Outgoing Met GM Jeffrey Kightlinger on 15 years of Regional Water Leadership—Part 2

Jeffrey Kightlinger

VX News shares part two of our exit interview with outgoing Met 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 news of historically low levels at Lake Mead and reservoirs throughout the western US, 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. Find Part I of this interview online, here

You've invested during your tenure a great deal of political capital to improving the reliability of water deliveries from the Bay Delta to Southern California.  What have you learned from that experience?

There's been some lessons learned, no doubt about it, and we haven't gotten it over the top yet, so that just shows you how hard it is. In my mind it is the single hardest issue in California. When Governor Pat Brown pushed the building of the state water project, he barnstormed the state, and the Burns Porter-Cologne Act passed by less than 1 percent on a statewide vote. Jerry Brown tried to get the peripheral canal through and failed.

Governor after governor has tried to tackle this problem, and we just have a very deep north-south divide on this issue. It really takes a governor to use a lot of their political capital to do it. I don't have that kind of political capital. At the end of the day, to really sway the California electorate, it really takes the Governor weighing in. The General Manager of Metropolitan just doesn't have that reach or voice.

You mentioned that this was the third governor that you've been working with as GM. For collaborative purposes, what differences does it make which Governor presides in California?

I started as GM under Governor Schwarzenegger and then worked with Governor Brown on various projects, and now I'm working with Governor Newsom. It's important to know what their priorities are.

One of the projects that has eluded us in California is getting some sort of bypass across the California Bay Delta for state water project supplies. Governors have looked at it back to the old peripheral canal days, and I think people have come to think of it as a third rail of politics. But all three recent governors have embraced tackling this problem. I was on Governor Schwarzenegger’s Blue Ribbon panel that came up with a solution to look at a tunnel. Jerry Brown picked up the mantle he inherited from Governor Schwarzenegger to try and push it across the finish line. And Governor Newsom, even though he thought Jerry Brown's vision was too big with two tunnels, he is willing to do one and agrees that something has to be done. So, we've seen three governors endorse an approach to building something in the Delta, and I think that signals how we've turned a corner as a state.  I believe we're going to get it done once we reach some consensus on what we're going to get done.  I believe it’s no longer “if” we are going to build something, it’s “what” and “when”.

Let’s segue to MWD’s leadership on managing the Colorado River Compact—noting that people in Northern California and the states of Colorado, Arizona, Nevada etc., all think it's actually their water—not California’s. 

One of the more fascinating things I've been involved in in my career is managing Colorado River issues, which are so complex. Part of the history is that Arizona and California went to war with each other in the ‘60s—to the Supreme Court and then California’s Congress Delegation, pushed through legislation that made Arizona’s Central Arizona Project junior to California’s rights. In the ‘90s, we had the same contentious relationship with Nevada with blown up deals. So, historically the states have really battled with each other, and it has been a very difficult and contentious relationship. 

 Then, we started going into drought in 2000, and it took a lot to rebuild trust. I don't know how many plane trips I took to Arizona and Nevada to meet with my counterparts there and establish a relationship. We started making some easy deals at first and then more and more complex deals. We have put together about six additions to the Law of the River that we've made over the last 20 years. We've not gone to court in the last two decades, and I've never seen a more robust working relationship among the states than we have now. To the point where just this last December, we signed an MOU to work with Nevada to develop recycled water in Los Angeles, which we would then use to back up Colorado River water to Nevada. That kind of far reaching networking of the cities of Las Vegas and Los Angeles working together, on regional resilience, is unprecedented. And, to my mind, it really bodes well for the future.

Expand on your engagement on the Colorado River Water Use 4.4 Plan?

I worked with a couple other folks at Metropolitan as the team lead for developing California’s 4.4 Plan. Historically, California, which had developed earlier than the other Colorado states, used a lot more water and Metropolitan was the major beneficiary of that because Arizona and Nevada being hot desert climates weren't that inhabitable until the advent of air conditioning. So, their populations were low and we were able to take their unused water. They resented it, they didn't like it, but they couldn't do much about it. But starting around the 1990s those states began to grow and grow dramatically. And we knew we were on limited time to continue to use all the water we wanted, and that all came to a head in 2000.  California then had to go on a diet and reduce its taking of other states’ water. And it was a bitter contentious battle within California as to who would take the various cuts, and with the other states and the Secretary of the Interior, had to force California to make the tough decisions. 

It took almost eight years of negotiations, but we ended up with Metropolitan taking the majority of the hit. But as part of the deal, we added a lot of flexibility into the operating rules to enable Metropolitan to do transfers, to pay Imperial Irrigation District (IID), to pay Palo Verde, to pay others for water that we could then transfer. The other states agreed to let us bank water in Lake Mead and use that water when we need it. Arizona, who had fought banking for decades, agreed that would be a trade-off that they could live with. So, it took eight years of negotiation and a lot of complex work. It was fun and exciting being a lead in that, but it was only fun and exciting because we had success and got it done.

Let's move to the history of Pipeline 6, and how you have worked to bring renegade San Diego back into the fold, if you have.

San Diego is in the fold in many respects, and they're out of the fold in others. I would say San Diego very much appreciates the resilience and strength of Met’s infrastructure. San Diego has always supported my efforts to continue to expand the infrastructure, to continue to maintain it. They've purchased water from the Imperial Valley, and the only way they can get it is through Metropolitan’s infrastructure so they have supported those maintenance efforts. They don't like paying for it as much and they've sued us repeatedly on our rate structure, and what they think is their fair share.  So we've battled with them on how to pay for it, but we've worked with them on the necessity to build and maintain our system. Regarding the various pipelines that connect San Diego to Northern California and to the Colorado River, we've been able to work with them so that we can continue to have reliable water deliveries to the San Diego region.

 I understand some of San Diego’s angst regarding Metropolitan in the sense that, if you look at Southern California and the San Fernando, the San Gabriel Valley, the Orange County areas, they all have very strong groundwater supplies. These local supplies allow these areas in the event of an earthquake or drought up north to pump more groundwater and switch to other supply. The San Diego region, because of its topography and terrain, has almost zero groundwater, and it's the driest part of Southern California with very little rainfall. So their local supplies in a good case scenario only make up about 10% of their water. The other 85-90% of it has to be imported, which always leaves them with a deep sense of vulnerability. Consequently, they wanted to build up more independence to lessen that vulnerability. And in some of their minds, they interpret independence as meaning other supplies not delivered or bought through Metropolitan.

How does San Diego’s interest in finding other water supplies mesh with your Colorado compact concerns and the Colorado River distribution?

Some of San Diego’s local supplies are highly complementary of Metropolitan’s mission, like building supplemental seawater desalination. It’s extremely expensive on the one hand, but very complementary in the sense that it's not reliant on Colorado River or Northern California hydrology. They also have purchased water from Imperial Valley, which has to be delivered by Metropolitan and that is more complicated. This transfer ties up part of Metropolitan’s infrastructure for just one member agency. We have to figure out how to do that in a fashion that works for everybody, not just for one agency. Then of course, we have to work with Arizona and Nevada to make the arrangements to have that water move through the legal system. So, it creates a much more complex scenario that’s further complicated by their various lawsuits over rates and other issues. None of that is terribly conducive to finding a good recipe for everyone to work together.

You’ve noted the history of servicing the water needs of Southern California, but benchmark that progress against what Australia and Israel and other countries are doing to address drought and climate change to inform our readers of the art of the possible.

One thing that's pretty fascinating is if you look at recent climate change impacts, the really vulnerable areas are the temperate climates. We have basically five Mediterranean climates in the world—the Mediterranean, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and of course, California. Those regions basically grow all the world's vegetables, grapes, high-end produce, nuts, and all the stuff that people need and like to eat are grown in those five areas. And they've all gone through extreme drought because of climate change. The good news is, we've been watching and learning from each other. 

Australia had to heavily invest in ocean desalination and change the look and feel of its cities to deal with climate change. Israel has completely embraced ocean desalination and recycling its water to the point where they're now recycling over 70 percent of their water. Almost their entire municipal supply now comes from ocean desalination. Those programs are really expensive, but they were necessary in those climates because they’ve all gone through that kind of climate change impact. We're seeing it in Southern California as well. 

The good news is we've had a long track record of getting ready for it, so we didn't have to bite the bullet all at once like Australia had to. We've been able to spread it out and invest and prepare for this over the last 25 years. The drought that hit us between 2010-13 and 2014-17 was as severe as any drought that we've seen in Cape Town or Australia or anywhere in the world. We kind of rolled right through it because we've been preparing for this for 25 years and we were ready. But it's one of those never-ending things. Climate change is just accelerating, it's not slowing down, and so our resiliency efforts have to move faster as well.

At the end of last year, Wall Street, for the first time, began trading water futures as it does agricultural and mineral commodities. With traders now able to take a stake in the future value of water, what are the implications on the affordability of water for users and on Met’s agenda?

It's something we're going to have to really watch and see how it plays out. Currently, the water markets are mainly used for agricultural use. You've seen farmers that invested millions of dollars in high-end permanent crops like pistachios, wine grapes, almonds, walnuts, etc. If they can't get access to water, they'll lose that investment. These crops produce from 20 to 25 years, so it's a long-term investment that need water every single year. This kind of water marketing has been useful for these farmers where they can hedge the high price of water in a drought year against the lower price in a wet year. Metropolitan though is in the business of providing reliability every single year. So instead of hedging against a specific year type, we build long-term projects such as recycled water and water transfers for 25 years. We are more interested in long-term planning whereas right now water marketing is more of a short-term hedging tool. It'll be interesting to see if there is a role in marketing for the urban sector, can they meet our long-term reliability needs with these kinds of financial instruments or is it really just going to be useful for the agriculture spot market? It'll be interesting to see if it evolves into something that has a broader application.

This month, your board will have selected a new GM. What's likely to be included in the letter you leave in your desk for your successor?

Well, it's the kind of thing where you offer advice very carefully. I will certainly be there to help he or she in their new role at Metropolitan, and I'm happy to offer advice where it’s wanted. I felt it was time for me to step down, time for a new challenge, and time for a new GM here at Metropolitan. I do think that the big issues and challenges are maintaining Metropolitan’s strong financial footing and our infrastructure. As long as we maintain those two things, we’ll have the resources, tools and ability to reliably fulfil our mission. When you stop raising rates, when you fall behind on maintenance, when you get behind on debt, then you weaken the institution, and you don't have the tools you need when things get bad.

How should civic leaders “read” MWD’s future priorities by who they pick as your successor? 

What Metropolitan does is bigger than local water supply. Metropolitan, truly, is not just a regional agency; we're a kind of mega-agency. We interact across state lines on the Colorado River, we interact across national boundaries by working with Mexico on the Colorado. We're obviously a large player in Northern and Southern California on water supply. And so Met has obligations beyond just its borders; Metropolitan is an important institution for the entire American Southwest. What I believe is needed in the GM role is someone who really has that broad regional perspective. That's the kind of leadership I think is needed for Met.

So, what’s next for Jeff Kightlinger?

I purposely wanted to leave Metropolitan at an age where I could do another challenge, and I figure I've got a good decade or so to work on something interesting. A lot of people have approached me with some intriguing ideas. But I first want to decompress, take my time, and pick wisely. So I have promised myself—and I hope I stick to it—that I will not make a decision for at least three months. I don't intend to start a new job or new venture until January 2022. I'm really going to try and take some time, do some hiking in the Sierras, take some trips with my kids, go see some baseball games in different cities, and do some other fun things. And then, I’ll think it over and choose once. I don't want to do something for six months and realize I should have thought longer and chosen something else. So that's my game plan.

"Met has obligations beyond just its borders; Metropolitan is an important institution for the entire American Southwest. What I believe is needed in the GM role is someone who really has that broad regional perspective. That's the kind of leadership I think is needed for Met." —Jeffrey Kightlinger