October 8, 2014 - From the October, 2014 issue

Jeff Kightlinger: MWD’s Three-Pronged Water Management Approach


Jeff Kightlinger
, General Manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, oversees the the nation’s largest water wholesaler in a period of severe drought. MIR presents an edited version of Kightlinger’s speech “Water is Serious Business,” given to Town Hall Los Angeles on September 22 and reprinted courtesy of Town Hall Los Angeles. He covers MWD’s responsibilities, as well as its strategy in light of the state’s high temperatures and lack of precipitation. Kightlinger touches on California’s water bond and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan—both issues of vital concern to customers and constituents.


Jeff Kightlinger

“Here in Southern California, we’ve done a good job managing our basins... The Central Valley and parts of Northern California were truly the Wild West. You pumped whatever you wanted and didn’t have to file a report. That’s changed.” —Jeff Kightlinger

Jeff Kightlinger: Metropolitan Water District is the wholesaler for all of Southern California: Ventura County, Los Angeles County, Orange County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, and San Diego County. That 5,200 square-mile service area is home to 19 million people. It’s less than one-twentieth of California’s landmass, but more than one in every two Californians is crammed in here. It’s also a significant amount of the state’s economy—Southern California represents over a trillion dollars out of around 1.7-1.8 trillion GDP statewide annually. That’s 60-some percent. 

The City of LA gets about 5 percent of its water from Owen’s Valley. We get 30 percent from Northern California through the State Water Project and another 25 percent from the Colorado River Aqueduct. Those sources total about 60 percent of Southern California’s water, coming from 250-400 miles away. The other 40 percent is “local water,” coming from the little bit of rainwater we capture in our groundwater basins and pump up through wells. 

The situation this year is pretty much unprecedented. We do prepare for periodic three-to-five-year drought cycles, so you haven’t seen a huge dislocation in Southern California. But I’ve never seen anything like this before. 

It has been an incredibly hot year—averaging 5-6 degrees-a-day hotter in Southern California. Normally when we break temperature records, we do it by two-tenths of a degree. 

The good news is that we’ve prepared for this. 

Metropolitan sells a little over 2-2.4 million acre/feet of water a year. We deliver about 2 billion gallons every single day. When we went into this drought two to three years ago, Metropolitan had about 3.5 million acre/feet of water in storage—a year and a half’s total supply. By the end of this year we expect about 1 million acre/feet in storage. We’ve gone through almost two-thirds of our storage in the last three years.

In Southern California, we grow by about 150,000-200,000 people a year, from the local birthrate. It’s one thing to live within our means, but it’s another thing to handle growth. 

California is projected to go from 38 million to 50 million somewhere after 2050. Southern California is likely to go from 19 million to 25 million—so we’re still going to be 50 percent of the state, even 20-35 years from now.

We used to go up to the Colorado River and Northern California. We used to think we were going to go to the Great Lakes, to the Mississippi, to the Columbia—but the days of building massive relocation infrastructure are pretty much done. 

Metropolitan has put together a long-term game plan, with three pieces. 

One is to make sure our existing sources of water—the Colorado River, Northern California, and local supplies—remain reliable.

Second is to develop new sources for all that incoming growth: conservation, recycling, reclamation, and desalination.

The third piece was to build storage. We’ve invested about $4-4.5 billion there. We’re also accommodating more people with less water, primarily through water efficiency. We’ve cut the water consumption that we need to make life work here roughly in half. 

We recycled virtually no water in 1990. Now Southern California recycles 10 percent of its water supply. That’s the most in the United States. We have over 70 plants that do a form of recycled water, groundwater cleanup, and brackish water desalination throughout Southern California. We’ve been funding all these, with our members, for the last 20 years. 

The good thing about a drought is that it actually gets people to care about water. The legislature responded by passing a water bond—which our board has voted to support. It totals about $7.5 billion for a lot of good water projects, including building new storage and reservoirs, as well as groundwater cleanup programs. There’s also a lot for groundwater management, and a number of other local projects—recycling and reclamation.

The legislature also passed a bill pushing groundwater regulation. California is heavily regulated on most everything. The one area we’ve completely left alone is groundwater. California was the only state left without a comprehensive groundwater regulation program in the entire country. That’s a historic artifact. Here in Southern California, we’ve done a good job managing our basins because we really had to, due to population. But the Central Valley and parts of Northern California were truly the Wild West. You pumped whatever you wanted and didn’t have to file a report. That’s changed. 

As I said, part of our game plan is to firm up our water supply. Metropolitan’s worked very aggressively on the Colorado River, which was hit by a drought that started in 2000. We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars—probably billions of dollars—working with the rest of the entities that get Colorado River water in California, but also the states with which we share the river—Arizona and Nevada. We trade water with Las Vegas, we banked water in Arizona, we have paid farmers in the Palo Verde Valley over by Blythe to fallow land, we paid farmers in the Imperial Valley, and we lined canals.

We also worked with Congress and got a 50-year extension of our hydroelectric power coming out of Hoover Dam, which moves our aqueduct. Congress authorized that through 2067. 

We have really buttoned up the Colorado River. We’re trying to do the same thing in our Northern California supply. The big weak link in moving water from north to south is the Bay Delta, an area of channels outside of Stockton that’s basically at sea level. We’re trying to move water north-south through these channels that really want to move east-west, pushing water out to the Golden Gate. It confuses the native fish—we have endangered species conflicts every day of the week running throughout that Bay Delta. It’s cost us a huge amount of our water supply.

We have come up with a very complex plan that’s going to restore about 100,000 acres of habitat and get us long-term endangered-species permits. It would build a couple tunnels that bypass the Delta and move drinking water completely underneath it, leaving the water for the endangered species in the Delta. 

Naturally, it’s pretty complex and controversial. The governor is committed to pushing this forward. The idea is that it will come up for a final decision in mid-2015.

It’s a real year of decision-making in water. We’ve had a water bond, we’ve had groundwater regulation, and we have this Bay Delta Conservation Plan coming up over the next 12 months.

Audience Question: California’s pretty heavily taxed already. Now we’re going to have a $7.5 billion bond measure. What is this going to cost the average person?

Jeff Kightlinger: This $7.5 billion is going to be a general obligation bond—paid for by existing taxes and paid back. 

Our forefathers were willing to tax themselves almost 20 percent per household to do the Colorado River Aqueduct in 1933 during the Great Depression. They taxed themselves to the tune of 17 to 18 percent of all of the value of the land here in Southern California to build these projects. If we built the Bay Delta project, then you threw on it the water bond, and you threw on it the $15 billion for tunnels, all of that works out to about 0.2 percent of this area’s assessed valuation. 

Audience Question: Of all the water supplies that you talked about, the one that’s not vulnerable to drought or environmental constraints is recycled water. Knowing the board and the public, how long do you think it’ll take before we can recycle the majority of the water that we produce here?

Jeff Kightlinger: As I said earlier, Southern California recycles about 10 percent of our water. That’s a pretty good start. 

It’s very expensive and energy intensive. People forget that the technology is a lot like ocean desalination. Then when you’re done, you still have a byproduct with a lot of salt that still has to go somewhere. Often the recycling is inland, so you have to build long brine lines to put the salt back in the ocean, which has its own environmental issues and its own infrastructure. 

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On top of that, it’s not a closed loop. You still need freshwater coming in. 

I expect us to go from 10 to 20 to 30 percent recycling over the next 25 years. It’ll take about a generation and it’s going to be expensive—second in cost only to ocean desalination. 

Audience Question: My question pertains to the Colorado River. Working with other states, what are the potential conflicts at that source if the drought continues?

Jeff Kightlinger: Colorado River water is a big mainstay for Southern California. 25 percent of our water supply, plus a lot of agriculture in the Imperial and the Palo Verde Valleys, and basically the southeast portion of our state are reliant on it. And it is stressed.

Lake PowellWe have major reservoirs on the Colorado River, including Lake Powell and Lake Mead. In 2000, we had 60 million acre/feet there. It’s now down into the 20s. That supply has shrunk every year. We are within a year or two of the first-ever declared shortage on the Colorado River. That will be a very scary moment. 

This is where the politics come in. Arizona takes the first shortage, then Nevada, and last, California—because we were the senior water user on the Colorado River. It’ll create quite a moment when Arizona gets their first shortage. 

We’re working very closely with Arizona and Nevada, trying to come up with cooperative programs. Events are moving faster, and we stand a pretty decent likelihood of getting to that first shortage in the 2016 time frame.

We expect Arizona to step up. We expect them to make investments, like we’ve done in California, which included hundreds of millions of dollars to our California ag users dependent on Colorado River water. 

We’re going to need to see Phoenix and Tucson do the exact same thing with Arizona agricultural folks. And then we’re going to have to work very carefully with them to lessen the impact. Obviously we can’t have parts of the Southwest drying up while other parts are still good. It’s going to be a very tough discussion.

Audience Question: What percentage of the water in the state and in your jurisdiction goes to agriculture versus the metropolitan area?

Jeff Kightlinger: About half the water in California is “developed water,” meaning it’s used for some human person. The other half goes out to the ocean and is used for environmental flows. 

Of that half for human purposes, about 80 percent is used for agriculture. About 20 percent goes to cities for municipal and industrial use. 

All in all, there’s a lot of controversy about how much water is coming through the Delta. Metropolitan’s big chunk of water from the State Water Project is four percent of all the water in the Delta watershed, to support the 19 million people here. The rest of it is used for either agricultural purposes or for the environment.

Audience Question: It’s stunning how much water goes to agriculture. We’ve had the same type of agriculture for a hundred years or more, and things have changed so much. Don’t we need to start growing less water-intensive crops?

Jeff Kightlinger: As an urban water provider, I have often fought for and said, “We deserve a bigger share of water supply.” 

But I’ve also grown a real appreciation for what agriculture’s done. In the mid-1980s, California had about 1.5 million to 2 million acres of cotton, which is very water intensive. We’re now down to about 150,000 acres of it. 

Those farmers have moved into pistachios, walnuts, and stone fruit—high-end, niche products that are now being exported around the world, which is a smart economic business model. 

But it’s had real challenges in water supply. Those crops need water every single year. It used to be that, in a drought, I could go to the cotton guys and say, “I’ll double your profit.” They’d say, “Fine, I’m not growing this year.” Move the water to Metropolitan, and problem solved. Now, those in pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and grapes can’t shut off their water supply. 

Those farmers have been pretty responsible and I’ve become a lot more supportive of agriculture’s efforts. But their shift has created new challenges, too. I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as saying, “We’re not going to grow these things in California.” In fact, we are the best place to grow a lot of these products.

Audience Question: According to surveys, how does the bond issue look in terms of passage?

Jeff Kightlinger: One of the polling numbers that’s terrific shows 90-some percent of Southern Californians believe the drought’s a serious problem. We’ve never had good numbers like that before. 

Polling for the bond looks pretty promising and encouraging. It’s in the mid-to-high 50s. I believe when the governor starts speaking out about it, people will respond.

Audience Question: You were saying about a third of the bond would go to storage in the Central Valley for ag. What role will Met play if the drought becomes more severe and we’re talking about competition of water for exported agriculture versus drinking water in urban areas?

Jeff Kightlinger: Metropolitan hasn’t yet set mandatory rationing/allocation as a region. We’ve left it to our cities. You’re going to see a serious discussion starting in January at our board of directors on whether we’re going to have to do rationing for 2015. If it doesn’t rain and snow again, you’re going to see those steps. 

Right now, we pursue water transfers from agricultural. We decided to sit out this year because there wasn’t any water at all for transfer. There wasn’t a competitive market, because currently there’s almost no water to be had at any price.

(Photo: Lake Powell, courtesy of Adam Kliczek)

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