Climate Change Impacts on California's Water Supply Require MWD to Prioritize Differently

Jeff Kightlinger

Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, in an exclusive interview, provides an update on the impacts of California’s historic drought on MWD priorities. Kightlinger, the longest serving general manager in MWD history, details how his regional agency continues to deliver high-quality water to 19 million residents in Southern California through innovative conservation and efficiency programs. A governor’s appointee to the California’s Bay Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, Kightlinger sheds light on MWD challenges and progress to restore habitat and increase biodiversity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Finally, Kightlinger explains how MWD is engaging in ongoing discussions on the Colorado River, which is often referred to as the “lifeblood of the American Southwest” including Mexico.”

VX News: How has California’s four-year drought affected the priorities of the Metropolitan Water District?

Jeff Kightlinger: It’s affected our priorities in a couple ways. One is that while we typically plan for 25 years out, the severity of this drought has had us scrambling to deal with the current situation on the ground.

This was the most severe drought in California’s recorded history, and it’s been a challenge just to make things work month-to-month these past four years. This drought has also been a little different than past droughts, in that there haven’t been other sources of water available for us to purchase.

In the past, we’ve been able to reach out to the agricultural community and do spot-market transfers to move water around the state as needed. This time around, not only was there very limited water availability around the state, but we also faced restrictions on our ability to move water—for instance, restrictions in the Delta made it harder to move water from Northern to Southern California. As a result, the spot-market transfer essentially vanished.

In essence, there was no water available to purchase in the state during this drought. That challenge has forced us to rethink how water markets can operate during severe droughts, particularly when endangered species restrictions and outdated infrastructure limit our flexibility.

VX News: We last interviewed you in April, in an exchange titled MWD Adopts Share-the-Pain Approach to Drought. Today, with few water transfers taking place in California, share MWD’s current drought allocation plan.

Jeff Kightlinger: A decade ago, as this drought was beginning to develop, MWD adopted an internal plan for allocating water in Southern California.

Our approach attempts to be as fair as possible. We wanted the physical realities and the fiscal impacts of the drought to be as similar as possible across Southern California. We didn’t want residents in San Diego to have a vastly different situation than residents of Orange County or Los Angeles.

But physically, their situations are very different. Some places have local groundwater supplies; some have access to other sources of water. We took local supply, access points, and historic levels of demand into account when determining conservation goals, so that every area would feel roughly the same amount of pain.

That’s a very complex process. It requires close interaction among all the water utilities throughout Southern California, which eventually gets coordinated through Metropolitan. We think the share-the-pain approach is the fairest, most equitable way to do it, but it’s certainly a lot more work than just cutting everybody’s water deliveries at a flat amount and leaving it at that.

Our second important action was to hugely expand our conservation rebate program. When we realized that there wasn’t water available for purchase, we thought that if we couldn’t get more supply, we could at least use that money to drive down demand. So, we took all the money that we would have used to buy water, and made it available for conservation programs.

We ended up with the biggest conservation rebate program in the history of the country: roughly $450 million in a two-year period. Of that, about $350 million went to turf rebates, and about $100 million went to water-efficient appliances or devices for the home. The money was all spent. It was a very successful, wildly popular program, and it really did help drive down demand. 

VX News: To evaluate MWD’s “share-the-pain” approach, it would perhaps be helpful for our readers to know who sits on your board—a board that oversees water policy for 19 million Californians.

Jeff Kightlinger: We have a 38-member board that represents 26 member agencies: 14 cities, 11 water districts, and one county water authority. Each of those 26 agencies is represented on our board by at least one director, and larger agencies that represent larger service areas get more. The city of Los Angeles, for instance, has five directors on our board. San Diego County and Orange County each have four directors.

More than half of our board members are elected in their own right, whether to a city council or a water district, and their member agencies then appoint them to Metropolitan, where they serve at the pleasure of their appointing agency.

VX News: Let’s address demand: Elaborate on MWD’s ongoing initiatives, in collaboration with local jurisdictions, to incent reduced water demand.

Jeff Kightlinger: During the drought, we really wanted to jolt the system. The public was very engaged in this drought. They watched the news; they understood the historic implications. That was a big opportunity for us. Normally, we fund rebate and subsidy programs until they’re out of money, at which point we tell people to come back next year. But this year, we had unprecedented demand. The response was bigger than we’ve ever seen. And our tracking is showing that demand is still robust.

While a $450-million investment is not sustainable, we are going to continue to invest heavily into conservation. Our typical annual budget for rebates was $20 million; for our next two-year budget, the board appropriated $100 million, or $50 million a year.

VX News: Let’s turn now to supply management. In addition to being Southern California’s water wholesaler, MWD is also a Western States’ stakeholder. Address MWD’s obligations and interests with regard to its neighboring states abutting the Colorado River.

Jeff Kightlinger: The lifeblood of the American Southwest is the Colorado River. We share the river with seven western states, the nation of Mexico, and 10 Indian tribes. It sustains a huge number of people and resources, and a major portion of the national economy.Metropolitan has always played a large role in managing the river. In the 1930s, we built the Colorado River Aqueduct and funded the building of Parker Dam, and Southern California significantly underwrote the funding of Hoover Dam.

The Colorado River has been in drought for the last 16 years. Long-term drought and climate change are having severe impacts to the river’s supply. We’re all going to have to reduce our annual demands on the Colorado River, and that entails working together to find ways to store water and live more within our means.California, Nevada, Arizona—which make up the river’s Lower Basin—are working on drought contingency plans. We’re hoping to develop inter-state programs that will help each state mitigate and cope with the effects of the drought.

VX News: How do Mexico’s water concerns mesh or conflict with those of California, Arizona, Nevada and Indian Nations?

Jeff Kightlinger: Mexico is one of our partners on the Colorado River, and has a role and a responsibility in reducing demand and managing the drought as well.

Five years ago, the United States and Mexico agreed to a historic amendment, or “minute,” to the treaty regulating Colorado River deliveries. It’s termed Minute 319, and it was a major milestone. Mexico agreed to reduce its take during Colorado River shortages. The United States agreed to let Mexico bank water in Lake Mead and withdraw it during times of drought. We also agreed to fund water conservation programs in Mexico, and Mexico would return some of that conserved water to us.

All those programs came together and worked very well, creating a very good example of international and inter-state cooperation. The goal now is to make it a longer-term arrangement. Our hope is to extend it before the Obama administration leaves.

VX News: Lastly, having confirmed your participation once again at VerdeXchange 2017 in January, what do you expect to report on water reliability and supply?

Jeff Kightlinger: There are certain historic milestones in water that only become possible once every generation or so. 2016 has the potential to be the year we reach some of those milestones. By January, we should have closure on the environmental review process on the governor’s California Water Fix plan. My hope is that the project will be approved, and that both the Obama and Brown administrations will be ready to move forward. California has been working toward this goal for decades.

I also hope to see agreement on a drought-sharing plan throughout the Lower Basin on the impacts of drought contingencies on the Colorado River. That would require California, Arizona, and Nevada all to agree on a plan.

The third area is on extending the agreement between Mexico and the United States, which would expand on inter-state and international cooperation. Finally, momentum is building on developing a long-term plan for the Salton Sea. That would address what has been a very challenging environmental issue in that part of California. If all those pieces come together by the end of 2016, it will have been quite a momentous year in water.

"Climate change is very real, and we believe we are already seeing the impacts on our water supply. For instance, we’re now getting more rain and less snow. That alone can change everything from when water is available, to how we have to move it, to the best infrastructure for the job." - Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager, Metropolitan Water District