September 19, 2013 - From the September, 2013 issue

MWD's Jeff Kightlinger Supports Bay Delta Conservation Plan Update

Last month, the California Department of Water Resources announced changes to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a series of projects backed by Governor Brown to increase ecosystem restoration efforts and water supply reliability in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley. In the following MIR interview, Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, details the recent adjustments to the BDCP. He also describes how the plan’s various environmental, infrastructure, and water-related projects will be funded, as well as his own agency’s efforts at conservation, efficiency, and consensus building across the Southern California Region. While aspects of the BDCP have been rethought, Kightlinger makes clear its necessity and statewide significance. 


Jeff Kightlinger

"By moving where we divert water in the South Delta to the North Delta we ensure that even with that sea level rise, with global warming pushing salt further inland, we’re going to have fresh, drinkable water available. So that’s an enormous, long-term benefit 50 years out." -Jeff Kightlinger

Jeff, last year Governor Brown proposed a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fix with elements of ecosystem restoration and new conveyance in the form of two tunnels under the Delta, all of which has been covered extensively by Verdexchange News and The Planning Report. Recently, there have been changes made to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and to the extent and scope of it. Please bring us up to date on these changes? 

Jeff Kightlinger: The changes primarily have focused less on the ecosystem side of the proposal and more on the water conveyance construction side. What they really are looking at, as they get further down the road on the engineering, is how they can optimize the conveyance facility to make it more efficient, more cost-effective, and generally more effective. Specific changes include better, more fish-friendly locations for the intakes that let the water in and take it from the Sacramento River. They’ve dramatically reduced the size of the forebay and shrunk the intake pump houses. The forebay went from 750 acres to just 40 acres and the pump houses went from 60 feet tall to 30 feet.

Originally they looked at a 750-acre forebay for the tunnels, but they have determined that a 40 acre forebay can provide enough head to move the water by gravity; this is a very significant reduction in size and impact in the Delta. The tunnels have eliminated a midway pumping station and will use gravity to flow south, saving energy, money, and reducing the carbon footprint of the project. They’ve also looked at a few smaller things. By moving the location east and further down, they will shave off five miles of tunneling. By changing the location slightly, they’ll also take out almost half of the actual structures in the Delta, homes, commercial buildings, storage facilities for agricultural operations, going down from about 150 structures to approximately 80 structures impacted. 

Finally, a big issue was where do the tunnel boring machines enter? As they drill underground and pull out the tunnel muck, where would they store that? And eventually where will it be used and disposed of? They’ve researched that, and instead of following the original plan to take out a number of vineyards and wine operations, they can use a publicly owned island, Staten Island, as a construction-staging site. Staten Island is below sea level, so much of the muck could be used there to help raise it up to sea level to better serve as a habitat at the completion of the operation. They’ve also looked at how they can use muck to strengthen levees throughout the Delta. Thus, they’ve focused on the beneficial aspects of the tunneling operation and how they can lessen the impacts and lower the cost. 

There were two comments made following the Department of Water Resource’s release of changes to the BDCP—one from California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, who said the changes prove that water managers have listened to the Delta area landowners, and another by Sacramento City Manager John Shirey, who said, “While we recognize that California has a water supply problem, the sense of habitat in the Delta must still be protected,” and that “the changes are only an important first step.” What’s your response to both Secretary Laird and City Manager Shirey’s suggested changes? 

I think they both recognize that these proposed changes are positive, and I think they’re both correct there. Secretary Laird, speaking on behalf of the entire State of California, is focusing on what is good for the 75 percent of California’s population and the more than 3 million acres of farmland that gets its water through the projects that move water across the Delta. 

Sacramento City Manager Shirey is appropriately focusing on local impacts and he also recognizes that these changes do lessen the impact to the Sacramento Region. But they obviously still have other local concerns, so I think his comments are a little more cautious. Any huge infrastructure project like this is going to have a number of local issues such as air quality, dust control, traffic, road improvements, electricity infrastructure, etc. So if you’re a local manager, you are going to be looking at those local impacts closely to make sure that the final project is achieved in a way that is least impactful to the community and also leaves behind lasting infrastructure improvements for the local community as well. 

BDCP’s economic impact analysis found that the net benefit to California residents was almost $5 billion statewide. Your reactions to that report are valued. What do you believe the compelling reason is to invest in these proposed Delta infrastructure improvements? 

I’ve always felt it’s rather obvious. If you can improve a water source that supplies water for three out of four Californians and about 60 percent of California’s agriculture, it’s probably a pretty sound project. Dr. David Sunding from the University of California, Berkeley did a large-scale economic analysis, at a statewide level, and the benefits are pretty overwhelming, as you would suspect. He found 175,000 new jobs would be created over the course of the project. There’s a huge economic kick-start from all that money being spent locally, almost all of it in Northern California. So there’s a local impact that’s very beneficial. But also about one million jobs would be saved that otherwise would be lost if the water supply was dislocated. So you take a $5-billion net benefit to the economy of California, but you forestall a major, disastrous hit if for some reason an earthquake of major storm took out the water supply. At a minimum, according to Dr. Sunding, you’re looking at $40 billion lost to California and a million jobs—and those were extremely conservative numbers. This is a huge insurance policy that also has major real net benefits. 

Dr. Sunding also did some analyses that looked at both the earthquake reliability issues and the insurance aspect of the overall project, besides just the overall jobs, and found that those were also very positive. So I thought those reports were important for policymakers to see.

Let’s turn now to the reports about adaptation to climate change and the threat of saltwater intrusion into the Delta. Could you elaborate on that? Is it a well-understood threat? 

It certainly is a well-understood threat within the water community. We have seen measurable rises in sea level at the Golden Gate Bridge since we began measuring, roughly 100 years ago. In that time we’ve seen the ocean rise by approximately one foot. Now the projections are anywhere from two to three feet to much more—five or six feet—of sea level rise over the next 50 to 100 years. So we’re looking over a long time span, but as the sea level continues to rise, it pushes salt further up the Delta. As we get more and more brackish in the Delta where we pull our drinking water, it erodes water quality, potentially to the point of it not being useable.

By moving where we divert water in the South Delta to the North Delta we ensure that even with that sea level rise, with global warming pushing salt further inland, we’re going to have fresh, drinkable water available. So that’s an enormous, long-term benefit 50 years out. 

One of the issues we see coming with climate change and rising sea levels is the potential for mega storms like Super Storm Sandy. Those storm and rain events also can dislocate the Delta, flood levees, and swamp the system. So moving the point of diversion up north into the fresher water protects against storm surges and earthquakes, and it also protects against climate change and rising sea level in the long-term. 

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Let me turn to the challenge of finding a balanced approach that allows a fragile consensus to form on any mega project like this Delta fix project. What is the balance of cost between ecosystem restoration and the infrastructure investments suggested by the BDCP? Who pays, and what’s the balance on investment? 

It is difficult to find a consensus, certainly within California, which I think of as the most diverse state in the most diverse country in the world. The balance they are looking to strike is that the water community would pay for the capital, operations, and maintenance of the conveyance facility. The capital needed for the new tunnels that the governor is looking at is about $14 billion, and that would all be borne by people on their water bills. So the water agencies would raise rates to cover that cost. 

There is another $4 to 5 billion projected for ecosystem restoration, a portion of that would be borne, again, by water users through water rates as direct mitigation for moving water. But the bulk of that ecosystem restoration is not impacted by water supply—most of it is on land. They are looking at bird populations, terrestrial species, and rebuilding marsh habitat. None of that has to do with water supply operations, so the water supply agencies can’t pay for that process. So that’s going to be borne by the state and federal governments as a larger public benefit, and that’s what they are debating now: how much of that would be appropriation from congress? Is there any money from the general fund of the State of California? Then that leads into a water bond discussion: is there a place for a water bond? 

Let’s start to conclude with your commenting on the state water bond that has been in the works for years now. What’s the status and expectation with respect to that bond? 

A water bond was adopted by the legislature in 2009 and placed on the ballot in 2010. At that time the economy was not doing well, so the legislature moved the vote on that to 2012. Then the economy still had not recovered sufficiently, and it was pushed to 2014. So currently we have a water bond on the ballot slated for November 2014. However, it was adopted five years ago, and I think there is considerable feeling in Sacramento that things have changed and we should revisit it. It was rather large, for one thing—$11 billion. Most people think that even though we’re seeing California’s economy beginning to improve, we should probably look at a smaller bond issuance. 

So the legislature is debating what changes to make to it; you have a couple of proposals out there. The Assembly has just put a group together that’s working on it, and they have working bond principles. Assemblymember Anthony Rendon is leading that group. There are a dozen or so assembly members throughout the state working on the bond principles and they have introduced an Assembly proposal. Senator Lois Wolk has introduced a bill that is a Senate version of a bond proposal. Most people seem to be focused on somewhere between $5 to $6 billion being an appropriate number. 

So I think we’re going to see the administration and the legislative leadership work on this issue in the last month of the session, and we’ll see how much progress they make before getting into next year.

Concerning the water-energy nexus and innovative management practices to maintain and invest in sustainable water infrastructure, can you talk about your agency’s efforts to rethink how they invest in infrastructure? 

As a critical part of our investments in water infrastructure, MWD looks at the entire lifecycle of the water we deliver. We look at how we can maximize every aspect of water usage, how we can be as efficient as possible in terms of conserving water, and also how we may deliver it as efficiently and effectively as possible. Our number one tool is always gravity. Once water hits Southern California, in the entire metropolitan service distribution area of over 1000 miles of pipeline, dozens of reservoirs, we only have one low spot in Orange County where we actually pump. We deliver water from Ventura to San Diego entirely by gravity throughout our system, so we always try to maximize that. 

But we also look at how we can more efficiently pump water to get to Southern California. How we can cut down on energy usage is always critical to us because water is heavy, it is also difficult to heat, and it takes a lot of energy to heat water. We partner with local utilities like Edison and Sempra to come up with more energy-efficient ways for consumers to heat water in their homes. 

Lastly, Jeff, as you well know, all politics is local. You have a Southern California Region-wide entity from the Tehachapis to San Diego. Talk about your board and the consensus you need to move forward effectively to deal with the challenges before you. 

While politics is local, and Southern California is a very diverse area, water in general has not been a partisan issue. My service area includes liberal areas like West LA and Santa Monica, all the way down to more conservative areas like Riverside County, and Orange County. But by and large our board has always been able to reach a remarkable degree of consensus on water-related issues. 

There are regional differences, of course. The San Diego area always feels nervous about water supply vis-à-vis their region by nature of being at the southern end of the pipe. Some of our areas are inland where it’s hotter, and they are more concerned about restrictions on water use because it’s harder for them to conserve water compared to the costal areas. Some areas are more aggressive about recycled water, others are more protective of their groundwater basins, but by and large, I’ve always been impressed that our board and agency have been able to find a pretty broad degree of consensus about the importance of protecting our water supply. 

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