Regional Interdependence: MWD’s Jeff Kightlinger on Water Resiliency and Climate Change & Need for Western States Water Collaboration

Jeffrey Kightlinger

Ahead of VX2021 January 25th 12:30pm Water Webinar, VX News spoke with Metropolitan Water District’s respected Executive Director, Jeffrey Kightlinger. He both updates readers on regional efforts to enhance resiliency and ensure for generations the quality of water supply; and, alerts policymakers to the need for constant re-investment of the region’s (Southern California and Western States) essential water infrastructure.

It was recently announced that Metropolitan Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority will collaborate on the potential development of a recycled water project for the Colorado River. Elaborate on why that collaboration is important for Southern California and MWD’s ratepayers going forward. 

It's a very exciting collaboration and one that I think bodes well, not just for Southern California, but for the whole American Southwest. One of the big challenges we have is climate change impacting our imported supplies as well as our local supplies here in Southern California, and pretty much throughout the entire Southwest. There’s much less runoff from the Colorado River and a shrinking supply that's frankly been over allocated. Precipitation is staying consistent in Northern California, but there’s less snow and more rain, which becomes an infrastructure challenge of how to manage it. Finally, we're looking at probably less rain here in Southern California where we're trying to boost stormwater capture, which is going to be a challenge if you have less and less rain to capture in the first place.

We see all these stresses developing simultaneously, and yet we're in a pretty robust water situation at the moment, which makes it hard to look at developing projects that produce water full time, because it's looking as if we won't need that water for a number of years. Right now, we're pretty reliable. In wet years in California, in fact, we're extremely reliable and we can store a lot of water. We're reliable in average years, and we have even become fairly reliable in moderately dry years. 

So, what Metropolitan needs for Southern California are dry year programs—projects we can really turn on just for dry years. How do you manage projects that produce water every year cost effectively to produce the benefit when we need it, and also provide benefits to other partners when they need it. That's where this mix and match strategy with Southern Nevada comes into play. This proposed recycled water project is going to be a $3-4 billion project, and yet, maybe seven out of 10 years we won't need that water. So, we need a partner who's going to pay for it in those other years and take the water.  And this is where Southern Nevada can come in. We can mix and match our needs so that Southern California develops the project, an expensive project, bring it online as a nice hedge for climate change with a partner who will shoulder a significant chunk of that project cost and help justify the expense when we won't need that water, each and every year. That's where we can really work, and match our two needs to come up with a collaborative program that works for both of us, helping their economy and ours.

Jeff, your answer opens up a whole array of governance and policy questions for our readers. Because water resource management in Southern California is typically a long-term investment decision, how do you as GM of MWD, frame such a multi-state collaboration agreement to engage and secure buy-in from your board’s leadership and from constituent water agencies?

It's important for people to try and compare it to something they're familiar with. This is a 10 and 15 year strategy; it is complex. And yet, when you think about what you do for the rest of your life, you know to plan for your own future. You put money away for your retirement;  you mix and match your stocks and bonds so that you have a portfolio—this is really what we're talking about.

We're planning for the future 15 years from now, so we're putting water aside and banking it,  and we're finding a partner who can help us afford it in the meantime. It really is about finding the right partnerships, so that you can afford it in the near term when it might be hard to justify building it given our current situation in the near term. Frankly, we are in a pretty robust water position but we know challenges are looming.

To better appreciate the need and value of Metropolitan Water District’s current and planned partnerships to meet the challenges of Climate Change – elaborate on MWD’s strategies to achieve resiliency, reduce demand and conserve water.. 

Metropolitan is made up of member agencies throughout all of Southern California across six counties. And what we have done is look at how do we make those six counties more resilient in the face of climate change and the challenges that we see coming. A big part of it is demand management and keeping our demands relatively low as we continue to grow. We do that through investing in long-term conservation. 

We raise money from our member agencies and then we give it back to them so that they can invest in conservation—the concept being that it's not just LA County leading the way, but it's all six counties pulling together. Metropolitan’s money evens out because we can spread it across the entire region. That strategy has been extremely effective. Our regional demands now, in the 2020s, are comparable to our demands in the 1980s. We’re basically using the same amount of water we used 40 years ago, despite adding almost seven million people to the region. That’s a remarkable achievement.  This massive regional conservational approach has effected a permanent sea change in how we use water and the kind of local investment we've been making. 

We've also invested heavily with our locals here on recycled water. You've seen it grow tenfold in the last 20 years. We are now recycling almost 10 percent of our water, up from about 1-2 percent before. With the projections for what Metropolitan hopes to do with the LA County Sanitation Districts and what the City of LA is talking about—we're going to be jumping up recycling to almost 20 percent of Southern California water maybe, 25 percent, which would put us past Spain and starting to work towards the types of numbers you see in Israel. So, those are remarkable partnerships that we're working on with our local members.

Please also elaborate on MWD’s project investments in the region’s recycled water infrastructure. 

We have been working with all of the cities throughout the Southland in terms of recycled water and wellhead treatment and what they need to do to help clean up their groundwater basins and keep them productive. We have funded projects like this since the early ‘90s, and we have over 100 such projects that we've funded in this matter.

The way it works is the bulk of the money is put up by the local agencies, but Metropolitan supplies a significant chunk of funding to incentivize and help these projects to  be cost competitive. That's what's gotten us to the point where, if you add up the demand that we've reduced from conservation and the amount of new water we produced through all this recycling and wellhead cleanup, that's basically the equivalent of another Colorado River aqueduct. It's well over a million acre-feet, every single year. We have two major aqueducts coming into the region, the State Water Project and the Colorado. Conservation and recycling has become the region’s third aqueduct that we've built over the last 20 years. 

How does MWD square for consumers (and your board) rising water bills with policies and investments that aim to reduce water demand through conservation? 

That is a challenge. The less water we sell, the less income we have unless we raise the price, and that's what we've had to do. We have had to raise the price of that water every single year to cover our operating costs  because we're selling less of it and that’s a hard message to consumers. We ask them to conserve, and they do conserve, but their price stays flat even when they use less. Consumers want lower bills but the price has gone up because we're paying for all that reliability, which really becomes an education challenge for us. 

The good news is that we see going forward—even with continuing to invest in the Bay Delta, the Colorado, and developing regional recycled water—our rate adjustments staying in that 3-5 percent range a year. I don't think this has to be a message of, we're going to break the bank, and we're going to have these huge rate increases coming. But you have to do it every year, that's the one thing that is a little painful. It's as if this is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge as soon as you're done, you have to start over again. We have to pay every single year into developing these programs, which means that 3 to 5% rate increase has to occur every year. In the old days we used to be able to take off 10 years, because we just finished a wave of expansion and kind of lived off that investment for 10 years. The future now requires constant reinvestment, which is not going to be easy.

Update our readers on the status of the Bay Delta restoration project and new investment in California’s water infrastructure from the north to the south. A scan of the press suggests little if any action. Is this paralysis simply that the state’s political leadership is overwhelmed by the economic and health challenges of the pandemic?  

Two out of every three Californians receives water that travels through the Bay Delta. It comes from the Sierra mountains, and then flows through the Bay Delta on its way to the Bay Area, the Central Coast, Southern California, and the Central Valley. So, you have about 25 - 27 million Californians get their water that way and you have over 3 million acres of irrigated farmland relying on this water. So, this is not something that's a Southern California versus Northern California issue— this is California. If we're going to have 40 million, eventually 50 million, people in the state and have healthy food that isn't all imported, we need to solve this issue. 

What we really have is 1960s infrastructure managing a 2020 water system. We have not invested in it and we have not modernized it because we're too busy arguing with each other, and eventually it's going to collapse. It's going to get old, it's going to collapse, and we know it, it's going to be like the levee system in New Orleans where we didn't invest, we didn't modernize it, and we just got overtaken by events. We know we have to do this, it's an absolute fundamental requirement. 

But the good news, I think, is that 20 years ago, when I talked to elected leaders, the question was whether we were ever going to do something about it. We've now had three governors in a row who said we need to modernize the system with Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown, and Gavin Newsom. They all have different ideas on how to do it, but they've all said we have to do this. So, I think we've reached that tipping point where our political leadership knows what has to be done, and now we're just arguing over how big of a modernization effort we're going to do. 

Governor Newsom wants to streamline it and narrow it down from the twin tunnel proposal of Jerry Brown, but it's still, at the end of the day, the same concept, and we need to get it done. I'm hopeful that our political leadership has recognized this as a requisite and that we’ll stop arguing over exactly how to do it and just get something done. We can always adjust as we go on. But standing here paralyzed and doing nothing will take us to disaster at some point.

What does the inauguration of President Biden portend for Met’s agenda for future water infrastructure investments? 

I'm hopeful that it's good news for California. It’s not that I think there were huge substantive differences between the Trump administration and the Newsom administration on water policy, but there were huge differences on other areas of environmental policy. The huge differences between California and the Trump administration meant that it was very difficult to get anything done on any issues. On water, we need both the state and federal governments in sync, because both state and federal laws apply. Colorado River being a multi-state issue means the Federal Government is a huge player, so we have to have those two administrations working together. 

I think, philosophically you're going to find a Biden administration and the Newsom administration, much more in sync on many more issues, and that bodes well for environmental policy, for infrastructure, and hopefully for water. So, knock on wood, I'm hopeful that we can make much more progress in the next four years than we made the last four.

Over the last decade, it's become increasingly clear that both academic and laboratory  scientific researchers have learned much about what's in our drinking water and what endangers public health. Address how contaminant regulation is evolving and the water quality challenges faced by water managers like MWD? 

Our ability to detect chemicals has grown exponentially in my career. When I came to Metropolitan a little over 20 years ago, we were just measuring in the parts per million. Then it became parts per billion, and now they're in parts per quadrillion. Our ability to detect has phenomenally improved, but our ability to understand what that means in terms of human health has not gone at nearly the same pace.

We have a real challenge in front of us: we are detecting trace chemicals at incredibly minute levels, which raises concern as to what that means for human health and safety. And we don't really know. It's not a very satisfactory answer to consumers that say we don't know whether it’s bad for you because it's so small, so go ahead and drink it. And so, the consumer’s reaction is to say, “no, get that out of there.” Well, these are multibillion dollar decisions to remove everything and reach zero levels, and lately it’s weird things, like PFAS—chemical chains of plastics— in incredibly minute numbers in the parts per quadrillion. 

So we're going to have to come up with a better approach for how to manage the science that's coming into policy. Right now, it's sort of a knee jerk reaction. Whatever gets the newspaper's attention, we're going to regulate that one down lower, as opposed to what really are the drivers for the best human health. 

One of the things Metropolitan has been talking to legislators about is working with the State Water Board on setting up a panel of scientists that could help achieve overarching goals and look 10 years ahead at how we want the regulations to move as we deal with this information, and hopefully also educate the public and daylight how something may be in your water, but we don't think it's a concern and here's why, or here's what we do think is a concern and that's what we're going to focus on. We actually drafted some legislation and tried to get that introduced last year and then COVID hit.  Complex bills like that got put on the shelf, but it's something that I've been wanting to work on because there's a real disconnect between science and policy here. We need to bring the two a little closer together.

How have artificial intelligence (AI) and sensor technology impacted water quality management and regulation? What's the potential of such technologies to improve the nation’s 1960’s water infrastructure? 

I think you're going to see a lot more work on that in the near future. Right now, we've been focused on upgrading our aging infrastructure and working with advanced meters to try and get better data on usage and get information more immediately to both the provider and the consumer. We've been using some new Leak Detection AI-type technologies and had some very promising results with that. I think we're going to see that pushed down to the retail level throughout our system and that will make for some huge gains.

We have an aging infrastructure issue in Southern California. We didn't used to have that 25 years ago. We’re a relatively young state, and so we were less focused on those issues that you saw in London and Europe and places like that. Leakage wasn't our huge issue out here, our infrastructure was fairly new compared to theirs. Over the last 25 years, we've reached that tipping point where we're no longer that young; we're starting to get old here too. We're starting to look like the East Coast, which is looking more like Europe, so you're going to see a lot more infusion of that technology as we start facing the challenges that they've been facing for a while.

Lastly, what letter are you—the GM of the largest and most consequential regional water organizations in North America—likely to leave in your drawer for your successor?

There's a lot to think about as you start to think about stepping down. It's been a fascinating 15 years running Metropolitan. When I think about the challenges going forward, of climate change and a growing population, we have some real significant issues facing us. 

I see a lot of potential for a couple of things that I think are really important: one is partnerships. This whole concept of independence doesn't make a lot of sense in the world today; we are so globally connected—our economies and our infrastructure.  We need to actually be broadening our partnerships, not narrowing them.

That leads to the other part of partnerships: interdependence. It really matters to us what happens in Las Vegas as they're a big part of Southern California's economy. If we can partner with them and make both of us stronger, that's what we need to do. The same with the agriculture sector, the same way with the urban sector. We used to all feud and sue each other, now, it's all about how we can actually make each other stronger and accept the fact that when they have a problem, it's our problem too, and we have to help solve it. 

There's a lot of people that go, ‘these are my ratepayer dollars, so only use them here.’ But I say, if we're not growing food in the Central Valley, what do you think you're going to eat? We need to help solve their issues, and they need to help solve ours. We need some of that water that they use a lot of, but we need to make sure that they can financially survive and thrive. I look at it as how do we find the right kind of partnerships and keep bringing them forward and keep educating the people in Southern California that we are all connected to each other out here.

“We used to all feud and sue each other, now, it's all about how we can actually make each other stronger and accept the fact that when they have a problem, it's our problem too, and we have to help solve it.”

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