February 14, 2019 - From the February, 2019 issue

MWD’s GM on California Water Infrastructure & Gov. Newsom’s Qualified Support for Delta WaterFix

Much of import for Metropolitan Water District’s transformative infrastructure projects and negotiations surrounding the Colorado River occurred in 2018. Likewise, 2019 has begun with the swearing in of Gloria Gray as the new Chairwoman of the Board of Directors, and continued growth of the Regional Recycled Water Program. In response to Governor Newsom’s State of the State address, General Manager Jeff Kightlinger remarked: “Metropolitan welcomes Gov. Newsom’s endorsement of modernizing California’s water conveyance system in the Delta. While a single tunnel project will not resolve all pumping problems in the Delta and is less flexible for dealing with climate change impacts, it is imperative that we move forward rapidly on a conveyance project. Having no Delta Fix imperils all of California. We intend to work constructively with the Newsom Administration on developing a refined California WaterFix project that addresses the needs of cities, farms and the environment.” TPR, weeks before the Governor’s State of the State this week, interviewed GM Kightlinger to contextualize the need for an updated, reliable water conveyance system for Southern California. The veteran water leader also elaborated on the importance of Los Angeles County’s passage of Measure W to fund needed stormwater capture projects.

Jeff Kightlinger

"We intend to work constructively with the Newsom Administration on developing a refined California WaterFix project that addresses the needs of cities, farms and the environment." - Jeff Kightlinger

As California moves from the Brown to the Newsom administration, let’s begin with an update from MWD on the status of the California WaterFix. 

Jeff Kightlinger: The WaterFix project has been one of the signature large infrastructure pieces of the Brown administration, and it has reached a lot of big milestones: the completion of all environmental documentation, permits from the regulatory fish agencies, the establishment of a design-construction authority, and the creation of a financing authority to issue funding to pay for the facility. Much has been accomplished, but other milestones we had hoped to reach by the end of 2018 are still pending.

Among those is a State Water Board proceeding for a permit for a change in point of diversion—basically, a relocation of the intakes from the south of the Delta to the north of the Delta at the top of the pipeline. That ruling was scheduled to be completed in December 2018; it now looks like it’s moving into 2019 and therefore into the Newsom administration.

We are also awaiting a proceeding before the Delta Stewardship Council to determine if the project is consistent with its overall Delta Plan. As of now, the Stewardship Council has decided that there’s not enough information to make a determination, and the Brown administration has reluctantly agreed to resubmit the documentation. This means that the consistency review will also have move into 2019 and the Newsom administration.

In his multi-volume history of this state, Kevin Starr characterized 20th century California as doing “big things.” Given the history of this conveyance project, is California still able to “do big things”?

Probably not. We don’t have the unity of purpose that we once did. We are a much more crowded and much more diverse state. We have challenges getting consensus over what to do.  That doesn’t mean we can’t do big things, but it’s a lot more complicated and difficult, and it requires a lot more strength of will.

To be fair, it wasn’t easy back then, either. The State Water Project—the building of the Oroville reservoir and the California Aqueduct to deliver water to the Central Valley and Southern California—was definitely controversial. Governor Pat Brown barnstormed the state, and still, when the vote passed in 1960, it passed by less than 1 percent of the vote.

Things are probably even more difficult today. We’ve added many more layers of regulatory review, and while much of it is for the good, it also makes everything that much slower and more complex. Look at the tunnels; we’ve spent $250 million just on environmental review before ever turning a shovel of dirt.

There’s a lot in this state that needs doing. We have huge issues to address in infrastructure, homelessness, water, power, schools, and more. But we need money to address all these things. When you’re spending a quarter-billion dollars just to decide whether or not to make a decision, it’s tough to sustain the resources to actually do the things we need to do. That’s where we are today, and I think that’s why it’s harder to “do big things” now than it was 50 years ago.

What do you anticipate from Governor Newsom on the question of the WaterFix?

The question is: Will the Newsom administration allow the current process to move forward?

The decision has already been made to start permitting the preferred version of the project, and we have already established the design vehicles and financing mechanisms to build and pay for it. It would take a deliberate action to stop and review those decisions. No doubt many people will advocate for the governor to pull out of the process and redo it, but we would say that’s a mistake.

Large projects like this, by their nature, have to continue from administration to administration. They can’t be designed, permitted, and built in eight years. The State Water Project started under Pat Brown, but when the project came online, it was Ronald Reagan dedicating them at the ceremonies. That’s the reality.

What this means is that if you’re going to put up the money in one administration, you need the trust and understanding that the next administration isn’t going to waste all that money by completely rethinking it. We need continuity of purpose between administrations on what’s good for California, and we’re trusting that we will see that in the transition from Brown to Newsom.

In December, the State Water Resources Control Board proposed a voluntary settlement agreement on flows and habitat restoration in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta River watershed—a decision that affects the allocation of water among agriculture, ecological, and urban water uses. Address the implications of that decision.

There are currently three separate proceedings going on that involve California’s Bay Delta, and they are easy to conflate. The first is what we just talked about: the regulatory approvals for the California WaterFix. At the end of the day, WaterFix is about improving our ability to convey water across and through the Bay Delta.

Secondly, the State Water Board is undertaking a regular review of its Water Quality Control Plan to determine how much water is needed in the Delta for outflow, salinity, water quality, and fishery issues. As part of that process, they will ultimately order what they consider to be the necessary flows in the various tributaries. But first, they encourage all the relevant parties to come up with a voluntary settlement proposal. And if the State Board finds that settlement sufficient, they will adopt it as their order.

Finally, there’s a third process happening in the Delta. Our two major projects there—the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project—are very closely coordinated and operate in conjunction to manage the flows and movements of the river. Right now, they are involved in negotiations to update their operating criteria, called the Coordinated Operations Agreement or COA, based on everything going on in the Delta right now: WaterFix, climate change, updates to the Water Quality Control Plan, and more.

All these things have been going on simultaneously, and they’ve been seeing a lot of activity and progress. Still, there remains work to be done.

Is it possible for the many interests in California’s economy to be brought together within the next year on a voluntary basis to achieve consensus on the allocation, distribution, and conveyance of water in the state—or will reaching consensus take another decade?

We hope that they can be brought together, and I think we’re pretty close. We may not get every single entity onboard, but if we can get critical mass—say, 80 percent of the watershed—I would think we’ve done well.

It is incredibly difficult to get so many parties and varied interests onboard, but they also know that a voluntary settlement is much preferable to the alternative: decades of litigation. If the State Board ends up having to issue a unilateral order, everyone will go to court and challenge it. And since we have several hundred water districts and multiple environmental groups, that will mean more than a decade of nonstop litigation—and not achieving much for fish and the environment in the meantime.

That’s the worst-case scenario, and most everyone wants to avoid it. So despite the varied interests, we’re close to an agreement. I remain optimistic that we will reach a broad, far-reaching settlement with most of the watershed in 2019.

Southern California has begun to prioritize stormwater management, especially with the passage of LA County’s parcel tax, which will generate $3 billion every decade. What is MWD’s interest and involvement in stormwater management?

Stormwater capture is not a silver bullet; it’s just part of the toolkit. We don’t see it as fundamentally changing our overall water supply, but it is going to help strengthen that supply incrementally.


We were very pleased to see Measure W pass. It’s always difficult when you need a two-thirds vote; that’s a pretty high margin, and Southern California voters stepped up. We’ve been working closely with the LA County Department of Public Works and the city of LA on an analysis of how much water Measure W could generate and the best projects to maximize that yield. These are good projects, and they will generate wet water in a world where we’re seeing less and less rainfall in Southern California.

Let’s pivot to the Colorado River, and the recent decision to approve the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan by the Upper Colorado River Commission. Share the significance of that agreement in the context of MWD's needs from the river in coming years.

The Colorado River accounts for about 25 percent of Southern California’s water supply. When Northern California went into severe drought in 2014, that share grew to more than 50 percent. This is a critical supply for us.

But Southern California shares the river with the entire southwestern United States, including the major metropoles of Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas, not to mention millions of acres of farmland and the country of Mexico. That adds up to 40 million people. Moreover, the Colorado River has been in nonstop drought since the year 2000—almost two decades. It’s now on the verge of its first ever shortage.

Over the past few years, the seven states that share the Colorado River have been involved in a negotiation on how we will handle the transition into shortage. We came up with a draft Drought Contingency Plan in which all states agree to forgo some of their Colorado River water in the event of a shortage, in order to ensure that we don’t reach critically low elevations in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Then came the task of negotiating who within each state would take the brunt of the cuts and how they would be compensated for doing so. It’s a thorny discussion, but within California, we’ve finally reached agreement on how to do it and we are getting approval by all the various state parties. Metropolitan will take on the majority of the burden, but will share it at some level with agricultural districts in Coachella Valley, Imperial Valley, and Palo Verde Valley.

As of this month, all seven states are authorizing this drought-sharing plan for the Colorado River. This is significant: It will probably buy us a decade without any severe water shortage crisis hitting the American southwest. But at the end of the day, we have a long-term issue. The Colorado River is still overallocated. We are using more water than is coming in. And climate change is driving down the amount of snow and rain the river receives. Over the next decade while the Drought Contingency Plan is in effect, we have to put in place long-term plans to manage the impacts of climate change on our water system.

Former Governor Brown termed the challenge you describe as “adapting to the new abnormal.” Elaborate on his framing of the challenge.

Climate change is impacting the American Southwest in a number of major ways.

It’s seven degrees warmer than average temperature. Each year is now successively hotter than the last: 2014 was the hottest year until 2015, which was the hottest year ever on record, and 2016 was hotter than that. Each year we’ve reached our highest temperatures ever recorded, and a number of things have happened as a result.

Evaporation levels on our reservoirs are higher. Our snowpack is melting earlier, and more of it evaporates before it reaches the reservoirs. Spring is starting several weeks earlier, meaning that plants bloom earlier and take even more water from the watershed. Climate change is taking away 10-20 percent of our manageable water supply, probably permanently, and we’re just going to have to manage with that much less.

Higher temperatures also mean a much longer fire season. Between the heat and drier ground and vegetation, we’re moving from a summer-to-fall fire season to a year-round fire season. That impacts our water supply as well as other resources in the state.

All these impacts are becoming the new normal, and we are going to have to plan around them. We have to start managing our resources, not agency-by-agency, but regionally. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to get through this new normal. I see our Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River as a proactive step in that direction.

Address the water challenges that agriculture faces in California.

Agriculture is very important to our state and to the world. California supplies somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables that we eat in the United States, and a similar portion of all the pistachios and almonds in the world. We are an incredible food source, not just to the U.S., but also to the whole world.

Agriculture is a critical segment of our economy. But its significance far outstrips even the great monetary value of the industry. There are only a few true Mediterranean climates that have the ability to grow the crops that we do here. The food supply and lifestyle our industry creates, if destroyed, would be irreplaceable.

The significant water supply impacts we’re seeing due to climate change will have long-term impacts on our agriculture. California recently passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires that agricultural districts in the Central Valley stop mining groundwater and balance their water use. That will require a significant amount of land to come out of production, and that will be painful. But much more land will come out of production if we don’t figure out how to move water into our groundwater basins.

The only way to successfully move water into our groundwater basins is with better conveyance. At the end of the day, that means the WaterFix. Yet the agricultural community is having difficulty stepping up to pay their share of the project, because it's expensive.

Part of the problem is that we have not, as a state or a nation, decided to cost-share or fund some of these measures for agriculture. Right now, every sector pays their own way, and we haven’t dealt with food supply or food security issues. But they’re struggling with that in the agricultural community.

The urban sector can spread its costs across a much greater number of people, and so it’s easier for urban areas like Silicon Valley and Southern California to pay their share. San Francisco was able to step up and fund their Delta Bypass System to the tune of billions of dollars on a pretty small ratepayer base.

It is going to be a challenge for the Newsom administration to protect our agricultural sector and find ways to manage these costs.

Lastly, in urban Southern California, MWD is increasing its rebates for high-efficiency toilets in qualifying apartments, with the goal of replacing 10,000 toilets and significantly increasing water conservation in disadvantaged communities. Address the value of that program. 

Southern California has made tremendous strides in conservation, and most of that has been at the level of the single-family home. We have done a tremendous job retrofitting pretty much all the single-family housing stock in Southern California—both their insides, with toilets, showerheads, and frontloading washing machines, as well as their outsides, with lawn rebates. That has lowered demand and increased efficiency tremendously for decades.

But that was the low-hanging fruit. There’s still one segment of the urban sector that has been stubbornly difficult to penetrate, and that’s low-income housing. These are people who are living in multifamily units and often not paying their own water bills. Their landlords have not seen fit to reinvest in the property, and they have very little incentive to do so as tenants. To go after this last little piece of housing stock, we launched a pilot providing very targeted rebates that make it almost free for landlords to retrofit their buildings. If it’s successful, we’ll put a lot more money into it.


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