MWD GM Jeffrey Kightlinger on 15 years of Regional Water Leadership


With the June 8 certification of Adel Hagekhalil as the Metropolitan Water District's new General Manager, VX News finds it timely to share this two-part exit interview with outgoing GM Jeffrey Kightlinger, who since 2006 has led the regional agency's work to provide a reliable supply of high-quality water to 19 million people in Southern California. Given Governor Newsom's May declaration of a drought emergency in 41 California counties, Kightlinger reflects on his 15-year consensus-building tenure leading the region's efforts to secure and enhance local water supplies and invest in climate-resilient water infrastructure. 

Met’s mission is to provide adequate and reliable supply of high-quality water to meet present and future needs in an environmentally and economically responsible way. Has that mission evolved over the 15 years, whether literally or in meaning?

I think in meaning, yes; we added ‘environmentally responsible’ in the 1990s, but I think it's evolved in the way that we've had to in order to fulfill our mission. We no longer have the same reliable access to water we used to have due to climate change. Water supply has become much flashier, and we've gone through three of the worst years ever in recorded history in California in the last 15, and seven of them are among the worst snowpack levels ever recorded. So, clearly, you're seeing an evolution and a change in California's climate. The same has happened on the Colorado River.  And yet, we've been able to meet all demands efficiently and effectively over this challenging period. It really has been about how we've effectively managed demands, efficiently used our infrastructure and how we've changed our planning to deal with climate change in a more volatile world.

One in every two Californians live in Southern California  in our six-county service area, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.   There are 19 million people in Southern California in our service area which is one in every 16 Americans.

Jeff, having served as the General Manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California since 2006, you’re the longest serving GM in the regional agency's history. Given that water politics in the West can be virulent, how have you been able to do that?

That's a good question. I think part of it is that I got the job younger than anybody ever had before, but it's also been a really challenging period of time, too, in terms of water history. We went through some pretty tremendous droughts; three different governors declared drought emergencies during that 15-year period. It's been tough, but the way I see it is we've got a good, solid board of directors and the institution is strong, so we've been able to reliably provide water throughout this two decades of drought. So, we’ve been fulfilling our mission and getting our job done.

Elaborate on the political challenge of reaching MWD board consensus on how best to serve those 19 million people in Southern California.

Historically, water was not partisan, and we have been able to find consensus at the Board level, which is one of the reasons why I think Metropolitan has been able to succeed. We are home to some pretty conservative parts in our district in Riverside, San Bernardino, and parts of San Diego and some extremely liberal parts like Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and yet we've usually been able to forge consensus.

It's become harder just like everything else in this nation that has become harder in terms of partisan divisions. We've fallen prone to some of that as well, between people who say all our money should be on recycling and conservation and other people saying we need to shore up our imported supplies because that was our historic mission. We've had that debate more and more strenuously at the Board level, but the good news is we still usually are able to find common ground.

With your 38-member board representing each of the district’s 26 member agencies, how successful have you been in engaging the board on regional or statewide issues?

Governance is an interesting issue at Metropolitan. Every member agency at Metropolitan gets to appoint at least one representative that serves at the pleasure of their appointing agency. They're not directly elected to Metropolitan, although many of them are elected to their home agency. For instance, some of them are elected City Councilmembers selected by their council to serve at Metropolitan.

So, part of the mission is educating the Board members about the history of development of Southern California back to the depression when we built the Hoover Dam in the 1930’s and the importance of Colorado River water, the Rockies and Northern California, and Governor Pat Brown’s efforts to build the massive water infrastructure in the 1960’s. Educating the Board on California’s water history and identifying the legacy that we need to safeguard for the next generation at Metropolitan is one of the key jobs of a General Manager; to instill in the agency and our Directors that sense of duty we have to serve the next generation.

Remind readers where Met secures most its water resources and the challenges facing existing conveyance systems.

The two major sources of water for Southern California are the Colorado River watershed, which goes back to the Rocky Mountains, and the Northern Sierras watershed supply delivered through the State Water Project. Those are the two backbone supplies for Southern California. We then supplement those supplies by funding recycled and reclaimed water, and water conservation throughout Southern California to help those resources go further.

A couple of major challenges are that the Colorado River has been in a 20-year drought, and we've really had to invest to ensure the reliability of our Colorado River supplies in terms of conservation programs with farmers. These are partnerships that we never had to do before because there used to be plenty of water on the River. In Northern California, our supply has become much more volatile because we're less able to count on our snowpack due to climate change. We're still getting precipitation, but because of climate change and higher temperatures so much of it is now rain instead of snow. So, we are looking to build more robust infrastructure because you only have weeks to move water instead of months. That reinvestment in our state’s water infrastructure is something we're trying to work with the Governor’s administration.

Elaborate on MWD’s role in local water supply; what MWD’s currently investing in; and, what the future portends relating to reliable water resources?

Historically, Metropolitan has focused on big projects related to imported water supplies, and we tried to support and help our member agencies—the local cities—develop their local supplies, but we stayed out of that business. We just provided financial aid and we helped provide tools, but it was up to them to develop, build, and operate local projects. That model has worked pretty well for the last 25 years, but we're starting to come to some of the limits of that approach because what we did over the last 25 years is pick the low hanging fruit, the easier projects. What's left are the bigger, complex projects that maybe require a little more horsepower than some of our local cities can provide.

Consequently, Metropolitan is exploring if we should expand our role. We are in the process of an environmental review of a large-scale partnership with the LA County Sanitation Districts that would develop a multi-billion dollar water recycling facility locally here in Southern California’s backyard and then share that water across our jurisdiction. Metropolitan has the horsepower and the financing ability to do a project of this magnitude in conjunction with the LA County Sanitation Districts. Is that the new role that Metropolitan should play developing these new expensive, complex local supplies? I think that's a good role; one that Metropolitan can and should do. But this is something that needs a lot of careful thought with our Board to make sure we get the policy and the finances right.

Address the leadership role MWD has exercised with respect to watershed stewardship, stormwater, water conservation, drought-resistant landscaping, etc.

When we were looking at the challenges in ensuring reliability in a climate change world, part of it was infrastructure related. We needed the ability to move water rapidly around our service area and we needed a more robust delivery and storage system. But if we're drinking all the water as fast as we can get it to Southern California, we can't store enough water to get us through dry years. So, our strategy shifted in the late ‘90s to be able to take advantage of wet years. We know we get these big wet years in California, these flood years, store that water and then live off that stored water in the dry years for the long drought years. And part of the way to free up water for storage was to reduce demand.

 If we're drinking the water as fast as we can get it here, then there's nothing to store for the dry years. What we managed to do was remarkable. In 1990, Metropolitan sold 2.5 million-acre feet to serve 14 million people. Today, for 19 million people, 30 percent more people over the last 30 years, we're going to sell 30 percent less water—1.65 million-acre feet. We're selling a lot less water to serve many more people, and that was accomplished through increasing water efficiency. Metropolitan has funded hundreds of millions of dollars in water-efficient toilets, showers, washing machines, clothes washers, and then in 2015 we broke the bank and spent $350 million on ripping out lawns. That's the kind of stuff, the big stuff, that Met’s done.  Now we have the head room to store a lot of water in wet years and get us through the dry years.

Going into this year, this drought year in California, Metropolitan has more water in its reserves than at any other time in its history. This is pretty remarkable because we're coming off a decade of almost nonstop drought. We can store water in most years now, except for extreme drought years, because we've been able to reduce our demands to a much more manageable level.  Those investments in conservation actually result in more water in the bank that we can use in the dry years, like this one.

On that point, Governor Newsom last month notably declared a drought emergency in 41 California counties. Comment on how aligned Met’s approach to drought resiliency is to the Governor's most recent declaration.

One of the real challenges with the public is that it's tricky messaging for the Governor and it's tricky for us as well. Currently, Metropolitan has more water in its reserves than ever in its history. So, some regions of the state are really well-prepared and other regions are going to be struggling, which is a dichotomy that's going to be very tricky for the Governor to navigate. With some portions of the state in an emergency and others seemingly fine, that can create a sense of unfairness. We're obviously going to be supportive of the Governor and work with the administration on the steps they're going to take to deal with the impacts that are going to primarily be felt this year in the Central Valley.

Pivoting back to MWD’s infrastructure agenda, Met’s been building reservoirs and connecting supplies for decades, as you noted in past interviews. What accomplishments regarding the latter are you most proud of in your tenure?

I'm incredibly proud of the high level of infrastructure, development, and maintenance that we've managed. America has been crumbling for the past few decades, and kudos to President Biden for saying we've got to start reinvesting in our infrastructure; we've seen bridges, roads, and everything start to fall apart.

At Metropolitan, through my entire tenure we have invested heavily every year in maintaining and upgrading our delivery system, and it's really paid off. In the past, we really relied on having both base supplies— the Colorado River and State Project Water—working together to meet demands. But three times during my tenure we almost entirely had to switch off of one of these supplies. In the 2014-2015 season, the State Project went down to almost nothing, and we had to deliver almost exclusively Colorado River water throughout our entire service area. And then in 2018, the State Project went up to almost double its normal capacity because California had its wettest year ever in recorded history. So, we backed off our Colorado River supply and delivered less Colorado River to Southern California than we had in 75 years.

And then this year, again, the state is dry up north, and we're primarily delivering Colorado River water again. When I first became GM, we physically just could not do that. Our plumbing wasn't capable of that and our treatment plants couldn't handle those dramatic swings in water quality. We physically could not move water north/south through our entire system—now we can; and it's that resilience that we have built into the system that is an extremely valuable tool in dealing with the volatility of climate change.

Turning to the San Francisco Bay Delta and improving the reliability of water supply for MWD communities; give our readers a synopsis of the status of this endeavor.

People forget that two thirds of California gets its water through the Bay Delta hub. It really is the switch yard for California water. The two major rivers in California—the San Joaquin and Sacramento—meet there and collect all the water from the southern and northern Sierras and push it out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge. The Sierra’s supply the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast/Santa Barbara area, Silicon Valley, and we get a portion of our supply from it as well. It's critical not just to Metropolitan, but to all of California and our farming economy, Silicon Valley, and all of our economy. And with climate change, it's imperiled.

The good news is that all of the modeling shows California is not drying up from climate change; we're still getting precipitation. The bad news is, it's falling as rain, not snow, which makes it much flashier and harder to manage and control. We're going to have to build infrastructure to deal with it just like we're going to have to put sea walls in the Bay Area or deal with eroding cliff lines between LA and San Diego.

 We're going to have to capture rainwater and move it into reservoirs in days, not months like we could with snow melt, which means bigger pipes that sit empty for long stretches and bigger, stronger, higher dams and reservoirs. We're going to have to start building those things to adapt to climate change. So far, our focus as a state has been on mitigation - on electric cars and making sure we're not adding more carbon to make the situation worse. That's a good, noble effort, but we also have to prepare for the impacts, and we’ve got to start with serious backbone infrastructure investment in seawalls, in our coastline, and in how we move and store our water supply. The challenge is acknowledged, but we haven't yet figured out how, when, what, and who's going to pay for it. That's where we need some real leadership and long-term thinking.

“The challenge [of climate resilience] is acknowledged, but we haven't yet figured out how, when, what, and who's going to pay for it. That's where we need some real leadership and long-term thinking."
“We're going to have to start building [water infrastructure] to get ready for climate change, but, so far, we've only focused on electric cars and making sure we're not adding more carbon gas to make the situation worse.”