March 6, 2014 - From the March, 2014 issue

MWD’s Kightlinger on Drought: Water in the Age of Uncertainty

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s General Manager Jeff Kightlingerprovided a comprehensive overview of the water wholesaler’s move to drive down demand and build water storage in the last three decades at Water in the Age of Uncertainty: A Southern California Response to Climate Change, hosted by the Council for Watershed Health and Climate Resolve. In covering the conference, held at The Autry on February 12, MIR selected Kightlinger’s comments for inclusion here. He identifies the sources of MWD’s water, then explains the impact of a drought in the early ’90s that caused water rationing and prompted MWD to change its approach to storing the resource—a shift that has greatly impacted Southern California’s water situation today. Below Kightlinger's remarks, MIR has included the executive summary of Safeguarding CA: Reducing Climate Risk, a draft report by the Natural Resources Agency.

Jeff Kightlinger

“The difference between 1977 and 1991 is that we added another 6 million people to Southern California. Suddenly, we couldn’t afford to lose one chunk of supply for three or four years and say, ‘That’s okay—we still have the Colorado; we still have the Eastern Sierras.’ It was a new world for Metropolitan.” -Jeff Kightlinger

Jeff Kighlinger: The Metropolitan Water District is the regional water wholesaler for Southern California. Our service area covers Ventura County in the North all the way down to the Mexican Border, and that 5,200 square mile area of Southern California actually houses one out of every two Californians—we provide water to 19 million people. On average, we’re providing a billion gallons of drinking water a day, and another billion gallons a day of non-drinking water to all of Southern California. 

A lot of water moves through our systems. Where do we get that water? The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power developed the first aqueduct, the first imported water from the Owens Valley, at the turn of the century. 30 years later, Metropolitan was created to bring in water from the Colorado River—roughly 250 miles to the east of Los Angeles. That water came online around 1940. 

Then, 30 years after that, Metropolitan worked with the State of California to team up and finance the State Water Project, to bring water from Northern California all the way down south through the Central Valley and into Southern California. 

That really was a form of drought proofing because we were getting water from as far away as Wyoming and upper Colorado, up in Oroville, up in the Northern California Western Sierras, and the Eastern Sierras. We also have our own groundwater basins and our own local rainfall. When you have such a tremendous span of geographic diversity, it  really is a  form of drought proofing and a form of diversity planning. 

In 1977, California went into a pretty tremendous drought. We’re threatening that record this year, but 1977 is still on record as the worst recorded single year that we’ve seen in California. Big chunks of California ran out of water completely. Metropolitan was able to give water to places like Marin County—farmers up north, back off those systems, take more from the Colorado River, because we had that geographic diversity. 

We probably got a little caught up in that, thinking we were pretty safe, until 1991. We then had to do pretty severe rationing in Southern California when another drought rolled through Northern California—a four year drought that was also pretty tough. We actually had to ration water for the first time. It wasn’t that we didn’t still have the geographic diversity—it was that we kept growing. The difference between 1977 and 1991 is that we added another 6 million people to Southern California. Suddenly, we couldn’t afford to lose one chunk of supply for three or four years and say, “That’s okay—we still have the Colorado; we still have the Eastern Sierras.” It was a new world for Metropolitan.

Meanwhile, we started thinking about how climate change was going to affect our sources if we only rely on just-in-time delivers from import and supply. It was a good wake up call. Our board of directors decided that we really have to change the way we think about our business. We can’t just go build a whole new system or go find a new river. We realized that’s not going to happen. (Although we still have those plans.) We took a real, hard look at that and we developed what we called Integrative Resources Planning. It was something that had been used in the power business, but you didn’t see it much in the water business back in the early ’90s. 

We decided we would do a couple of things. It’s really not rocket science, at the end of the day. It’s two things. We’re going to have to push down demand, because we can’t have all of our delivered water equaling demand year after year. Then you don’t have any flexibility. We had to drag down demand, and then we had to build storage. We know we get these dry cycles in California. We have to have a place to put water to rely on during those dry cycles. That was pretty much as simple as we kept it in the early ’90s when we embarked on that, and have been pretty successful.

In 1991, during that drought, we had 14 million people in Southern California. Metropolitan sold 2.5 million-acre feet. That’s an archaic way of measuring it, but that’s how we measured it. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons. We’d rather say 2 million of those units rather than 2 million times 326—6 billion gallons. So we go and stick with 2 million-acre feet. In that year, we sold 2.5 million-acre feet and there were 14 million people. This year, in pretty shockingly dry conditions where demand is pretty high in Southern California, because there has been no rain in the last year essentially, we’re going to sell 2 million acre feet, and we’re 19 million people. 

We’ve driven down demand by 20 percent over a 20-year period, primarily through pretty simple things. Conservation—low flow showerheads, low flush toilets. We’ve done some things in the backyards. We sponsored and did rebates to front-loading washing machines. When you do things and you spread it across 19 million people, it has an impact. We’ve driven down demand as a region by 20 percent, which is pretty remarkable. Meanwhile, we built storage. We didn’t have any storage in that last drought. We basically relied on just-in-time deliveries. We’ve invested about $3.5, $4 billion in reservoirs, groundwater systems, pumping systems, ways to move water in and out of all these storage facilities over the last 20 years. Now, Metropolitan can store almost 6 million-acre feet, up from 300,000. It’s a 20-fold increase in our storage capacity. Very few other places in the country, let alone the state, have done this. 

So, as we roll into this drought, we’re pretty well prepared for it. We are hurting; we are one state; we all have to do our part; and we have to conserve. But it’s a peculiar message, where people go, “Where’s the rationing coming in and at what level?” Met’s done a lot to get ready for it. We have a game plan. We’re prepared for it. But, we still have to do our part. We have to conserve and be careful with our resources. It’s been a little tricky on that. 

The last thing I would like to mention is what we updated our IRP. We try to keep it as a living document. We try to look 25 years ahead and then update it on a five-year cycle. When we take our crystal ball, we always look at what we think’s coming. 

This last go-around in 2010 we broke it down to three things: The old part about driving down demand and setting targets on how much conservation; how much recycling; and how much groundwater reclaimed. All those things we continue to do. We call that our basic core strategy. 

We added two new elements to it that I think are interesting. One, we said, “We want a buffer, and we want basically a 10 percent buffer of water supply.” We project demand stabilizing at around 1.8 million-acre feet. We want about 10 percent—another couple hundred thousand acre feet—extra, on top of it.

Why? Because we know there will be new environmental restrictions, new changes, new droughts, earthquakes. We figured a 10 percent buffer for known conditions—for things that can go wrong and that we’ve seen go wrong in the last 25 years. We’re going to fund a 10 percent buffer on top of it. 

Then we’re going to do one more thing: We’ve watched what other countries have done when they’ve been hit with these long mega-droughts, these Millennium Droughts, like you had in Australia. What you saw in Australia was a decade-long drought three times longer than anything they’d had and most severe in their recorded history. They reacted to it in many ways like we would—they put up conservation and they drove down demand. 

Eventually, after about six or seven years of it, they invested nearly $10 billion in ocean desalination. They built a half dozen of the largest plants in the world. That was up to about 2007. Today, 75 percent of that investment is mothballed, because it finally started to rain again. It is incredibly expensive and energy intensive to desalinate water. 

We’re trying to learn from that by not pushing toward one solution. We’re trying to diversify our solutions. The last piece of our IOP is what we call a Foundational Action Program, where we’re going to invest some money in doing the preliminary planning, the permits, the legal work for new cutting-edge strategies—so, new types of ocean desalination. We don’t want to invest in building it, but we do want to impress and get research. How can get more energy effective? How are we going to move to direct use of recycled water? What are the health and safety provisions we’re going to do to make sure people are comfortable with it. What are the permitting hurdles? We’re investigating and researching those things but not building the plants yet. We see that, because of climate change, we may end up having to go there. We’re trying to do that preliminary groundwork over the next five years, then reassess, then do an update in the next five years. 

Safeguarding California: Reducing Climate Risk
An update to the 2009 California Climate Adapatation Strategy 

California and the world’s climate are changing, posing an escalated threat to health, well-being, nature, and property. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, shifting snowpack, among other impacts will touch every part of peoples’ lives in the next century. Planning key actions now will help us lessen impacts and cope with changes. Many aspects of the environment face historic displacement. In government at every level, we must work together to safeguard our state. And ultimately, each and every one of us needs to take steps to reduce our own impacts and increase our resilience in the future. The Safeguarding California Plan provides policy guidance for state decision makers, and is part of continuing efforts to reduce impacts and prepare for climate risks. This plan, which updates the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy, highlights climate risks in nine sectors in California, discusses progress to date, and makes realistic sector-specific recommendations. 

California is a leader in the global effort to fight climate change. The state is pursuing a broad, integrated strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build the foundation for a new clean energy economy. While these efforts will reduce the magnitude and impact of climate change, they will not prevent it from occurring. Given the potential impacts and the long-term nature of effective planning, it is only prudent to begin preparing for these impacts. Actions needed to meet these challenges will not be cheap, but will cost far less than taking no action. Every step that we take today helps save valuable resources in the future. To that end, the plan details 11 current efforts already underway.  

Right now, more extreme fires, storms, and heat waves are costing lives and property damage. State of the art modeling shows that a single extreme winter storm in California could cost on the order of $725 billion – with total direct property losses of nearly $400 billion and devastating impacts to California’s people, economy and natural resources. The health and fiscal consequences are dire. Climate change poses a threat not just to lives and health, but the financial resources of governments and the insurance industry. 

More broadly – and likely more costly – are rising seas that threaten our coast, while disappearing snowpack in the Sierra Nevada presents new challenges for our state’s water management. In the near term, we must take practical, affordable steps to maintain our water, power, and transportation infrastructure, and plan for longer term actions as well.  

Below are the nine broad areas impacted by climate change, with realworld, realistic recommendations for actions that we can take today to ensure a better future. In addition, we have included seven strategies that cut across each one of these nine broad areas that can be realistically implemented to help safeguard California. 

Safeguarding our Everyday Lives from Climate Change: 

• A Changing Water Future: Develop an urban water use plan that reduces reliance on distant, unpredictable sources.

• Keeping the Lights On: Promote development of smart grids that are connected, but localized.

• Cooling California: Promote strategies to keep Californians cool and guard against longer, more frequent heat weaves, which are already responsible for a growing number of hospitalizations and deaths. 

• Do Better Today, Live Better Tomorrow: By reducing our carbon output today, we can lessen the extent of impacts in the future. 

Safeguarding our Natural World:


• Nature Moves with the Climate: As climate patterns shift, so will nature. Providing habitat connectivity and chances for adaptation will help allow species and habitats to survive. 

• Help Nature Protect Herself: Improve forest and other habitat resilience. 

Safeguarding California – What Science and Lawmakers Can Do: 

• Knowing the Real Impacts: Sound science will highlight risks, and help provide a path to solutions. 

• Help is on the Way: Assess adequacy of emergency responders. 

• Better Together: Collaborate with federal and local government. 

Seven Strategies to Safeguard California: Cross Sector Themes  

These nine areas touch every part of modern life for people and nature: 1) Agriculture, 2) Biodiversity and Habitat, 3) Emergency Management, 4) Energy, 5) Forestry, 6) Ocean and Coastal Ecosystems and Resources, 7) Public Health, 8) Transportation, and 9) Water. For these nine areas, common themes were identified during the development of the plan. This important identification resulted in identifying seven strategies that cut across all areas that can be acted upon. 

• All core functions of government must make the risks Californians face from a changing climate an integral part of their activities. 

• Provide risk reduction measures for California’s most vulnerable populations. 

• Identify significant and sustainable funding sources for investments that reduce climate risks, human loss, and disaster spending. 

• Support continued climate research and data tools to inform policy and risk reduction activities. 

• Maximize returns on investments by prioritizing projects that produce multiple benefits and promote sustainable stewardship of California’s resources. 

• Prioritize climate risk communication, education, and outreach efforts to build understanding among all Californians. 

• Promote collaborative and iterative processes for crafting and refining climate risk management strategies. 

Current Efforts to Prepare California for Climate Risk 

Climate change impacts communities and crosses political and jurisdictional boundaries. Cooperation and coordination is essential across a wide variety of factors including: government at all levels (state, federal, tribal, local and regional), businesses, insurers, investors, non-profit organizations, foundations, community groups, and individuals. Fortunately, we already have many examples of progress, including: 

• Creation of the Cal-Adapt tool allows visualization of local climate impacts in California 

• 2012 California Climate Adaptation Planning Guide is designed for local and regional governments 

• 2013 Climate Change Consortium for Specialty Crops sets out impacts and strategies for resilience 

• Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) is an effort underway to support programmatic development of large-scale renewable energy and the co-equal objective of conservation of the California desert; approximately 22.5 million acres of federal and non-federal California desert land are in the DRECP plan area. 

• The State Hazard Mitigation Plan has integrated climate risks since 2007 

• Energy efficiency standards have saved Californians more than $74 billion in reduced electricity bills since 1975, and have helped to foster greater energy reliability 

• Urban forestry investments reduce heat island effects and provide air and water benefits 

• 2013 State of California Sea-Level Rise Guidance Document is part of California’s response 

• 2013 Preparing California for Extreme Heat is another part of the response 

• 2013 Addressing Climate Change Adaptation in Regional Transportation Plans provides guidance for California’s Municipal Planning Organizations and Regional Transportation Planning Agencies 

• Construction of four coastal observatories in Eureka, Bodega Bay, Big Sur, and Santa Barbara will help improve flood watch and flood warning information for local emergency responders  

Reducing climate risks protect California’s people, economy, and natural resources. Investing in action now saves lives and provides long term cost savings; one study found that every dollar spent on a FEMA hazard mitigation grant produced, on average, four dollars of benefits. Implementation of this Safeguarding California Plan will help foster a vibrant and sustainable future for California.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.