Southern California's Metropolitan Water District Diversifies Supply Portfolio Amid Protracted Drought

Jeff Kightlinger

With the climate change discussion focusing largely on renewable energy, sustainable design, and transportation technology, it’s easy to forget that water is perhaps the most crucial issue when it comes to the effects of climate change. VerdeXchange News is pleased to present the following interview with Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, whose constant struggle to supply water to the Southern California region may be the front line of a growing worldwide water supply battle.

MWD is the Southern California’s provider of imported water. Describe MWD’s sources for water imports and the current pressures on each of those water sources.

A little more than half of Southern California’s water is imported from elsewhere. Metropolitan is the wholesaler and importer of that water for the region. Our traditional and major source has been the Colorado River, and it’s been gripped, as has the entire Southwest, by a tremendous drought over the last decade. In fact, the last eight years on the Colorado River have been the driest eight-year period in recorded history. Coupled with increased demands throughout the Southwest—the growth in Arizona, Phoenix, neighboring cities, Las Vegas—you have greater demands on water from the Colorado River and less supply. The reservoirs are currently less than half full at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. California, and Metropolitan, in particular, have lost access to what we used to call “unused water” from the other states, as well as surplus water. That has translated to about 500,000 acre-feet less of water per year than we’ve traditionally been pulling from the Colorado River. This began in 2003, and we’ve been living with that cutback ever since. To put it in a macro perspective, we traditionally import around 2.3 million acre-feet of water to Southern California. So, a 500,000 acre-foot hit is almost a quarter of our total imports lost.

Our other major source has been the State Water Project. That source of water was impacted by drought last year, with one of the lowest snowfalls in the last 30 years in California. More recent and more disturbing, was a federal court decision coming out of the U.S. District Court in Fresno that will, on average, reduce our ability to take water from the State Water Project anywhere from around 25 to 30 percent per year, depending on the type of year. The reason is that there are going to be restrictions put in place for when we can pump water to protect an endangered species of fish, the delta smelt. If those restrictions stay in place long-term, it means that the State Water Project, along with our Colorado River supply, will not be adequate to meet Southern California’s basic demands 70 percent of the time. Traditionally, those two supplies met all demands with water left over to store in our groundwater basins 70 percent of the time. The drought on the Colorado River and the court ruling on the State Water Project have combined to reverse our water supply outlook.

The last thing to talk about on water supply is local supply. Our local supplies provide about 50 percent of Southern California’s water. Five out of the last six years have been dry locally. Last year was the driest recorded in the L.A. area since the 1870s. So, even though we aren’t the supplier of the local supply, that puts added pressure on us. When it’s dry everywhere, it makes it difficult for us to ensure a reliable water supply.

In light of the pressures on water supplies from the Colorado River and the Bay Delta through the State Water Project, what has been the response of MWD regarding conservation, local storage, and support for local supply alternatives?

There has to be response in other areas. If we can’t rely on our imported supplies to the extent that we always have in the past, we have to find other sources to make it up. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing in all the areas you touched upon. It’s a little-known story, but we import the same amount of water today as we did in 1990, and we’ve added 4 million people throughout Southern California. We’ve done that all through greater water efficiency. Conservation, recycling, reclamation, and desalination—all of those have occurred at unprecedented levels throughout Southern California in that time. The estimates are that we’re going to add another seven million people to Southern California by 2030; our plan is to accommodate all that growth through greater water efficiency, not by increasing water imports. For that to work, though, we need a backbone of supply that we can rely upon, because if we don’t have the water in the first place, then there’s nothing to conserve or recycle. We now conserve, on average, almost 800,000 acre-feet a year throughout Southern California. To put that into perspective, that’s more water than we’re getting off the Colorado River, which was traditionally the core supply of Southern California. Conservation has, in effect, become another aqueduct of supply.

We are very fortunate in Southern California to have some great groundwater basins. San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel, and Orange County all have very productive groundwater basins. However, through the years of industrial manufacturing throughout Southern California, we’ve lost a lot of production from our basins due to pollution. We are in the process of cleaning that up. Funding is needed to advance cleanup and make it happen faster so we can rely on the basins even more. We’ve made great investments in our ability to retrieve water from the basins, clean it up, and move it into our drinking supply. But to really use the basins productively requires us to have some imported supply to bring in and recharge the basins. Since May of this year, we’ve had to halt all deliveries of recharge water, just because we don’t have enough water coming in from our imported sources. If this keeps up over several years, you’re going to see the production of groundwater basins start to dwindle. Support for local project alternatives is one of our major sources of investment at our board. Our board subsidizes local reclamation and recycling projects up to $250 per acre-foot to make these projects economically competitive and to help bring them on line quickly. We’re not going to be developing any million-acrefoot projects of new supply anymore. Instead, you’re going to see a lot of little pocket plants where we recycle and reclaim water to use for irrigation. These are small, 5,000-acre-foot projects that will be scattered throughout Southern California. It’s really the future of our water supply.

In a state where 80 percent of the developed water supply is consumed by agriculture, why haven’t we developed markets to efficiently move water from one place to another, as Spain, Australia, and other arid regions have done?

I think part of the reason is that it simply wasn’t necessary. By and large, people look at California as being a relatively arid state, but that’s not really accurate. Pockets of it, and where the people are, tend to be arid. We’ve invested in tremendous systems to move water. That’s been adequate to meet the current level of demands and growth. So, the push toward markets has been somewhat slow and stagnant because the need hasn’t really arisen yet. I think as you see the water supply tighten up, and we’re seeing it tighten up now, you will see markets develop, and it’s just a function of what’s needed for the time.

One of the things that you have to watch in the trends is that 80 percent of developed water is used by agriculture. A decade ago, most of that agriculture was row and seasonal crops. You’re seeing that shrink as agriculture shifts toward high-end crops in California. We’ve shifted to nuts, stone fruits, and grapes, particularly grapes. These are very valuable investments, and farmers have the ability and the need to pay more for water to protect that investment. So the trend in water markets will cut several ways.

In an era of constrained water resources, are the current institutional arrangements developed in the earlier era—a maze of member agencies and their balkanized, dependent retail agencies—adequate to the task of improving the resource management of water in California?

The governance of water and its history of development in California has been somewhat piecemeal. Other states that developed more slowly were able to put into place centralized water planning efforts, water courts, and often a state water engineer in charge of all water permits. California has a more balkanized system that was developed piecemeal over time. All in all, it’s worked quite well in Southern California, primarily because I think the emphasis was that this was a rapidly growing area, and we couldn’t grow without water. So our forefathers really sat down and worked out a plan. They divided up the groundwater basins through various adjudications to be handled by local managers, and then they collectively pooled their resources to develop a Metropolitan Water District to focus on imported water supply on a regional basis. Through that system, we’ve funded some of the best water movement infrastructure anywhere in the world. So that’s how you’ve seen us survive this current drought so far. Over the last five years, we’ve been engulfed in a drought here in Southern California, without really any impacts. We’re only now starting to get a little concerned, based on the judge’s order. So, it’s worked well, I believe, in Southern California, but by and large, it’s because you had a regional agency like Metropolitan. Most of California doesn’t have the same regional approach, so there is a more mixed record as you look around at the rest of the state. A more centralized planning resource at the Department of Water Resources would definitely help, but I don’t know if that’s in the cards.

Can you bring us up to date on the outcome of the California Legislature’s recent special session, which was called to address the state’s impending water crisis?

It’s still going, so all I can do is speak to the moment. There was a push to try to make the February ballot with a bond measure, and so far it hasn’t succeeded. Interestingly, there are very partisan differences on the water package, and it’s probably reflective of a more partisan relationship in Sacramento. Traditionally, water disputes have been either agricultural vs. urban or north vs. south, but not usually Republican versus Democrat. The two water bonds were quite similar in many respects, but where they primarily differed was surface storage, with Republicans wanting more surface storage and funding and Democrats wanting little to none for surface storage. That became a partisan issue and led to neither measure being able to get a two-thirds vote. As we speak, there are still ongoing discussions. There is still a possibility that something could be done for the February ballot, but it’s probably a long shot at this point.

If nothing happens in the next year in the way of a water bond or legislative focus on this issue, what are the consequences for MWD, its member agencies, California, and Southern California?

It is going to be a significant issue if we can’t fix what’s going on in the Delta. We can make progress on everything else: storage, local projects, and conservation. Many of these things are in our control, but we need some state leadership on the Delta. It is the number one issue facing California right now. The Delta is the hub of our water system in California. Two out of every three Californians receive water that moves through the Delta. All our Central Valley farmland relies on water that moves through the Delta. Currently, we have a broken system. California desperately needs a conveyance fix, whether that’s a canal or armoring the system inside the Delta. If we don’t solve this issue, Southern California is going to be looking at rationing sporadically through the upcoming decade, and we won’t be able to plan our water supply. We’ll be the victim of what local weather brings and what a judge decides. That’s not a comfortable situation for water managers, and it moves us from today’s high degree of reliability into an unreliable state, primarily based on endangered species issues and how the fish are doing year in and year out.

How has the civic and business leadership allied with MWD to solve the water challenges for Southern California?

My experience has been that developers and the chambers have been very concerned and have worked very closely with us, so I think that has been very positive. What I think has, unfortunately, derailed the ability to solve the Delta issue, has been the partisan debate over surface storage. It’s been unfortunate because, for some peculiar reason, surface storage has become Republican and groundwater storage has become Democrat. These are all just tools—they’re good tools when you mix them both. We’ve built surface storage in Southern California and we do groundwater storage. They complement each other.

The real question ought to be, what makes the most fiscal sense? What delivers the most bang for the buck, and what’s the timing for building certain projects? That is an analytical standpoint, not a partisan one. I’ve seen the business community be very supportive of trying to get something resolved. They want to see the Delta situation solved, but there has been confusion over the partisan nature of the debate as to how the business community should weigh in on an issue that’s a little sidetracked. It will take leadership and compromise to get this back on the right track.