers of water in short periods of time. We must learn how to manage through these extremes. That requires investments in storage, conveyance, conservation and new local supplies. Metropolitan is working with our member agencies and partners across the state and Southwest to make those investments.

Brian Jordan: Adel touched on the key issues well. California’s climate is very variable. We have always had to invest in flood protection to prevent disasters and also invest in water storage and conveyance so that we can capture precipitation in wet months and move it to where it needs to be used in dry months. More recently, we’ve had to invest in conservation to ensure we’re using an appropriate amount of water.

Climate scientists indicate that this variability is only going to increase – we’re going to have longer, drier droughts and wetter, more extreme precipitation events. But these water infrastructure investments were made with a certain amount of historic data about climate and hydrology. We have more data now and better climate models. We know that we need to update those assumptions and we’re going to have increase our investments in a variety of One Water solutions to ensure that we have more flexibility and resiliency built into our water infrastructure.

In light of all the public reactions to this storm about the necessity of collecting stormwater, what does the public need to know about Met’s mission and the changing paradigm for collecting and relying on local water?

Stormwater capture is already an important water supply for Southern California. All but about 5 percent of rainfall in Metropolitan’s service areas is beneficially used, mostly by plants through evapotranspiration. Stormwater also helps replenish the region’s groundwater basins, which provide Southern California’s largest local water supply. On average, just over a million acre-feet of stormwater annually recharges groundwater basins. There are opportunities though. We can do more to capture that remaining 5 percent. The challenge is, most of it falls in a few big storms every year, like we are seeing rushing down the LA River right now. It can be difficult to capture given the flows and the need for flood control. But we can do more.

Measure W in LA County is helping fund stormwater capture projects. And Metropolitan is funding two pilot programs developed through our member agencies in the region to understand the water supply benefits and cost effectiveness of stormwater capture projects. As we advance a One Water framework in our planning, we must also understand how this water supply benefit integrates with the other community benefits of stormwater capture, like flood control and pollution reduction.

When we talk about producing more water locally, it is not just stormwater capture. Recycled water presents one of the biggest opportunities in the region. As I mentioned, Metropolitan is developing one of the largest recycled water facilities in the world. Pure Water Southern California will produce enough water to serve 500,000 households a year. That is a drought-proof, climate change resilient supply that we be delivered to Southern Californians regardless of the weather.

Brian, is Tetra Tech (and others in the civil engineering community) fully aligned with Met and with Adel's new water management paradigm? What changes in practice, if so, are necessary to get to goal?

Brian Jordan: You used the term paradigm shift earlier, and I think that's a very fitting term for this. We spent over 100 years trying to move water into areas that were arid and lacking rain. We've now seen what climate change has done. We need a paradigm shift and to think about how we can accomplish what Adel just said.

How do we leverage the infrastructure that we've invested in to use it in a more interconnected way and then reinvest in local projects that can augment the surface water and imported water supplies that we bring in from outside the region?

The engineering community has really embraced this sense of urgency that's developed along with this understanding of resiliency. We are certainly supportive of all the legislative and funding moves that have happened in the last couple of years to migrate as much money as we can to not only the economic engine of California or the western US, but to really one of the largest economic engines in world. Being able to provide a resilient, sustainable water supply in the face of these climate change issues and in the face of a system with infrastructure that wasn't really designed for these activities is important.

We understand the need for the residents and businesses to conserve water, but we also understand that MWD and all the local water agencies will need partners in the private sector to plan, build, and implement these facilities, such as desalination plants and recycled water plants and more stormwater storage projects.

We're excited. The economy continues to be strong. There's lots of talk of a potential recession in the future that we all want to be aware of, but given the significance of the population you have down here, I think the private sector will definitely work to muster all the resources possible to be supportive and implement projects like this.

Adel, could you identify and further expand on the local water sources that Met wants to invest in?  

Adel Hagekhalil: Sure, I think Brian hit on it. It takes all hands on deck. It takes collaboration and partnership. That's why we were able to get the legislation to look at progressive design-build and some of the new tools that we need to expedite delivery of projects.

What are we looking for on how to close the gap? First of all, the lowest hanging fruit is recycled water. I believe strongly that we should invest a lot of resources in recycling and purifying water. Our neighbor in Orange County and member agency has done a great job, and we need to do more. We can't afford not to do it.

What we need to do is also collaborate. I'm working with my partners in LA and the rest of the region to see how we can collaborate. At the end of the day, it's about the cost of how we do it and who's going to pay for it. If we collaborate more when we build the infrastructure, it may be actually more effective and more cost efficient for all of us.

At the end of the day, we want to create a resilient water supply. The molecule doesn't know who it belongs to. We want to make sure that anybody who needs water has water. I see Metropolitan’s role as this regional provider of water and helping agencies get their water. I'm going to get the board hopefully to support this vision. It's all about how we work together.

We're additionally looking at potentially some storage options because we're going to have a lot of rain. What we've seen from the climate and the hydrologists is that we're going to see heavy rains earlier in the year. You need to be able to capture it and move it around. This is really a great opportunity. We're not going to be able to build the recycled system quickly enough, but we should be ready to be able to react and find ways to move water like we had in 2019 and 2017 with heavy rains.

There are other solutions. One is brackish water. One of our member agencies, Eastern Municipal Water District, has invested in a plan to clean up brackish groundwater and make it into drinkable water. There is also brackish water in Simi Valley. Could we take that same approach to provide more water for those communities? We also need to look into stormwater capture. LA is leading the way on that, with their project. Maybe there are things that we should do?

 As we try to close the gaps, maybe there are areas where we still need some additional help such as desal. That is not the only solution as people may think. It's a solution in the toolbox. We feel that that is a potential option. In South Orange County, there is a discussion about a project that we're supportive of, which is the Doheny plant.

Desal is a part of the discussion of how we address the state water-dependent areas that were hit hard because of the lack of allocation from the State Water Project for over three years now. Could a desal plant be built on the Oxnard plain? Could something like that be linked to Lake Casitas? Could these options help bring new supplies to the SWP dependent areas?

All of these are creative ideas that we need to look at. At the end of the day though, what's the impact? Who's going to pay for it? Is it reliable? We are looking at all these tools in the toolbox. We're going to prioritize them with the direction of the board. Right now, my biggest focus is on how to ensure that we can store water when we have it. The second is accelerating the delivery of Pure Water in Southern California. We're looking at early delivery of water as we're building this facility.

I think we can do some great things. My message to everyone is that these investments that we are doing here benefit the entire state of California and the entire Southwest. That's why I keep asking for investments from the state and the federal government into our program. They’re going to help farming, our local urban communities, our businesses, along with  fish, the habitat, and everyone that needs that water. Let's work together and invest in what we need to recycle every drop of water and store it when we have it.


Brian, let us now pivot from GM Hagekhalil’s answer and drawing from a interview we did with Glenn Williamson of EPCOR - in which the latter opined:  “(W)e're growing in Arizona. Phoenix is going to be like LA, if it's not already. We need water, but we're no longer relying on the Colorado for that water. We need the ideas coming out of Met in California in Arizona to address our challenges.” Is EPCOR’s Glenn Williamson right? What might those water supply “new” ideas be?

Brian Jordan: I definitely agree, and Adel referred to it earlier. We used to think of regional collaboration as a fairly small region. I think we need to think much larger now. That's the way the Hoover Dam was built and Lake Mead was created. You're not only expressing a regional collaboration, but an almost national collaboration of investment from the federal government with partnerships across state lines.

Innovation is another term that gets used, but I think a lot of people have a pigeonhole view of that. Flexibility is a term I like to use. When we think of flexibility, we think of how can we collaborate differently and how can we use different delivery and procurement models? Adel referred to the fact that MWD is now allowed to proceed with progressive design-build.

Over the last couple of years, Tetra Tech been supporting the Orange County Water District and a variety of Orange County agencies in addressing a very acute problem with PFAS contamination, where they lost dozens of wells overnight. In the period of a year or two, they've been able to be flexible with their approach, their partnerships, and their procurement models. Even through all the challenges of the pandemic and the supply chain constraints, they've been able to reestablish a lot of those water sources and now utilize local groundwater basins again because of newer technologies and that combination of innovation and flexibility.

If we look throughout the Colorado River watershed, we see states like Colorado working with Arizona, who is also working with California. That has become more commonplace. Within Southern California we see what LA is doing with stormwater, what San Diego is considering doing with stormwater, the issues we face at the border with Tijuana, and how Orange County and LA County deal with PFAS contamination. It’s all going to require a lot of creativity, flexibility, and innovation. The private sector is certainly more than willing to step up if the public sector agencies can continue to work together to that end.


Adel, the Colorado River Compact’s 4.4 Plan was reached at a time when California was a large user of Colorado River water and other states less so. Demand and conditions have changed materially over a century. Address the nature of current discussions and if there is any agreement among the four states—Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and California—to collaborate on an amended Compact.

Adel Hagekhalil: I don't think we're there yet. We've been through a lot of negotiations, and I see us closer now than before. One thing before us is we need to shore up our water supply in Lake Powell between now and 2026 before the new guidelines are in place. As we negotiate this, it can’t be all on the backs of California or the backs of the other basin. We all are in this together.

We have some agreements that we just did recently. One is a signed MOU with all the urban communities across the seven states on adopting conservation practices in water management. That's really in the theme of what I said when I was in Santa Fe during a Colorado River symposium. I said to the audience that you don’t have the right to waste water even if you have the rights to that water.

I really believe that we all have a responsibility to conserve water, whether we have the rights to it or not. It applies to everybody. We're not blaming anyone, starting with us. None of us should be watering the lawn and have the water overrun into the street. We should be looking at really carefully how we do what we need to do.

There’s money available on the table. I appreciate the federal government stepping up to put money on the table to do what we need to do through the Inflation Reduction Act. There’s $4 billion there.

We’re close, but the option of not writing an agreement is not there. We have to agree. Otherwise, by the end of January, we'll get something that we may not like. If we need to build trust, we need to continue working hard. California put on the table 400,000 acre-feet of cuts for ‘23. We're asking everyone to step up to the plate to move and meet every week to get the agreement by the end of the month. These agreements usually take five years, and we have to do this within 45 days, which tells you the urgency.

I'm optimistic. There is a lot of interest, a lot of collaboration, and a lot of money on the table for people to do what needs to be done to, one, stop the hemorrhaging of water and to systematically invest to reduce our usage and create new water supplies for all of us.


Finally, Brian, in four months you will lead, with Adel’s support and others, the VerdeXchange Water Charrette. What do you envision the focus will be of the upcoming VX2023 Water Charrette?

Brian Jordan: It's going to be about what Adel just referred to. I think state and federal regulators, whether we're thinking about the Colorado River or the Bay Delta or local water quality regulations we have here, need to balance the carrot and the stick. We've been fortunate for the last year or two to have a good bit of carrots and not too much stick.

I talked about flexibility earlier; that flexibility applies to the regulators and the legislative and policymaking bodies that influence the regulators. We're going to need that type of flexibility and approach in order to be successful here. The outcome of what happens with these discussions on the Colorado River is going to have a big influence of where we drive that Charrette.

There's a lot of work to be done. Adel's team and MWD are burning the midnight oil as part of these negotiations, but everyone else in the basin is as well. There have been some significant milestones that were hit on the Bay Delta here in the last couple of weeks and months. That will have a big influence on the State Water Project suppliers as well.

What happens in the next couple of weeks is going to have a big influence on where we take that Charrette, but it'll be some really exciting discussion because we'll have some tangible goals that we can work towards.


“Our One Water vision continues to be that of a diverse, resilient water supply for everyone through planning, conservation and greater investment in local water supplies, a flexible water system and storage.” -Adel Hagekhalil