MWD Collaborating on Launch of Ambitious Waste-Water Recycling Program

Jeff Kightlinger

VX News: Since our last interview, a potential joint agreement to create a new water-recycling program was announced linking, MWD and the LA County Sanitation Districts. What’s actually being considered?

Jeff Kightlinger: Metropolitan has had a long relationship with the Los Angeles County Sanitation District—a special district that handles and disposes of solid waste and sewerage throughout Los Angeles County.

Metropolitan established a pilot program at the Sanitation District’s very large Carson treatment plant. At some of the Sanitation District’s smaller treatment plants, they’ve been recycling higher-quality wastewater since the early 1960s.

Our two agencies just announced that we’re working toward the next phase: a demonstration project that, if successful, could lead to the development of one of the largest recycled-water projects on the West Coast.

It’s reported that LA County’s proposal would salvage 168,000 acre-feet of water a year. Can you put that number in perspective for our readers?

On average, Metropolitan sells about 2 million acre-feet of water every year, so this project would cover close to 10 percent of the region’s water demand from Metropolitan. An acre-foot of water equals 326,000 gallons, and typically meets about two family households’ entire water supply for a year. This recycling project would therefore cover about 300,000 households for a year with a very reliable, drought-resistant water supply.

For context, what, if any, are the institutional challenges to cross-coordinating with other government jurisdictions and agencies to increase water reuse and recycling in California?  

There are quite a few institutional and political challenges that are going to have to be worked through in a project of this magnitude.

Obviously we have technical challenges when it comes to recycling water—meeting all the regulatory hurdles and water-quality standards.

But once you get past the technical challenges, there’s a significant institutional and legal hurdle beyond just the permitting. You have to work with groundwater masters if you’re going to re-inject recycled water into groundwater basins. You have to work with a number of smaller water agencies that have pumping rights in those basins. When you’re piping the recycled water, you are traversing a highly urbanized area and passing through the jurisdictions of several counties and a large number of cities. That means working with multiple agencies on traffic issues, location, plumbing, etc.

As far as models of water agency collaboration, does the Orange County Water District’s facility serve as a valuable example?

Orange County’s model program has worked quite well. The Orange County Sanitation District, the major treater of Orange County effluent, partnered with the Orange County Water District, the groundwater basin manager. They were able to physically collocate many of their facilities and do the project rather smoothly. They worked with the public and performed extended outreach to achieve a high degree of public acceptance.

Recycling and reuse are unlikely to eliminate the need in the near future of continued importation of water into Southern California. Update our readers on the governor’s plans and priorities for water conveyance from the Delta to Southern California.

The governor has a very comprehensive plan dealing with all of California’s water issues. One of the thorniest, longest-standing problems is the transportation of water through California’s Delta, the hub of California’s supply. Water traveling through the Delta serves two out of every three Californians living in Northern, Central and Southern California.

It has long been known that the transportation system—channels, dykes, and levees that are over a century old—is antiquated and risky. It doesn’t meet modern standards and could collapse in an earthquake or significant flood.

We need to upgrade and modernize the system using state-of-the-art fish screens and gravity flow pipelines, but it’s always been controversial.

The Governor has a proposal to build two large pipelines, which would bypass the Delta by going underneath it. The tunneled pipelines would harden the water supply route, making it more reliable through earthquakes, storm surges, floods, or climate-change events.

The state has looked at dozens of alternatives. Right now, the governor’s plan is still working through the environmental review process. These pipelines probably have the largest environmental review footprint of any project, perhaps ever, in the United States: about 70,000 pages of documentation so far.

It’s now in the second stage of environmental review under a supplemental environmental review document, and is still accepting public comments. The goal is to get the project to the governor for a decision by the end of the first quarter of 2016.

It’s on track to be completed, but it’s been a long, arduous process, with much more to go.

Elaborate on the importance of continuing to import water into Southern California, no matter what the degree of reuse.

We’re excited about this potential long-term partnership with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. We think a project of this scale would be a real game-changer in terms of recycled water in Southern California.

But people tend to forget that you have to have water in the first place to recycle and reuse. The source of more than half of Southern California’s water has been imported water, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Southern California’s native supplies can only cover about 40 percent of our total demand. Our local water supply is a mix of groundwater, recycled and reclaimed brackish water, ocean water desalination, and other local supplies.

As I said, imported water makes up a little more than half of all of Southern California’s water. We expect, over time, that imported water will be pushed down to roughly a third of our total supply. But that’s going to take a generation or more.

Imported water will always be an important part of our supply mix for the foreseeable future.

Pivoting to the Delta, elaborate on the Governor’s two coequal goals for any Delta fix.

In 2009, the state established two coequal goals for any Delta fix: We need to improve water supply reliability and we need to restore the Delta ecosystem. The plan had been merged into one, but now the governor has divided it into two separate components. One is California WaterFix, which focuses on the plumbing for the water supply reliability component. The other is California EcoRestore, which focuses on improving the ecosystem of the Delta.

How difficult is it to promise and improve reliability in a state now in its fourth year of drought? What’s the nature of that challenge, given that it’s inherently difficult to predict yearly water supply and availability?

We are in the fourth year of a severe drought. But people often forget that seven of the last eight years in California have been drought years, with just one above-average year in the middle.

These last four years have been as tough as we’ve ever seen. Looking at measurements of tree rings and at prehistoric data, some estimate that it’s the worst drought in the last 1,200 years. Last year was the worst snow pack in over 500 years. We are off the charts in terms of the severity of this drought.

Trying to manage the day-to-day situation, moving water to handle the current crisis, and then simultaneously doing all the planning work for a long-term fix has been extremely taxing and difficult for all the parties involved. That includes the governor’s staff at the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Water Resources.

Reportedly, some who criticize California’s Department of Water Resources engineers suggest that DWR really is not amenable to changing its practices. Is that a fair criticism?

A lot of people think that we should change all our practices and focus on climate change, and focus solely on the softer water supplies.  Usually by the term “softer,” they mean recycling and conservation only.

But I think it’s dangerous to throw all our history out the window and change how we do everything. The California Department of Water Resources and other water agencies are trying to learn what they can and deal with a very uncertain future, working aggressively to make the situation better.

I don’t know that it’s a completely unfair criticism. Every bureaucracy could learn to be more nimble and less cautious. But I also see a lot of progress.

Is one of the challenges to any Delta fix that too many interest groups throughout the state are comfortable leaving the status quo alone?

I don’t know that there are many people comfortable with the status quo. Even those who are critical of the governor’s Delta proposal or who think we should focus on only local supplies realize that we are going to have to make some serious changes in the Delta.

The State Water Project was built in the 1950s. It’s 50 years old. It needs upgrading, even if we don’t expand it. Infrastructure just doesn’t last without making improvements.

But it’s very hard to get consensus on exactly which changes have to be made.  Everyone has a different idea about how best to proceed, and consensus on what change is best has been elusive.

Is the real disagreement about who will pay for the fixes?

Exactly right. A lot of people feel they’ve invested and paid for services, and that only newcomers should pay for expansions and upgrades to our existing infrastructure.

I’d point out that most of California’s growth is coming internally right now. People are having children. If we want to complain about growth as a state, we should look in the mirror and figure out our role.

To close, please share what the interested public should closely follow regarding the next Metropolitan Water District Board agenda—and what will be the focus of your contributions to VerdeXchange VX2016, January 25?

We’ll be finalizing an innovative program with the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Southern Nevada has been banking water in Southern California the past few years. Now we’ve finalized a program where we’re helping them with the cash flow in conservation by providing them money up front, so that they can continue to conserve in Southern Nevada. We can borrow that water in the near term while California is in drought. We will return it in the future, and they will return the cash to us that they used to conserve in the first place. It’s the first time I’ve seen a cash- and water-exchange program going both directions.  I think it’s a great example of interstate collaboration and a true example of an innovative “win-win” solution. 

"People tend to forget that you have to have water in the first place to recycle and reuse. The source of more than half of Southern California’s water has been imported water, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future." -Jeff Kightlinger