August 23, 2017 - From the August, 2017 issue

Update on California Water Fix: MWD Board to Vote in September

In early August, two Metropolitan Water District committees met to discuss a series of whitepapers on potential financing strategies for the comprehensive infrastructure upgrades known as California Water Fix. The plan calls on the state to invest billions into replumbing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, including Governor Jerry Brown’s signature tunnel project. In TPR, MWD General Manager Jeff Kightlinger discusses the need for an updated, reliable water conveyance system for Southern California. The veteran water leader also explains the importance of combining state projects like the Water Fix with MWD’s multi-state, and multi-national, work around the Colorado River watershed.


Jeff Kightlinger

In our interview one year ago, you spoke of California’s upcoming water supply milestones. One of those was Governor Brown’s championed California Water Fix project investment in the Delta. Update our readers on MWD’s plans to insure & maintain reliable water supplies for the state’s most populous region.

Jeff Kightlinger: At that time, we were on the verge of completing the documentation and permitting process for the California’s WaterFix Delta project. We’ve now done that.

The Brown administration has issued the Notice of Determination on the CEQA document, completing the CEQA process. The two federal and one state fishery agencies have all issued final permits. Essentially, we now have a green light to go forward on this project.

The next step in the process is for the agencies that would be responsible for paying for the project—that is, the water districts—to get the green light from their boards to invest in the project as it has finally shaped up.

You, too, will soon take the Water Fix project before the MWD Board to request  financing. What is the critical message you will convey to the public and your board members about the project’s value?

Overall, we feel that the draft project meets the criteria of our board. From our perspective, it is eminently buildable; it’s certainly within a design and engineering framework we’re comfortable with, as an agency that builds big projects. It has a reasonable flow regime, as permitted by the fish agencies, and we have reasonable confidence it will perform. It also has a financing plan that we think is quite affordable: At full buildout, 15 years from now, we expect the cost to the typical household consumer to be roughly $2 a month.

It certainly remains a controversial project, and the board has heard from a lot of opponents who feel that money would be better spent on local projects, such as recycling and non-imported water projects. Our board is weighing all of that, and deciding whether they are prepared to make this sort of commitment.

For the record, what compels MWD to investment in water supply?                                                         

At the end of the day, it’s critically important to remember where we get our water. Only about 30 percent of Southern California’s water is local. We get water from the Owens Valley, the Colorado River, and Northern California.

The water from Northern California, which comes from the northern Sierras through the State Water Project, is actually the largest single supply to Southern California. It represents 30 percent of all of Southern California’s water. And yet this is a system that we built in 1960 under Governor Pat Brown, and we have not added to its infrastructure. It’s old—it needs a lot of upgrades and modernizing. It needs new fish springs; it needs to better take care of the environment. This project is about modernizing and updating that system.

A lot of people propose: Can’t we just do get our water from local supply and conservation? But you really can’t replace 30 percent of your baseline with any other technology—not even ocean desalination or a massive recycling program. It’s simply too huge a component of our water supply. That’s why we need to invest in modernizing it.

How important has it been to have the leadership of Governor Brown in bringing interest groups throughout the Central Valley and Northern California together with the Southland to move forward on the WaterFix project?

The leadership Governor Brown is demonstrating is remarkable. It’s such a controversial project, and most governors have ducked it and tried to avoid it. It’s divisive between agricultural and urban, north and south, and environmentalists and industrialists; it creates controversy in almost every segment of society. Very few people push hard for it for that reason.

People have said to Governor Brown, “This is just a legacy project; you’re updating your father’s project.” He’s quick to point out that he doesn’t believe in legacies, but in fixing the issues that are before him.

This is a broken system. It is not conducive to the long-term economic health or safety and wellbeing of California. If we don’t do anything about it, then eventually, we’re going to have a disaster. The Governor has taken it up and said, “I’m going to fix this on my watch.”

Do the Central Valley and Northern California have any common ground with the Southland with respect to water supply?

It’s very difficult to find that common ground, because everyone has very different interests. The agricultural people need lots of water to generate and grow food. Urban areas don’t need as much water; we’re very efficient in that we can spread our crops over a large population base. Rural areas have to serve a smaller group of farmers, who each have to pay a larger share. So we have very different needs and feel different impacts. And yet we have to find common ground.

If we can’t find a way to make this work for both the agricultural and urban sectors, and both the north and south, we’re going to go down the same road as every other attempt we’ve made to deal with water in California: gridlock, and calls to “study” the issue but never tackle it. We need to find enough common ground that we can move forward, or else we’ll be stuck.

Finding common ground usually involves agreeing on a governance mechanism. Who will be governing the execution and management of this state water project?

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The eventual operation will be turned back over to the state of California. But for the design and construction phase of the project, the contractors themselves—the Santa Clara Valley Water District in the Silicon Valley, the agricultural districts in the Central Valley, and Metropolitan Water District in the south—will all sit on a Joint Powers Authority. I think that will help a lot to bring the interests of the north and south together.

The country’s political institutions appear gridlocked and increasing plagued by uncompromising partisanship. How has public angst being addressed by the Governor and MWD’s efforts to bring all interest groups to a consensus on the California Water Fix?

It’s hard. There is very little public belief in government’s ability to successfully manage big issues, or to analyze them truthfully. For example, we’ve prepared an incredibly thorough cost-analysis, but we hear people say in public comment, “We don’t believe you, because government’s always wrong.” We’ve also done a very thorough analysis of what the project would mean to fish populations. But we hear from environmentalists, “You’re lying to us.”

It’s difficult to get the public on board when they don’t believe you. All we can do is continue to explain and restate the facts, and try to bring a significant majority of people along. Hopefully, we can get a degree of consensus that way—or at least the critical mass to move forward.

How did California’s four-year drought impact the governor’s ability to move this project along, if at all?

The drought put water at the forefront of people’s minds. Having people understand the importance of water, and the challenges of water supply, has been critical.

People also realized that this drought was different. We do go through drought cycles in California, but this one was so severe and so much more difficult to manage than any we’ve ever been through, that people started to wake up to our more challenging circumstances. The challenges we face—like climate change and a growing population—are just getting tougher, not easier.

That public awareness helped to move along a project like this one, which addresses some of the climate change threats that California faces.

Let’s turn to MWD’s role in managing the Colorado River, along with Arizona, Nevada, the Indian Nations, and Mexico. How does this collaboration play into MWD’s responsibilities and the fixes you look at?

In addition to the Sierras, the other major source of water for Southern California is the Colorado River. It accounts for 25 percent of our water—so when you add up the State Water Project and the Colorado River, you have more than half of Southern California’s water. But, like the State Water Project, the Colorado River has been under tremendous stress. In essence, it has been in a drought for 17 years and counting.

The good news is that we’ve had a high degree of cooperation among the basin states, particularly California, Arizona, and Nevada. We have reached many agreements on ways to share water—to spread the pain equally. We also reached a landmark agreement with Mexico five years ago, and we’ve just completed negotiations on a continuation of that agreement, which looks very heartening.

One exciting thing about the proposed agreement is that it includes a pulse flow, which would enable us to work with the environmental community in the Mexico cienega in addition to reinvesting in Mexican infrastructure. In this time of partisan worries, and tension regarding immigration and Mexico, it's good to see that we’re still able to work in such a constructive manner with a foreign nation.

 We are bringing this agreement to our board in September—the same month we are hoping to bring a vote on California Water Fix. There are a lot of moving parts in the water world right now, but there’s progress in all those parts. That’s very encouraging to see. 

We’ve been talking about supply management. Speak now to MWD’s agenda on the demand management side, and what you were able to accomplish over the last couple years during the drought.

This was not a typical drought. The way we managed the droughts in the 1970s and 1990s was that we purchased a lot of transfer water from other regions and supplied it to our farmers. That worked pretty well. But during this drought, there was virtually no water available for sale. And yet the public really wanted to engage and do something.

So, we redirected all of the money that we would normally spend to buy water—hundreds of millions of dollars—to conservation, and embarked on the largest turf replacement program the nation has ever seen. It was remarkably successful. People wanted to participate, and the money flew off the shelves.

The governor thought that, statewide, it would be a reasonable goal to remove 50 million square feet of turf. But in Southern California alone, we removed 170 million square feet. We also pushed our demand down: While a typical sales year for Metropolitan is between 1.7 and 2 million acre-feet of water, during the drought, we sold only about 1.4 million acre-feet a year.

The public’s response was tremendous, and incredibly heartening to see. It showed that we still have room to maneuver through these droughts. Even though we’re very efficient in Southern California, there’s room to do even more.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.