MWD’s Hagekhalil on Impacts of Climate Whiplash

Adel Hagekhalil

At the forefront of shaping the water landscape in Southern California, TPR interviewed Adel Hagekhalil, the General Manager and CEO of the Metropolitan Water DistrictWith a keen focus on resilience and collaboration, Adel introduced the concept of "One Water" to the agency upon assuming his leadership position, emphasizing the importance of comprehensive water management strategies in the face of climate change. Under his guidance, Metropolitan has embarked on ambitious projects to secure water supplies for millions of residents, while also ensuring equitable access and environmental sustainability.

VX News: Adel, when chosen as Metropolitan's General Manager and CEO almost three years ago, you brought to the agency the concept of “One Water”. Share how the latter is assisting Metropolitan’s water systems to adapt to the weather-whip-sawing impacts of Climate Change to serve the needs of 19 million people, in fourteen cities, eleven municipal water districts, residing and working in a 5,200-square-mile (13,000 km2) service area.

Adel Hagekhalil: The One Water approach concept that was introduced to the Agency has evolved. I see it now as ensuring that we in Southern California will have a reliable water supply going forward for everyone, with no one left behind. That’s really what One Water is about-- funding and leveraging resources, looking at exchanges, understanding how things are moving, and adapting to the change collaboratively.

Elaborate on the first challenges you encountered when you arrived as GM and CEO.

We in Southern California were facing the worst drought ever; in fact, in 2022, we were almost running out of water for 6 million people. Drastic actions needed to be taken. At the same time, the Colorado River and Lake Mead were in a 23-year drought and water levels were so low that the future of many communities and the watershed at large were threatened. We at Metropolitan agreed that we needed to re-envision how we prepare ourselves for the future. We wanted to be able to adapt our systems to what I call: the climate whiplash.

To me, “One Water” is essentially about insurance and risk management while insuring safe and reliable water for all collaboratively with no one left behind. This is what the Board of Directors is leading now with our 26 member agencies a process to do that called “Climate Adaptation Master Planning for Water (CAMP4W).

Everybody's voices are listened to; and we immediately worked with the Board and member agencies collaboratively to address the challenges by prioritizing reliability, affordability, and then adapting to the reality of climate change. Equity was also prioritized.

Some communities have access to water, but others don’t; so, we need to understand their needs. In regard to the differences between communities we serve, we saw some weaknesses in access to stored water and alternatives sources of water. We immediately moved to address these weaknesses in a systematic and accelerated process.

Right now, Metropolitan’s board – and I applaud the board for really leading the way on Metropolitan’s climate adaptation efforts- is looking at how we move forward and prepare our region to be resilient. The Board has also acknowledged that there is no one silver bullet. It will take multiple approaches and professional implementations. Likewise, we at Metropolitan must ensure that the communities most impacted by drought and climate change can survive the transition we are accelerating.

Since the drought, we purposefully have been moving the needle on increasing our water reuse into Southern California and we’re working on up-grading our systems engineering; but also looking at potential partnerships in Los Angeles, talking to other parts of the community, and finding ways to how we can better move water around our regional service area.

We have taken quick action to shore up water supplies & reliability. Especially in 2023, we looked at how to move water around and store it. The good news right now is that we have the highest amount of water storage ever. We’re also reengineering our pipelines and plumbing for our system to move water around more flexibly, and to also allow us to provide water to the communities that are dependent on the state water project. All of our water should be available and accessible to all.

We truly have been working hard on planning and listening to the community. Serving such a diverse and extensive area of communities, the board has elevated affordability as a big goal, along with conservation - how we're going to continue our efforts in reducing water consumption. We've done a great job with the latter – water usage is now the lowest in the last 50 years.

Continuing our efforts in conservation, we are also preparing to augment our water supply and storage, looking for a way to exchange and move water around by looking at ways to utilize our groundwater basins. Last October, our board and partnerships in the Antelope Valley Kern opened a great storage facility with a capacity of 280,000 acre feet in Lancaster. We are looking for similar opportunities with other water agencies in central California and within our basin here in Southern California. That's really what I call the smart infrastructure of the future. We're going to be able to get water in wet conditions and store it to move water across several agencies.

In addition to the drought and climate whiplash, you reportedly also faced upon arrival organizational & employee turmoil and allegations of cultural of harassment, retaliation and lack of transparency and fairness. You are known as an honest, inclusive and effective manager that has a track record of healing and creating safe and empowering workplaces; share how you responded.

When I was hired into Metropolitan in July 2021, the organization was in turmoil. Employees, specifically women and minority employees, complained to the Board and the press about a chronic culture of harassment, retaliation and unsafe work conditions especially in the desert locations. The Board directed to address several critical investigations of previous personnel practices and incidents at Metropolitan, including the Shaw Law Group workplace climate assessment, the State Audit, and the Shaw Law Group’s EEO investigations of the high-profile allegations of workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation. 

I made the tough decisions to heal the organization and put us on the right track. I worked with my Board and employee organizations to create an independent office for EEO complaints and an office for Diversity Equity and Inclusion; reform our procedures and policies to address bullying, harassment and retaliation; conduct training for all employee on these policies; address the living conditions at the desert locations; empower employees and their unions; and create an open and transparent relationship build on communication, respect and fairness. And we remain in compliance with every recommendation of the State Audit. My highest priority is to lead and support our talented and dedicated team and create a safe and fair workplace for all where everyone belongs and is treated fairly.

How essential to the success of “One water” is region collaboration?

I think the One Water concept is so critical to Metropolitan’s greatness as a part of the Co-Op, which consists of 26 member agencies coming together in response to this climate whiplash and change. We need to take care of each other. No single agency can respond to climate change on its own-- it's too costly. 

What we need to do is to figure out the growth, demand, and supply. Then we need to identify how to move that around the system in a collaborative way with no one left behind. To me, that's the One Water concept’s ability to leverage our resources. It's going to cost money so the question is how do we pay for it? Our Board is working to answer this question as part of the climate adaptation and business model work.

Elaborate on how MWD investments in water and water resiliency align with incentivizing people to conserve?

I can ensure you that we're doing both and that our transition to a water system more resilient to Climate Change, despite the challenges, is going to be an exciting time for all of us. We're working across the Colorado River Watershed with our partners in the farming and urban communities. We did an exchange recently between the San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District which will set the stage for more exchanges and watershed collaboration building on the federal funding and leadership of the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

With the Inflation Reduction Funding, we got a lifeline from the federal government on the funding and conservation, but we need to move quickly right now. We need to prepare ourselves to shore up Lake Mead and put more storage in Lake Mead.

And we're collaborating in preparing for the new agreements post-2026, and I'll tell you-- it's exciting times for the lower basin. Together, Arizona, Nevada, and California, with California under the leadership of the California Colorado River board. We were able to come together and to me, it's all about how we work together as a watershed and how we work as a co-op. We’re trying to understand how to better utilize and share what we have. That's going to be the future for us and that's One Water in my view.

Adel, in a 2023 VXNews interview regarding Metropolitan’s negotiations re Colorado River allocations, you emphasized that Metropolitan, to address the drought and the impacts of climate change, should be in the business of not only importing water but creating local water, storing it, and distributing it equally with no one left behind.

Elaborate on what MET is presently investing in to accelerate a transition to greater reliance on local water?

Currently, we're looking at the possibility of exchanges, perhaps there may be excess water in San Diego County’s Water Authority. There may even be some additional water in the LA Aqueduct or additional recycled water available in other parts of our region, but there is a growing need in Riverside and the Inland Empire. The water needs in the western part of our region are too dependent on a single source. We’re continuingly building the opportunity to utilize the storage that we have built, whether it's Diamond Valley Lake or the new storage that we have secured in Lancaster, and to consider how we can better utilize our investment in the groundwater basins.

The board is looking at a new partnership that would incentivize member agencies to take water that we have available during wet conditions - like we're going through right now - and store it for the whole region. This is where Metropolitan comes in as we plan to create additional water when it comes to recycled water, and others are doing the same.

Then the question becomes, can we move it around? For example, we’re now looking at a pipeline called the Sepulveda Feeder from Venice, all the way up northwest in our region. We’re repurposing that pipeline and building pumping so that instead of going west down to the south/east, we're going to be taking it from the south/east to the west. This would provide a new type of infrastructure that's adaptive and moves water around in different directions.

We can develop systems that are beneficial for everyone, from stormwater capture infiltration, recycled water that we create, or excess water from other parts of our regions, the groundwater basins need to be able to move it based on need. It must be done in a very transparent and inclusive way.

We’re currently working hard to move water in collaboration with the LA County Sanitation Districts and also with our other partners. In fact, we acquired financial support from the State to help us complete the engineering and planning that’s necessary right now. I was able to bring in excess of $200 million in grant funding from the state, and we have an additional half a billion dollars waiting right now to be released by the Bureau of Reclamation-- hopefully in the springtime.

All of this will help us invest in our underserved communities and enhancing our climate resiliency.

You know, as part of our application to the Bureau of Reclamation the Inflation Reduction Act, we proposed to use 40% of the funding to support underserved communities because, in communities like San Fernando and Compton, our job is to make sure there continue utilizing their groundwater system, ensuring they're protected. My goal in alignment with our board’s mission is to ensure that the funding supports these communities and others to build the infrastructure for local investments. We need to continue looking for innovative and strategic ideas to create additional water.

The questions before our Board include, How can we do it together? How can we protect our communities and take advantage of groundwater basins, to support all of us? To me, that's the future and it’s an exciting time for all of us. It's transformational. I see what we are doing right now to build upon the great successes from the last 100 years when building the systems and investment plans for the next 100 years that can ensure all of us having water when we need it.

Adel, investments in the litany of projects you've shared above presents MWD with a public communications challenge. Share how MWD is informing and communicating with its Southern California stakeholders?

Water is valuable, water is life – reliable water supply is critical to equitably serving Metropolitan’s 19 million residents and the 11th largest economy in the world with a GDP of $1.6 trillion.

We need to always prepare for managing water when we have it, and in doing so, we will be preparing ourselves for the future. The rain that we see right now is not something that's going to sustain us forever.

We have a great communications team that works with our 26-member agency by engaging all the member agencies and creating a collaborative partnership to ensure that they are working together on a single message and approach. Our board created a task force for climate adaptation, which includes General Managers and Board Members to develop a plan under our resiliency component. We need to share a narrative that even if you see rainfall, that doesn't mean we're out of a drought. Climate change is with us.

In the future, we’ll see the same thing we saw historically. This is a whiplash and the time to prepare is now. The last thing we want to do is not have water. It’s our job and responsibility to make sure we collaborate, leverage our resources, and prepare for the future.

The challenge of communicating with 20 million people, residing, working and recreating in an area larger than most states, how climate change and both drought and ‘rivers of rain’ are impacting Southern California’s need for a reliable water supply is daunting. How does the Agency best convey that this challenge is being met, given both the public and media's short attention span?

We work with the State, the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, the Governor's Office, and everybody across the state through a campaign that aims to communicate the value of water we have. The governor issued the California Water Action Plan and that's going to be supportive of these efforts. It is projected that we are going to lose 10% of our water supply by 2040 and how are we going to make up that water? We need to make it simple, and I know that's a challenge for all of us. There are a lot of investments that have been made at both the state and local levels. Our team has a public domain,, the state has another consistent domain, Save our Water campaign, and we're going to be doing a lot more to communicate the need for shoring up water use, indoor or outdoor.

We’ve supported State regulations to ensure we're not watering decorative lawns like the non-functional turf and through the help from the federal government, we’re going to invest in that. We're going to be working together to help communities that cannot go out there and campaign to communicate things about the availability of our water resources. 

We need to communicate that water is valuable, water is critical, and water is life. The rain that we see right now is not something that's going to sustain us forever. We need to prepare for managing water when we have it, and in doing so, we’re preparing ourselves for the future. This is a message that we all have to deal with, and I applaud the State, Governor, and all of the other agencies across the state working together on this message. We need to invest now and we need to continue investing in our collective future.

Re investing. Share the goal and significance of a new Metropolitan priority, Pure Water Southern California; and, the value of collaboration with the LA County Sanitation Districts?

Yes. Metropolitan is partnering with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts on Pure Water Southern California, a regional water recycling program that would purify and reuse cleaned wastewater that currently flows into the ocean. At full scale, Pure Water Southern California would produce 150 million gallons of purified water each day.

This could enable us to capture and treat 150 million gallons of wastewater that would otherwise go through the ocean. We would then treat it, meeting the water regulations, and then put it in the ground or our water treatment system. With the new regulations from the State, we could put it through our treatment system, and distribute the water supplementing imported water. This project would supply enough water to meet the needs of about 1.5 million people, but would benefit communities throughout Southern California. We're going to be able to take it and put it in the groundwater basins to offset the need for us to bring in water from Lake Mead and the Delta.

Through this project, we would be able to better withstand dry conditions, even the needs from three years of drought. We're not going to tell people that we don't have water for you. We're going to be working harder to create that abundance.

Our current regional partners have minimized the cost of connecting the systems to not only do 150 million gallons a day in pure water, but potentially through our work with the City of Los Angeles and others, we would have the opportunity to connect their systems with ours. That would double it to 300,000 acre-feet. The time for innovation and collaboration is upon us and we need to take advantage and action.

Right now, we need to come together and develop a resiliency plan which is going to cost money. Then the question is, how do we pay for this in a fair, equitable way?

We're going to be looking at a business model through this Climate Adaptation Master Plan, finding new ways to ensure that we are investing in this resiliency in a way that can allow us to do that without leaving anyone behind. I'm excited that our public know about this forward momentum but at the end of the day, these are all the challenges that the board has to consider through its climate adaptation lens, evaluations, and investment decisions. We're going to have a lot of things we need to do and it has to be evaluated. We’re continuously trying to see what projects are most cost-effective, have the least risk, and can benefit the majority of our communities.

One last question. You are acknowledged by your professional peers as an experienced, extremely credible communicator and collaborator.  Given that climate adaptation today requires a dramatic transformation of Metropolitan's water infrastructure, how does Metropolitan effectively convey that the urgent systems transformation that you have prioritized requires both public & media patience.

Of course, there is an urgency, I'm not going to deny that. There's an urgency for all of us.

If we experience another three or four years of drought like we saw recently, people will be looking at us and asking, what did you do?

So, we have an urgency, but we need to do it in a very calculated strategic way so that everybody is included in the decision-making process.

I’m saying it starts with us at home. It starts with us saying, what can we do to ensure that we don't have a leaky pipe? Are we being most efficient with our water use? That communication has to happen.

We also need to tell people not to be misled by a year or two of rain because we’re expecting hotter and drier climates. Our job as water agencies across the state, watershed, and the Colorado River is to collaborate with everyone. We support our farmers, and we support our urban communities. We support our tribes and also the environment through a very balanced approach.

The only way to work together collaboratively is to share this resource, and I am so proud of our board and the actions that they are being taken right now. It's going to take all of us but our reach is beyond Southern California. We're talking about the entire Southwest as we negotiate around the Colorado River. Our work in Southern California benefits the community at large and that's the message we are trying to get across to our partners across the seven Colorado River Basin states-- let's invest together. Let's create reservoirs of money and water. We are working through abundance, not scarcity, and that's the future for us. We need to prepare for drier and hotter days by creating an abundance of water through storage, capture, recycled water, and conservation, but we need to do it together. The financial aspect must also be shared-- as the 11th largest economy in the world with a GDP of $1.6 trillion, we need to do it together and everybody should be part of it.

At the end of the day, water is uplifting communities. Water is so critical to our future and we need to continue on this path of resiliency.


"Water is valuable, water is life – reliable water supply is critical to equitably serving Metropolitan’s 19 million residences …. The rain that we see right now is not something that's going to sustain us forever." - Adel Hagekhalil