September 5, 2012 - From the September, 2012 issue

MWD’s Jeff Kightlinger Endorses Governor’s Preferred Delta Fix

Jeff Kightlinger is the General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District for Southern California and has been critically involved with the development of a water strategy for California. TPR presents this interview with Kightlinger in which he explains the specifics of his role in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta project, the details of Gov. Brown’s preferred Delta plan, and the political obstacles and nuances involved with a major water project in the Delta. Southern California has taken steps towards water independence. It remains to be seen whether the Legislature can follow Kightlinger and the Governor’s calls for bold infrastructure investment across the state.

Jeff Kightlinger

“There is a recognition of the severity of the environmental condition of the Delta, a recognition that the status quo is no longer acceptable.” -Jeff Kightlinger

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fix has been a priority for years. Share with our readers what the Governor is proposing as the Preferred Project. 

Jeff Kightlinger: Governor Brown made a proposal, and the Obama administration has joined him in supporting his preferred project. On July 25, Secretary of the Interior Salazar and the Governor stood together, saying they have settled on a preferred project. It’s not a final project—we’re still in the middle of environmental review and will have a draft environmental document around October, with final environmental review documents by spring 2013. I expect this preferred project to change as more comments are incorporated, but we’re starting to see a clear outline of where it’s headed. 

And the key elements of the Governor’s preferred plan are? 

The elements of this preferred plan are twofold: ecosystem restoration and new conveyance, which in the Governor’s proposal, would be two large tunnels under the Delta. We’ve been talking about a Delta bypass for generations, and it’s always been known that the Delta is a weak link in the water system. This would be a Delta bypass, two large tunnels with intakes on the Sacramento River about 40 miles north of where water is exported from the Delta. 

Does Governor Jerry Brown’s focus on the Delta and California’s water infrastructure build on the legacy of his father’s success? You’ve had conversations with the Governor—what’s the state water reliability legacy that he would like to have in his name? 

I think Governor Brown is someone who is committed to California. He’s reached the point in his life where he wants to see something accomplished for the next generation. He looked back at what his father did, which was to expand our state highway system, our state university system, the state water project. All these things were put in place for the next two generations of Californians and allowed the state to go from a population of 10 million to 38 million people. 

Governor Brown sees providing a reliable water supply as a necessity so that our economy can grow. You hear him talk about high-speed rail, and he’s committed to transportation for the future. You have to have a water supply and you have to have transportation to have a reliable economy. We continue to grow, and that’s part of the legacy he wants to leave. 

Jerry Brown did attempt a Delta Fix in his first term as governor. He was successful with the Legislature but a ballot measure undid his plans. What’s different 30 years later, politically and with regard to the ecosystem of the Delta? 

Those two are linked. Right now you have a number of threatened or endangered Delta species that are going to freefall. The ecosystem is collapsing, and everyone recognizes that. In the meantime, we have done nothing but lose water supply over the last five to seven years because of this collapsing ecosystem. So you have something that’s clearly not working for the environment and clearly not working for water supply.  Everyone recognizes this time around that something needs to happen, otherwise we’re just going to have a destroyed Delta and a shaky water system. 

Thirty years ago that wasn’t accepted. People thought the status quo would work, and it wasn’t accepted that something had to be done. I think everyone agrees now that something has to be done, and that makes the political situation different. There is a wide range of views on what should be done. Some say we should move people out of Southern California, that we should switch to ocean desalination, that we should shut down the projects, and that we should shut down Central Valley farming. Then there are people with less extreme views—maybe we can just cut a little bit or build a smaller tunnel. Regardless of the various viewpoints, there is a reasonable consensus this time that we do need to do something. That is the biggest change since 1982. 

Why do you believe that 30 years after the first attempt, a Delta fix will be more politically attractive and the opposition less passionate?

There is a recognition of the severity of the environmental condition of the Delta, a recognition that the status quo is no longer acceptable. I think some good groundwork has been done by a lot of people. The Public Policy Institute of California produced some very thoughtful reports over the last five years advocating that something needs to be done. We need to do something to protect our economy as well as try to restore the ecosystem and water reliability. 

We’ve also seen people becoming alarmed over the consequences of doing nothing. Hurricane Katrina was a big wake up call for what happens when we ignore flooding and infrastructure issues. Everyone knew the threat a big storm held, and they didn’t act before Katrina. They talked about it, made plans, but didn’t act. Today, the Delta is threatened by tidal and storm activity. Most levees are very fragile; we’ve had, on average, one collapse a year without major events for the last 30 years. A significant earthquake could cause a complete collapse of that system, leaving significant parts of the state with no clean drinking water for up to 18 months.

I also think there has been a significant demographic change since 1982. As I understand it, most people say they can’t quite remember what the canal debate was. A huge number of people have moved to California who do not fall into this North-South debate over water. They come from different parts of the world, and they want economic opportunity from this area. I hope we have come a long way since 1982, although I know those issues and tensions are easily exacerbated. 

Some critics already assert that the ‘fix’ is too expensive and that it will never get built, to which you answer? 

I’m not going to tell anyone that $14 billion is not a lot of money. But you have to look at the grand scheme of things. Metropolitan built the Colorado River Aqueduct in the peak of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and it worked out to something like 17 percent of Southern California’s valuation being pledged to one project. This proposed Delta solution would cost less than one tenth of one percent of Southern California’s assessed valuation, yet it would benefit the whole state. It is dwarfed by the commitment we made to Governor Pat Brown’s State Water Project in the 1960s. We’ve done much bigger things than this.  

Help our readers identify the important stakeholders. Who must reach consensus for the Governor’s preferred plan to be realized. 

In one sense, everyone holds a stake in maintaining a reliable water supply for California. The State Water Project and the Central Valley Water Project together supply water for 25 million people in the state, roughly two thirds of California’s population. These water projects also provide water for more than 3 million acres of farmland. You pretty much have the Bay area all the way down to San Diego reliant on these water projects. It’s really hard to say who isn’t a stakeholder in all of this. 

The key players are, of course, the water agencies, both urban and agricultural. They are not monolithic. We have different views than our agricultural partners. You have a number of non-governmental organizations and environmental groups that are very concerned about the ecosystem in the Delta. You have the people within the Delta itself who are concerned about what changes this will cause. Interestingly enough, people north of the Delta, whose water goes into it, are concerned about what this might mean for them and their current way of life as well. 

Surely a consensus requires knowing the cost of the preferred plan, how it will be paid for, and by whom. What progress has been made to date in regards to such thorny issues? 

You have two major components: ecosystem restoration and new conveyance. There will be detailed costs of the new conveyance system coming out of the environmental review, but right now the preliminary costs are somewhere around $14 billion under the Governor’s proposals. That $14 billion for the capital investment is expected to be borne entirely by state and federal water contractors who would pay for it on a bucket-per-bucket basis. That really means the ratepayers—the farmers throughout the Central Valley and the homeowners and business owners in the Bay Area and Southern California. 

The other piece of this is the ecosystem restoration, which is seen as a broad public benefit. Some of that is mitigation and will be financed by those contractors, but most of it would be borne by the state and federal governments. They’ll have to determine how they can come up with the funding, which gets into the postponed water bond. Policy makers hoped that a chunk of that state contribution would come through the water bond, which was scheduled to be on the November ballot but has been postponed.  So the state is going to have to think about how it can come up with that funding over time. 

Stakeholders may be concerned that they will have to pay for something they don’t want and will have to give up something they treasure. Help us understand what consensus on scope and design of the plan might involve. 

Reaching consensus is very difficult in California. We live in the most diverse state in the most diverse country in the world. Why can’t we agree on these things? The answer is, we’re dealing with very disparate groups and interests. Environmental groups—many of them would prefer not to have as much water exported. Farmers would prefer that the fix be cheaper. At Metropolitan, we want reliability, and I think everyone is going to have to give a little. It’s a classic compromise. No one is going to walk away completely satisfied, but everyone will hopefully see that this is the best path forward. 

We will not get all the reliability that we want, and we accept that. If conditions worsen and it’s deemed that there is more water needed for fish, we may have to lose some of that water. The same thing holds true for environmental groups—they have to understand that restoring habitat is our best bet, and the only way that we’ll do that and maintain a sound economy is by building some sort of bypass and restoring habitat simultaneously. We’re going to have to trust that this is the best we can do at the time. The science is never going to be perfect.  We’re never going to have all the answers.  We don’t know what the world is going to look like 25 years from now. When you do this type of long-term planning, you have to operate with the best information that you have at that time. 

Your articulate answer begs an answer to how implementation of the Governor’s preferred plan will be managed. Are you able to share discussions to date on governance?

It’s expected that the Department of Water Resources will be the agency continuing to manage day-to-day operations at the end. We are bound by water rights, treaties, and, of course, the requirements of regulators. 

Who really manages projects like this? In our business it’s the resource agencies, by them telling us what we can and cannot do, that truly operate these facilities. We’re looking at a broad partnership between contractors and the state of California on how to finance and construct it. The eventual operation will be a science-based process that will decide what the actual day-to-day operations will be. That will dictate how much water is conveyed, and that’s going to result from contractors working closely with environmental groups and other stakeholders. 

With respect to footprint and the right-of-way issues—requiring the right-of-way for the investment in the two tunnels and where the water will be drawn from—elaborate on how those two issues are being addressed? 

One of the reasons I believe the Governor has been drawn recently to a tunnel is because you get significant help with the footprint of the project and with the right-of-way issues. It is more expensive than a canal that was discussed in 1982, but there have been great strides in tunneling technology in the last 20 years. That helps tremendously with the footprint and the right-of-way issues. The Governor is proposing to move it just south of Sacramento to Hood, off the Sacramento River. Two large tunnels about 150 feet below the surface would go straight under the Delta to the current pumping stations south of the Delta near the town of Tracy. 


Many of our readers are engineers, contractors, architects, and environmental professionals, and they will want to know who is doing the EIR and who will be offered an opportunity to deliver the project. Will competition be open, and how will the California economy benefit? 

Contractors working with the Department of Water Resources are managing the preparation of the environmental documents and the preliminary design work, and then all this will be done through public contracting code. 

This is expected to generate, in construction work for the facility, about 130,000 jobs over a decade of construction work. Another 40-45,000 jobs are expected to be generated for the environmental restoration work. That comes to about 175,000 new jobs and $14 billion of economic activity in the first decade, and then another $4-5 billion on the restoration. This, in many respects, is going to be a large economic driver. I think this too is one of the reasons why the Governor is interested. 

What’s the roll out timetable for how the Governor’s preferred plan? 

This fall the environmental documents will be completed and will be released for public review. I expect another big storm of interest and comments, both negative and positive. You’re then going to see a detailed review of those comments, which will take some time. The hope is to have something on the street in terms of a final document in the spring of 2013, teed up for a decision from the state government by early summer of 2013. 

And the proposed state water bond, how will the voters’ decision affect the plan’s timetable? 

The water bond has been moved to 2014. We shall see on that. The high-speed rail bond was moved two or three times. I get that it’s really hard to ask the voters to borrow money at the same time we’re saying we need to raise taxes and make cuts. There is logic to moving the bond, but at some point we’re going to have to deal with the issue of financing. 

Assess for our readers the politics in the Central Valley vis-a-vis the preferred plan? 

In 1982 there was an unusual coalition of farmers working directly with environmental groups to defeat the proposal, and most of the funding for the opposition came from agriculture. Their opposition wasn’t based on the fact that they didn’t want a reliable water supply. Instead, they thought they were bearing too much of the expense. 

In 1982 California had more than a million and a half acres of cotton in the Central Valley. Today those acres produce grapes, pistachios and almonds.  Famers have made enormous investments to diversify and go with the high-end crops. They have made significant investments in their land, and they now need a reliable water supply. They now understand that this is expensive, and they’ll have to pay for it. In many respects it’s either come up with the funding or go out of business. 

I also think that many environmental groups have seen that the status quo is not helping. The Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Bay Institute certainly don’t agree with everything that the Governor has proposed, but they have been part of this process and have been supportive in trying to find some sort of consensus and common ground. 

You said earlier in the interview that groups are going to have to give a little to reach consensus and they’ll have to have a bit of faith because this is a long term plan. Comment on the fact that the water bond has been postponed and that the ecosystem restoration is expected to be public funded. How much faith will those invested in the ecological restoration require?

Water is long-term. If we build this, it’s going to be the operating system for the next 75 years. We don’t have enough wisdom or foresight to know how things will work then. We know things are changing rapidly, and we have to have some faith that our elected officials and our water systems will be able to adapt to these changing circumstances. 

We know the water contractors will at least have to fund mitigation for the construction of it, which will get this process started and take it a reasonable way down the road. There has been significant federal funding going into the CALFED program for decades now—more than $60 million a year has been going into Delta programs. That money also can be used for this. 

This is a 50-year conservation plan. Four billion dollars for restoration $ is not a day-one cost—it’s spread over 50 years. We just have to assume that if this project goes through, the funding will continue from the state and federal governments. In reality, that’s how all habitat restoration projects develop: you don’t get a block of money for 50 years upfront to sequester it and live off the interest. You instead rely on continual appropriations from Congress or the Legislature, and those have always been forthcoming. 

We’ve conducted a series of interviews on the need for Southern California to rely less on imported water. Obviously Met has done a lot to encourage this, and other agencies have done the same. Talk about what we’re doing and what needs to be done to meet that goal. How does it fit with the campaign to win the Northern California interests in this consensus?

In 1982 we realized we weren’t going to get a canal and we weren’t going to be growing our state water supply. Today we import the same amount of water that we did in the early 90s. Over the last20 years, we’ve lived with the same amount of imported water, but our population has grown from 14 to 19 million people. All of that growth has been accommodated through conservation primarily, and recycling, recovering groundwater, and diversifying our local supplies. 

We’ve weathered droughts and shortages much better, as a result. We had a severe drought from 2006-2010. It was the second worst drought since the late 1970s. In the early 1990s, in the midst of a previous drought, Metropolitan’s board was ready to mandate 50 percent conservation cutbacks, which were dramatic reductions. The cutbacks were never implemented because we got bailed out by 1991’s March Miracle, a late-in-the-season winter storm late in 1991, but the consequences would have been severe. We went through a worse drought between 2006 and 2010, and was asked agencies to reduce water delivers by a precautionary 10 percent. We could do this because we built systems that are much more robust; we’ve added storage, and people use less water. That’s going to be our game plan for the next generation. 

We hope for a reliable backbone of imported supply from the State Water Project and the Colorado River.  However, all new growth, all new business, will have to be handled through expanded water-use efficiency, water recycling, and reclamation. We have the blueprint to do it through our updated Integrated Resources Plan. Our board revised the plan two years ago, and that is the plan for the next generation. We believe it’s fundable and doable. 

Your game plan implies ‘One Water’ infrastructure, does it not? Elaborate for our readers on what is meant today by ‘One Water’ and what reliance on it implies for 2020. 

It means that we are trying to live within our means, with the supplies that we have today. Five years ago, Metropolitan’s board adopted a Delta Policy Principle that still guides our activities. One of the principle statements was that we are not looking for more water from Northern California. We are just looking for reliability, and we will use other tools to handle our continued growth. 

California is expected to grow to 50 million people around 2030, and Southern California—Metropolitan’s service area—is expected to grow from 19 to 25 million people, still half the state. We need to have a reliable water supply for half the population of California. The “One Water” concept means sharing what we currently have. 

Given your comments on the plan as it’s evolving under the Governor’s leadership, of course the overhang for all politicians is whether they believe their constituencies believe their government can do big things anymore. With the rhetoric that surrounds us in 24/7 news reports, can the government still do big things? 

It can, but it is awfully hard. You’re seeing a governor now trying to do something big on transportation. He wants to do something big on water, and he’s asking the voters in the state of California to raise taxes voluntarily to help him do all these things. He’s saying he needs support from the public because otherwise we aren’t going to be able to do any of these things. It’s going to be a real test of faith. 

I am hopeful Californians will support this governor, but it is going to be a big test. A decade ago when I first started working on water issues with Metropolitan, we finished building a $2 billion reservoir that nearly doubled our surface water storage in Southern California. We built it on time. We also built a billion-dollar pipeline to connect that reservoir under budget, so we know we have the ability to do big things. I hope we still have the will to do big things. 

Lastly, what are Met and the other water agencies doing to educate the California electorate on the need, the plan, and the public sector’s capability to execute on that plan? 

One of the challenges that we’ve had is we’ve been trying to educate the public on the need, and while we have the concept of ecosystem and reliable conveyance, we haven’t had a specific proposal to bring to the public. As a result, it’s been a difficult conversation to have. We don’t know really know what it is yet, and therefore we don’t know any costs. 

We spent most of our efforts over the last few years on the need, explaining the threats to the Delta. Now, with a specific proposal on the table, we have really progressed in educating the public. We’ve been talking to our elected officials, to cities, and to other decision-making bodies on why this is important and why we need Southern California’s support on it.


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