February 26, 2012 - From the March, 2012 issue

California’s Water: A VerdeXchange Expert Panel on Reimagining the State’s Water Infrastructure

What is the condition of CA’s water delivery system? TPR excerpts a VX2012 panel moderated by Jack Baylis of the Shaw Group, which offers expert analysis and policy guidance.Jeff Kightlinger of the Metropolitan Water District gives the ‘good’, the ‘bad’, and the ‘ugly’ of dealing with CA’s water infrastructure. Phil Isenberg of the Delta Stewardship Council follows with an analysis of water consumption and the impact that CA’s water usage and policy will have on the state’s water sources. 

Jeff Kightlinger

People have been willing to invest in water as long as they understand what they receive for their investment. -Jeff Kightlinger

Jeff Kightlinger (General Manager, Metropolitan Water District): I was asked to talk about the state of California’s water from the perspective of the Metropolitan Water District, and it brought to mind the Clint Eastwood movie, “the Good the Bad and the Ugly,” so I’ll give you all three of those. 

The good news is that California has probably the most robust infrastructure of the world’s water delivery systems. We can take a drop of water from a thousand miles north, in lake Shasta on the Oregon border, and deliver that water to Chula Vista in San Diego. We can do that east and west and north and south through amazing construction projects built by our forefathers at the turn of the century. The City of San Francisco’s system, LA’s Owen’s Valley system, the East Bay’s McCollum system—most of these were built close to a hundred years ago. These are really amazing projects that can deliver water throughout the state and that have enabled this California lifestyle we have, along with the seventh to eighth largest economy in the world. 

On the bad news side of things, all this work that I talked about kind of ended around the 1960s and early 1970s. Back then, California was a state of 25 million people, more or less. We’re now around 38 million. We’ve added ten million people in the last few decades, and we continue to grow at around 350,000 people a year. We’re projected to go from 38 to 50 million people. 

We have not been reinvesting in most of our systems. There have been some investments in water, but most of it has been at the local level, like what you have seen in San Francisco. The City of San Francisco is adding five to six billion dollars of new investment that’s not going to add a drop of new water: it’s just going to make the system more reliable and last longer. I used to think of California as a young state in a mature country. More realistically we’re a mature state in an aging country. We have to go back and rebuild our existing systems, like what you’re seeing San Francisco doing, but at the same time we need to make things more reliable, accommodate growth, and keep our economy moving. That’s the tough news. 

The ‘ugly’ side means we really have to educate our consumers. It means that water rights have to go up and sewer rates have to go up. Why? We have to rebuild those systems that are now a hundred years old in many cases. In addition, we also have to accommodate people that are moving here. That’s a tough message in a state that is very diverse and in a state that’s always been against taxes. We are the home of Prop 13, much to our own detriment, so we have to go back and get the consumers to agree to change. 

What I consider good news on that side is a willingness to connect; you’ve seen what San Francisco is doing. They educated their populace, and they went out and voted for those increased rates, basically tripling their water rates. Southern California has doubled their water rates over the last decade. Why are consumers willing to do that? Well, we’ve had to add new reservoirs and we’ve added new pipelines to feed those reservoirs. People have been willing to invest in water as long as they understand what they receive for their investment. 

What’s the huge new challenge coming our way? We now have to fix the delta, a hub of California’s water. We’ve been talking about it for multiple generations. We proposed to build a bypass in the 1930s, and we looked again in the 1960s when we authorized the state water project. California did authorize building that bypass, but they put it off for financial reasons. In 1982 it went to the voters on the ballot, and it became known as the purple canal, becoming sort of a ‘third rail’ in California politics. 

The good news I see is a real willingness for the state to deal with water issues. You’ve heard Governor Brown talk about it. His administration says we’re going to build it; it’s going to be big, expensive, and controversial, and when we have the governor saying things like that it gives me hope that we’re probably ready to tackle some of these challenging issues. I think that 2012 is going to be the year when a lot of tough decisions are made to clear a path for 2013, when we can get back to work on these.   

Phil Isenberg (Chair, Delta Stewardship Council; Former CA State Assemblymember): Supply, demand, delta ecosystem, legal guarantee—that’s my shorthand summary of the mess we’re in and the opportunities we have to talk about them. 97 percent of water that comes into California comes from rain and snow. In this chart going back to 1895 we see that the supply is not dramatically increasing, and it is erratic. That’s the one thing you’ve got: an erratic water supply system. California, unfortunately, of all the states in America, has some of the more volatile water supply systems in the world, which is a challenge to water managers and boards of supervisors who run water districts. 

In a wet year we use 94.5 million acre-feet of water, in an average year we use 82.5 million acre-feet, and in a dry year 64.8 million acre-feet, including environmental water. Lesson: If people want more water, it either has to come from someone currently using it, something currently using it, or it has to come from system efficiencies internally. 


This chart from the Department of Water Resources Control Board shows the total, best that we know, estimate of water rights given some legal protections by some entity of government, and it doesn’t even include riparian water rights (along rivers and streams) and pre-1914 water rights. As best we know, we’ve got promises out there of 420 million acre-feet of water. It exceeds total supply. The water board calculated for the Delta watershed, which is the area that used to accumulate water from the sierra Nevada mountains, that the total water rights we know of exceed the average annual flow by eight times and exceed the highest recorded flow in history by three times. This is probably not a bad thing to know because we’ve got a minor success: the average water use trend in California and America is down for both businesses and industry. But overall, the growing state and growing economy are using more water, and that’s a problem that we need to fix. 

If you live along the coast, you’re a prudent abuser of water. If you’re like San Francisco, where if lawns are not illegal, they are uncommon, you’re even better than that. But if you’re like me, living Sacramento or Fresno, we tend to use more than a substantial amount. 

The Department of Water Resources made a guess of where the water of the future, for the next thirty years, might come from. The ranges of certainty are very broad. Looking at this list you see that ocean desalination is a fairly minor opportunity. It’s a minor source of water today for a host of reasons; it will grow—there are state policies saying it must—but it is still a minor opportunity. 

Another category is precipitation enhancement. I call that a combination of seeding the clouds and prayer—it’s kind of a quantity for whatever you can’t figure out. Another is Force Management, a new concept that if you manage the force in the Sierra Nevada more efficiently, you can get more useable water out of the system. Agricultural water use efficiency: agricultural specialists claim they are currently using all of the water they are getting efficiently and no efficiencies can be gained. But if there were efficiencies in water they could be using that themselves. Surface storage: the new dams that are supposed to be associated with all this activity show a range of savings. Really it’s conjunctive management, groundwater storage, recycling, and urban water efficiencies that in thirty years offer the opportunity for some efficiencies and savings. 

Although the public doesn’t pay a lot of attention to it, the issue is use. Reuse of the water you just used, reuse of that water once again: it is the current use-reuse that is obviously going to be the major feature in the future. 

Some complicating problems are groundwater basins: some areas have them and some areas don’t. In Southern California you’re largely regulated; in the rest of the state we don’t regulate anything—we can sue each other but we don’t regulate it. California is less regulatory on groundwater than Texas, believe it or not. But the real concern is Tulare basin, which is a giant aquifer that has been over drafted for almost a hundred years. In a state water project along a fourteen-mile stretch, the land simply subsided because of the draw down of the water. Some areas it has dropped twenty to thirty feet. You’re going to wind up spending a ton of money to level that out. This is a complication for water managers; this is a difficulty for water users. 

Concerning legal guarantees, the political world in California and the United States is based on the notion that people are entitled to a set number of things that can be quantified and measured, and there can be no exceptions. People thought that drought was an act of nature; we now know it as a mistake of government! All the water rights and contracts that you have today are subject to the constitution of the State of California, which says that all water use has to be for beneficial purposes, that the use has to be reasonable, and that there can be no waste. The political world talks about water with a notion that we can create a system dependent on relatively static supply levels and grant unlimited future uses. Someone is always saying, “We have a contract with Met that guarantees us this amount, and it doesn’t matter if they don’t get it—they have to deliver it.” Sorry, that isn’t what the contract says. That isn’t what Met’s contract says with the state of California. It isn’t what the law provides. 

We’re headed towards is a long, painful conversation with ourselves about how we intend to deal with a growing economy, a growing population, a growing respect for the environment, and a static supply of water. The way we’re going to do this is by accomplishing a bunch of things, including building new facilities. But it doesn’t mean that new facilities can automatically ignore the damage to the ecosystem. 

In 1970 on the first Earth Day in the United States, Walt Kelly, the cartoonist who did Pogo, donated a poster to start the event off. It’s Pogo standing there, and the message is very simple: “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.” All of our uses of water, our resistance to change, all of our statewide demands for legal guarantees, whether for water supply or for the environment: all of them mean we are all part of the problem and have to be part of the solution. 


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