Historic Western States’ Drought & Colorado River Basin Shortages’ Impact on SoCal

Jeffrey Kightlinger

In August, the United States Department of Interior declared the first-ever shortage in the Colorado River basin. To understand how these drought conditions impact Southern California,  VX News, checked in with Jeff Kightlinger, former Metropolitan Water District General Manager. Highlighting the opportunities for advancements in water technology to improve data precision and information sharing, Kightlinger emphasizes interregional collaboration for ensuring a resilient and sustainable water supply as climate change increases water scarcity throughout the western states. 

We do this interview almost four months since your retirement after 16 years as the GM of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. What new challenges are you beginning to undertake or think about?

Jeff Kightlinger: It's been just a bit more than three months, so I haven't gotten too far on career planning 2.0. I have agreed to serve on a couple of boards. One is the nonprofit UC Davis initiative, which is reaching out to the rest of the world about the California drought experience, how we are managing, and some of the tools we use.

Also, I'm on the Board of Directors at a new Spanish development startup working on new GIS and modeling platforms for water agencies and companies. They're called Qatium and based out of Valencia.

That's all I've really done over the last 90 days, other than doing some backpacking, seeing some of the Sierras, climbing Mount Whitney, and really just enjoying my time.

As General Manager at Met, you invested time on the challenges related to the Colorado River headwaters—the current over-allocation of those waters and the present drought throughout the West and in California. Update our readers on these challenges.

We all know that we're in a long-term challenging period on the Colorado River. The Colorado River basically went into drought in the year 2000. The system was at full capacity in 2000, It's now only about 35 percent full. Over the last 20 years, we've drawn down the capacity by two-thirds and that is simply not sustainable. We can't continue to keep drawing it down every year, and we have to get into a position where we're in balance with how much water is being used and how much is coming in.

It’s going to require a lot of efforts and sacrifice amongst the states, particularly in the lower basin: Arizona, California, and Nevada. We have taken some steps. In 2007, we agreed to an initial set of cuts which are currently being implemented. In 2019, when we realized what we agreed to in 2007 wasn't robust enough, we entered into what we call a drought contingency plan. This meant short-term, harsher cuts primarily in Arizona, but for the first time ever, California agreed to give up some of its water.

That isn't enough, frankly, and we know we have to do more. Those basin states are working with the Department of the Interior, and they have to come up with a new plan that will presumably do a couple of things. We’re going to have to reduce the overall take by the lower basin states on the river to somewhere between 1-1.5 million acre feet every year. You can do that by just simply not pulling the water, or you can develop new ways to conserve water. We're also going to have to work with the upper basin to pretty much freeze their usage at some point. If the lower basin is spending money and effort on reducing how much water they use and the upper basin continues to grow and take it, then we're not fixing the problem.

With seven states facing painful decisions, it’s going to be tough, protracted negotiation. We don't have a lot of time either. With the way conditions are headed, we probably only have until 2023 or so to try and get this done.

What were your successes at Met and most difficult challenges in working on the Colorado River Basin compacts between the western states?

We’ve had a really good track record of success. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were pretty much warring and throwing rocks among the states. We realized things had to change by the late ‘90s, and then the drought sent an immediate wakeup call through the basin. 2003 was the driest year we've ever seen and much drier than anything that ever occurred in recorded history. That sent all the states into a mode of either we start suing each other and spend a lot of time letting judges and courts make the decisions, or we figure it out ourselves.

California then entered into what we call the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which was a series of agreements to reduce California's usage on the river. California had been, for decades, the beneficiary of surplus water on the river. That had vanished by 2000. California had to go from basically 5.2 million acre feet a year down to its basic right of 4.4, and did it basically overnight in 2003.

California hasn't used more than its basic right since 2003. If you look at the last 20 years, we've had three punishing droughts in California, but at the same time, we’ve had to reduce our Colorado River water usage significantly. It's a testament to the California agencies that we've been able to manage to do that.

The lower basin states in 2005 entered into a complex agreement to get 50 years of endangered species protections on the river locked into place. That enables them to do long term transfers and programs that are going to last for 50 years.

There is a good track record for success over the last 20 years amongst the parties, but it's just gotten that much harder. We knew climate change was real, and we knew we had to tackle it. We also thought it was sort of a slow moving spiral. If anything, it just seems to be accelerating faster and faster, so then our response is going to have to be that much more accelerated as well.

How do you effectively communicate with the public and groups outside of the Colorado River upper basin about the challenges and the demands of the lower basin for that increasingly scarce water?

The Colorado River is divided into an upper basin and a lower basin. The upper basin states consisting of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. When we divided the river in the 1920s, they basically split 7.5 million acre feet for the upper basin and 7.5 million acre feet for the lower basin. The lower basin grew into using all of its 7.5 million acre feet much more quickly.

What's become clear with climate change is that there simply isn't 15 million acre feet of water to go around. The upper basin is very nervous that the lower basin is going to make a call and force delivery of water to the lower. The nervousness on the lower basin side is that the upper basin is going to say we have the right to grow, and we're going to keep growing. That's going to lead to all sorts of lawsuits and challenges because there simply isn't the water to continue growth at the pace we've been doing.

We're going to have to work together to find some cooperative way for the upper and lower basins to realize we have to shrink our usage on the river, and we have to find a way to share that burden between the two basins. We’ve got to negotiate and resolve these things, but you can see the political tension that's going to be there.

The federal government needs to play a key role. Congress can play a significant role in making money available to pursue some of these programs. If you take a step back and look at the Colorado River, it’s a prized water for 40 million people, seven states, two countries, and 5-6 million acres of irrigated farmland. It’s a key part of America's economy and a national issue. We need to find a way to tackle this issue, and it shouldn't be left to the seven states.

How is the current policy debate over continuing to rely on imported water or pivoting to a reliance on integrated water affect current decisions being made at Metropolitan Water District?

There is a lot of thought about how we are going to have to pivot and shift our focus inward. That is because, with climate change, imported water is going to come under greater stress. Imported water relies on snowpack in mountain ranges, and climate change has shrunk that snowpack.

That said, Southern California still imports more than 50 percent of its water. That's not a transition that can happen in a decade, nor in 25 years. We're going to have to reduce it, but transitioning out of it is not something that's probably achievable. It's something that we're going to have to make much advancement on while still continuing to rely on importation as the backbone of Southern California's water.

Looking at what we've done at Metropolitan, in 1990, we needed 2.5 million acre feet to serve 14 million people. We now use 1.7 million acre feet to serve 19 million people. We grew Southern California by almost a quarter, yet we shrunk our overall water demands, by 30 percent. We did that through advancing recycled water, but primarily through conservation. We're going to have to continue to maintain our current water supplies, and probably do all our growing from within.

The only way we're going to survive climate change and its challenges is by partnering together, especially in urban areas. Metropolitan is well aware we're going to have to do that because the challenges on imported water are going to continue to mount.

What, in just this next year, should the state of California and MWD do wisely to invest potential federal water infrastructure resources to improve storage capacity  and greater resiliency?

It's hard to invest in something that is going to come as soon as a matter of months. Water infrastructure takes about a decade to get into place and takes long-term thinking. The real challenge for California is going to be what decisions we're going to make in the Central Valley. We have to make some hard decisions about the Central Valley to keep it a vibrant, thriving agricultural economy. We need more groundwater storage and more surface water storage. With climate change, as our supply shifts from snow to rain, we need to be able to move those projects quickly. That's why conveyance and a delta program to move water into the Central Valley are essential for California's future.

What can we do in a single year? Not a lot, frankly. We have to start investing today to be ready a decade from now. In a single year, we'll just try to manage as best we can with the tools that we have in place.

What are some of the potential impacts of water tech on the timelines of managers who have adopted water conservation, reuse, and drought “stretch” goals?

We’ve seen great strides in energy that have taken place in managing supply, and a lot of it has to do with technology. Political decisions were also made to decouple financing of energy away from actual usage. So, utilities could invest and encourage conservation simultaneously without it affecting their bottom line. We need to make some of those political decisions in water, but we also need to advance how we measure and model.

That's one of the reasons I got involved with this Spanish consortium. They are trying to advance the sophisticated tools that an agency like Metropolitan uses, but also bring that down to smaller city scale. This allows small water utilities that don't have the financing to GIS map their entire system and use precise measurements. That way, you can avoid the leakage and losses. You can figure out exactly how to optimize your system to manage water supply.

There are amounts of water that we don't really know where they go. We talk about using 4.4 million acre feet in the Colorado River, but 50,000 to 100,000 acre feet is sometimes just noise in the system. Given the stresses we have, we can't afford that kind of slop in the system. We're going to have to tighten our measurement up, and that's where tech can assist us.

One of the water challenges we have in California has been that we're very fragmented. Metropolitan is this large agency that cuts across six counties and serves 19 million people, but there's almost 300 retailers within the Metropolitan service area. That fragmentation has different people capturing data in different ways. There are extremely sophisticated systems of measurement, and some that are really Mom and Pop systems.

We need to get that sort of technology down. You could do it by consolidating people into larger agencies, but politically that's been a virilous challenge. Now we're looking at if there is a way to roll out the technology and make it much simpler and cheaper, so that smaller agencies can use it.

A recent NEXT 10 study on the water-energy-climate nexus concluded that mandatory cutbacks and conservation must be embraced more widely by California water managers. Will that NEXT 10 recommendation have any impact on what is already being implemented?

California has done pretty well overall in the conservation mode. If you look at our track record over the last 30 years, there is significantly less water being used in the urban sector now. The challenges keep mounting as both the state continues to grow and climate change reduces our water supply. We are going to have to continue to be efficient on recycled water, brackish water reclamation, and all tools that technology can bring to bear. We're going to have to use sort of an all-of-the-above strategy and continue to do that.

I don't know that it needs to be through mandatory conservation, I'm seeing most of that occurring already. Most water agencies are building that into their baseload plans. You can mandate something as you go through a high stress period, but most of the agencies I've seen across the state are doing this as their normal business operation.

The State Water Resources Control Board is seriously focused on potable water and equity in access to clean drinking water throughout all of California. How does that focus align with the Colorado River Basin planning and the larger work you invested in at MWD?

It is rather bizarre in a state as rich as California with the assets that we have, that we have significant pockets of the state that don't have affordable, reliable, and clean drinking water. Most of that is a failure of governance. These are areas that don't have the infrastructure to clean up water, treat it, and deliver it. The reason for that has primarily been affordability. In the state, we've pretty much left water supply and management to local districts. So, the large urban areas have done well. We build the treatment plants, serve clean water, we go out and acquire the water, and we have the resources to do that.

There are a lot of small underprivileged communities that simply don't have the resources to do that. The state has always felt well it's not their job to subsidize that. The legislature, after decades of arguing over whose responsibility this was, finally stepped up and did earmark some money to start doing this. Now it's going to be a question of how does the State Board get that money to these districts.

 Part of the challenge is if these districts have the horsepower to manage it. It’s very complex. You have to not only have the capital for building, but the day-to-day O&M. Then you have to build a system that is self-sustaining. How does the state take over that responsibility and manage those assets in these small communities? I don't think we've solved it, but at least we put up some money towards trying to.

More generally, elaborate on the water governance challenges today—what's the magic potion that makes it easier to govern water in a time of drought?

It is a challenge in the utility business that you're often very invisible to the public. So, you don't get a lot of attention being paid to it. I don't think people necessarily understand is that it's expensive infrastructure that has to be maintained and paid for. People sometimes have the mindset that all we have to do is just pick water up when it rains.

The challenge has been educating the public that you're not paying for the water, you're paying for all those pipes to move the water. You're paying for governance. Then, it becomes an issue of explaining that and making those politically unpopular decisions to make the public pay. Particularly here in Southern California, water is not a pressing issue compared to, say, crime, traffic, education, or jobs. That's been a challenge and will probably always be one. We live in a short term world, but we need long term thinking on our water problems.

“The [Colorado River] system was at full capacity in 2000, It's now only about 35 percent full. Over the last 20 years, we've drawn down the capacity by two-thirds and that is simply not sustainable.”
“We have to start investing today to be ready a decade from now.”