May 28, 2014 - From the June, 2014 issue

MWD’s Response to State’s Drought and Challenges of Climate Change Adaptation

California Governor Jerry Brown may have declared a drought emergency this spring, but for many in Southern California water conservation is never ending—in great measure the result of the foresight and investments of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. In the following MIR interview, Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of MWD, specifically details the ongoing preparation and response his regional water agency has championed in the face of the driest calendar year in California’s history. Kightlinger additionally addresses recent adjustments to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), planning for a water bond for the November ballot, and meeting the goals of California’s AB32.


Jeff Kightlinger

“Many in Northern California have a lot of admiration for what we’ve been able to do in Southern California… pushing down demand, despite adding 5 million people over the last 20 years, and actually reducing our overall water use.” -Jeff Kightlinger

Jeff, we conduct this interview subsequent to the governor’s drought declaration and as wildfires continue to rage in San Diego County. How is MWD responding to the drought? 

First, there’s no doubt that this is a very serious drought. 2013 ended up being the driest calendar year in California history. 2014, while ahead of the pace of 2013, is by no means a good year. It’s still extremely dry—just not the worst. We’ve had a very difficult water supply situation. We’re clearly in a drought, as the governor has declared. 

The good news for Southern California is that we do plan for multiple-year droughts, we do store water, we prepare for these events, and we’re not caught unawares. We live in a drought-prone state, so when the water is there, we capture and store it so that we have it available for droughts. As luck would have it, 2010 and 2011 were above-average years, and 2011 was actually a wet year. We did store quite a bit of water in preparation for this drought, so we are handling this situation. 

But we don’t really know how long these droughts last, so we’re going to be reaching out to the public. Metropolitan is kicking off a summer water conservation campaign on the airways and in the media to try to get Southern Californians to engage in active, aggressive conservation. If this drought continues, we’ll have to take more proactive steps the following year if we don’t get some good conservation this year.

Jeff, MWD has invested over $2 billion in water storage. Have we seen the last of such investments? What are MWD’s priorities now?

Right now, we’ve done a very good job in Southern California on both conservation and building storage for these drought years. That is why you’re not seeing us leap to mandatory rationing. We prepared for this drought by building our storage and by implementing extensive conservation. 

I think you’re going to see the next wave of investments over the next decades in Southern California focused around issues like recycled water and groundwater basin cleanup. We see that as better bang for the buck. We already have good storage. We’re going to continue to invest in conservation, but we already have a good head start there. Groundwater basin cleanup is a means of producing some new water to add into the equation. I think that’s where the new wave of investment is in Southern California, rather than on storage. 

It’s a different story statewide. California has not kept pace like we have here in Southern California on building storage. Part of the water bond debate is on how the state can add storage in much the same way we have been able to. 

For years, Northern Californians viewed Southern Californians as profligate with “their water,” even when it wasn’t the case. Has the attitude of Northern Californians evolved? 

Most of the water professionals and many of the elected officials in Northern California have a lot of admiration for what we’ve been able to do in Southern California—the way we pushed down demand, despite adding 5 million people over the last 20 years, and actually reduced our overall water use. With some it might be grudging admiration, but most people have a lot of respect for what we’ve done to make our area much more drought secure. Many of them have told me quite openly, “We wish we’d had the same level of commitment and investment up here in Northern California.”   

This recent drought has opened up a lot of eyes to the fact that it needs to be a statewide effort to do what we’ve been working on in the last 20 years here. 

Does the statewide appreciation of the drought’s effects on economic activity have implications for the elements of a new state water bond and its political support?

I think so. Whenever there is a drought, people focus on water—you get quite a bit of attention that normally you’d have to create by running an expensive campaign. People are aware that water is an issue, and when they see a number of things on a water bond addressing the drought, you pick up a fair amount of support. I think that’s a lot of the story as to why a bond is being so actively debated in the legislature. 

You now have, based on my last count, 10 different water-bond proposals in the legislature. Many people have forgotten that there currently is a water bond on the November 2014 ballot that most want to update to take the new drought conditions into account, which is why there are so many vehicles in the legislatures. I believe that there is growing support statewide to take on a water bond for the November 2014 ballot.

You mentioned MWD’s growing interest in recycled water and conservation. This issue of TPR/MIR features TreePeople’s Andy Lipkis discussing the role of cisterns as a ubiquitous solution for Southern California. Your thoughts?

I think they can play a role—but it’s not going to be a major, game-changing role. For instance, last year Southern California got something along the lines of five inches of rain. This year, you’d have a lot of bone-dry cisterns. You would still have to integrate the initiative with some source of supply coming from recycled water, from ocean desalination, or from imported water. If you don’t have sufficient natural rainfall, you can only make it go so far. 

Australia, when they did cisterns and heavy-duty conservation, also invested almost $10 billion into ocean desalination. They supplemented stormwater capture with heavy-duty investments to create new supply. That’s what you always have to do. It’s much like renewable power—wind and solar are terrific, but you have to marry them up with some sort of supply that operates when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. You have to have natural gas plants linked with renewables to fill in those gaps. The same thing is true with water supply. It is terrific to get stormwater capture cisterns that rely on natural rainfall, but then you have to marry it to a reliable source when the rain doesn’t fall.

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Let’s now turn to the elephant in the room—the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Please update our readers on this statewide planning effort initiated by the governor?

It has obviously been a long road to get here. The planning effort for the Bay Delta Conservation is now in year seven. The good news is that significant milestones have been reached. We have a full draft environmental document that’s currently before the public. The comment period closes June 13. Then you have to spend a fair amount of time moving on to a final report with a preferred alternative chosen, and bringing that forward for a record of decision. 

The good news is that it’s moving forward, with about another nine to 12 months left to wrap it up before it’s suitable for a decision by the governor and the United States Secretary of the Interior. Obviously, it’s a large-scale, mega-infrastructure project and environmental restoration project—on the same scale as the restoration of the Florida Everglades. It’s a very ambitious undertaking. It’s been a long time getting here, and we’re now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, of the process. 

With the May budget revisions now concluded, the governor is able to focus on his long-term investment in infrastructure agenda. What is your read on the governor’s commitment to a water bond and to the Bay Delta Planning? 

Governor Brown is very committed to the completion of the Bay Delta Conservation Project. He’s made it one of his two high priorities. In fact, speaking at the May revise, someone basically asked him, “What’s your top priority, the  Delta Plan or high-speed rail? Which one do you want more?” He replied along these lines, “What do you like more, day or night? California needs both.” He’s very committed to a long-term Delta solution, and that’s critical to the long-term success of the project. 

In terms of the water bond, the governor has not stated his priorities at this point in time. I think he was waiting to get through the May revise and the budget process before sitting down to look at a water bond. I believe he views it with a very pragmatic approach to governing, in the sense that he’s got a high-priority in this rainy day fund that is also on the ballot. 

The Brown Administration needs to make sure the messages are clean and clear to the voters. They want voters to understand the rainy day fund—how it would operate in times of budget surplus and in times of budget shortfalls. How does a water bond, borrowing money to help fund drought solutions, fit in with the balanced budget and rainy day fund proposal? How are those two proposals compatible on the same ballot? 

I think there’s going to be a lot of talk between the governor, legislative leadership, and stakeholders on, “Is this ballot the right time for a water bond, and what is the right size?” All of that has to be considered and worked through in fairly short order. 

The California Legislature has a new assembly speaker. There’ll be a transition shortly in the senate president pro tem and the members of the legislature because of term limits. How well positioned is MWD with new leadership and with the elected members from Southern California in the legislature? 

It’s always a challenge. When California decided to implement term limits, it meant that we were going to have constantly revolving leaders in the legislature. That is both a challenge for us in keeping up—learning their preferences and their policy priorities—and in trying to make sure they remain educated on our needs. It’s pretty challenging in a business like water, where we plan 25 years out and it takes 10 years to build a reservoir or major pipeline—that’s a relatively quick project, from inception to completion, if it takes a decade. In a business where you have to look 25 years out and plan a decade ahead for major infrastructure overhauls, replacements, and new infrastructure, it’s hard to keep people interested in long-term solutions when they are in office for only six years at a time and realize the solutions won’t be completed on their watch.  

There’s no doubt about it—it’s a challenge. We’ve been very fortunate to have had strong leadership in people like Darrell Steinberg, who’s from the Sacramento area that is less stressed by drought issues but has taken a strong interest in state-wide issues like water. He was one of the main proponents and architects of the broad, 2009 legislative package under Governor Schwarzenegger. We’ve had some very strong speakers from Southern California who understand the importance of water and the long-term issues. We’ve been fortunate that leadership has paid attention to these issues.  

Let’s close with your views, as General Manger of MWD, on the impacts of climate change on your service territory and the stretch compliance goals of AB 32?

Climate change is a big issue for every water agency. When you look around California, one of the heaviest snowfall areas is Donner Pass. Over the course of the winter, it’s generally at a temperature of 29 or 30 degrees, and people are talking about a two to three degree temperature increase with climate change—potentially converting much of that snow into rain. We rely on the Sierra snowpack as the state’s largest reservoir. As it slowly melts, we can regulate it and move it into drinking water. 

If that becomes rain instead of snow, our system isn’t large enough in size to capture it. We lose the ability to regulate our water supplies. This is a very serious long-term threat to our water supply in California and to the way we do business. The order of the day for us is resilience—creating and developing the right projects and infrastructure that will be resilient enough to adapt to changing conditions. We will probably have to deal with a world in which water supply is flashier, more volatile, with more droughts and bigger spikes from larger, shorter duration storms. When there is wet weather, we’re going to have to be able to move fast—capture it, move it, and store it. It’s going to require a new look at infrastructure and also at drought-proof supplies not dependent on weather. 

What are supplies that don’t rely on local rainfall? Groundwater basin cleanup is huge. Ocean and brackish water desalination in the right places will be critical. Water recycling can be greatly expanded. And conservation is always a no-regret solution. We tend to look at all of these components as part of building a resilient portfolio. 

AB 32 is a long-term adjustment strategy that also looks at the underlying roots of climate change. That’s not something that’s going to be driving our industry, which is more concerned with adaptation. While there is a clear energy-water nexus, the actual collecting, transporting and treatment of water is a small part of the energy used. The large energy use in water is at the household, end use, primarily in the heating of water for washing clothes, dishes and bathing. The water industry wants to work closely with the state on how the money collected from the water industry for AB 32 compliance can be channeled into climate change-appropriate projects—that funding stream can help our industry develop the resilience and adaptive strategies that we’re going to have to have.

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© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.