June 15, 2021 - From the June, 2021 issue

Outgoing MWD GM Jeffrey Kightlinger on 15 Years Of Regional Water Leadership

With the June 8 certification of Adel Hagekhalil as the Metropolitan Water District's new General Manager, TPR finds it timely to share this exit interview with outgoing GM Jeffrey Kightlinger, who since 2006 has led the regional agency's work to provide a reliable supply of high-quality water to 19 million people in Southern California. Given Governor Newsom's May declaration of a drought emergency in 41 California counties, Kightlinger reflects on his 15-year consensus-building tenure leading the region's efforts to secure and enhance local water supplies and invest in climate-resilient water infrastructure. 


Jeff Kightlinger

“The challenge [of climate resilience] is acknowledged, but we haven't yet figured out how, when, what, and who's going to pay for it. That's where we need some real leadership and long-term thinking."

“We're going to have to start building [water infrastructure] to get ready for climate change, but, so far, we've only focused on electric cars and making sure we're not adding more carbon gas to make the situation worse.”

Met’s mission is to provide adequate and reliable supply of high-quality water to meet present and future needs in an environmentally and economically responsible way. Has that mission evolved over the 15 years, whether literally or in meaning?

I think in meaning, yes; we added ‘environmentally responsible’ in the 1990s, but I think it's evolved in the way that we've had to in order to fulfill our mission. We no longer have the same reliable access to water we used to have due to climate change. Water supply has become much flashier, and we've gone through three of the worst years ever in recorded history in California in the last 15, and seven of them are among the worst snowpack levels ever recorded. So, clearly, you're seeing an evolution and a change in California's climate. The same has happened on the Colorado River.  And yet, we've been able to meet all demands efficiently and effectively over this challenging period. It really has been about how we've effectively managed demands, efficiently used our infrastructure and how we've changed our planning to deal with climate change in a more volatile world.

One in every two Californians live in Southern California in our six-county service area, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.   There are 19 million people in Southern California in our service area which is one in every 16 Americans.

Jeff, having served as the General Manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California since 2006, you’re the longest serving GM in the regional agency's history. Given that water politics in the West can be virulent, how have you been able to do that?

That's a good question. I think part of it is that I got the job younger than anybody ever had before, but it's also been a really challenging period of time, too, in terms of water history. We went through some pretty tremendous droughts; three different governors declared drought emergencies during that 15-year period. It's been tough, but the way I see it is we've got a good, solid board of directors and the institution is strong, so we've been able to reliably provide water throughout this two decades of drought. So, we’ve been fulfilling our mission and getting our job done.

Elaborate on the political challenge of reaching MWD board consensus on how best to serve those 19 million people in Southern California.

Historically, water was not partisan, and we have been able to find consensus at the Board level, which is one of the reasons why I think Metropolitan has been able to succeed. We are home to some pretty conservative parts in our district in Riverside, San Bernardino, and parts of San Diego and some extremely liberal parts like Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and yet we've usually been able to forge consensus.

It's become harder just like everything else in this nation that has become harder in terms of partisan divisions. We've fallen prone to some of that as well, between people who say all our money should be on recycling and conservation and other people saying we need to shore up our imported supplies because that was our historic mission. We've had that debate more and more strenuously at the Board level, but the good news is we still usually are able to find common ground.

With your 38-member board representing each of the district’s 26 member agencies, how successful have you been in engaging the board on regional or statewide issues?

Governance is an interesting issue at Metropolitan. Every member agency at Metropolitan gets to appoint at least one representative that serves at the pleasure of their appointing agency. They're not directly elected to Metropolitan, although many of them are elected to their home agency. For instance, some of them are elected City Councilmembers selected by their council to serve at Metropolitan.

So, part of the mission is educating the Board members about the history of development of Southern California back to the depression when we built the Hoover Dam in the 1930’s and the importance of Colorado River water, the Rockies and Northern California, and Governor Pat Brown’s efforts to build the massive water infrastructure in the 1960’s. Educating the Board on California’s water history and identifying the legacy that we need to safeguard for the next generation at Metropolitan is one of the key jobs of a General Manager; to instill in the agency and our Directors that sense of duty we have to serve the next generation.

Remind readers where Met secures most its water resources and the challenges facing existing conveyance systems.

The two major sources of water for Southern California are the Colorado River watershed, which goes back to the Rocky Mountains, and the Northern Sierras watershed supply delivered through the State Water Project. Those are the two backbone supplies for Southern California. We then supplement those supplies by funding recycled and reclaimed water, and water conservation throughout Southern California to help those resources go further.

A couple of major challenges are that the Colorado River has been in a 20-year drought, and we've really had to invest to ensure the reliability of our Colorado River supplies in terms of conservation programs with farmers. These are partnerships that we never had to do before because there used to be plenty of water on the River. In Northern California, our supply has become much more volatile because we're less able to count on our snowpack due to climate change. We're still getting precipitation, but because of climate change and higher temperatures so much of it is now rain instead of snow. So, we are looking to build more robust infrastructure because you only have weeks to move water instead of months. That reinvestment in our state’s water infrastructure is something we're trying to work with the Governor’s administration.

Elaborate on MWD’s role in local water supply; what MWD’s currently investing in; and, what the future portends relating to reliable water resources?

Historically, Metropolitan has focused on big projects related to imported water supplies, and we tried to support and help our member agencies—the local cities—develop their local supplies, but we stayed out of that business. We just provided financial aid and we helped provide tools, but it was up to them to develop, build, and operate local projects. That model has worked pretty well for the last 25 years, but we're starting to come to some of the limits of that approach because what we did over the last 25 years is pick the low hanging fruit, the easier projects. What's left are the bigger, complex projects that maybe require a little more horsepower than some of our local cities can provide.

Consequently, Metropolitan is exploring if we should expand our role. We are in the process of an environmental review of a large-scale partnership with the LA County Sanitation Districts that would develop a multi-billion dollar water recycling facility locally here in Southern California’s backyard and then share that water across our jurisdiction. Metropolitan has the horsepower and the financing ability to do a project of this magnitude in conjunction with the LA County Sanitation Districts. Is that the new role that Metropolitan should play developing these new expensive, complex local supplies? I think that's a good role; one that Metropolitan can and should do. But this is something that needs a lot of careful thought with our Board to make sure we get the policy and the finances right.

Address the leadership role MWD has exercised with respect to watershed stewardship, stormwater, water conservation, drought-resistant landscaping, etc.

When we were looking at the challenges in ensuring reliability in a climate change world, part of it was infrastructure related. We needed the ability to move water rapidly around our service area and we needed a more robust delivery and storage system. But if we're drinking all the water as fast as we can get it to Southern California, we can't store enough water to get us through dry years. So, our strategy shifted in the late ‘90s to be able to take advantage of wet years. We know we get these big wet years in California, these flood years, store that water and then live off that stored water in the dry years for the long drought years. And part of the way to free up water for storage was to reduce demand.

 If we're drinking the water as fast as we can get it here, then there's nothing to store for the dry years. What we managed to do was remarkable. In 1990, Metropolitan sold 2.5 million-acre feet to serve 14 million people. Today, for 19 million people, 30 percent more people over the last 30 years, we're going to sell 30 percent less water—1.65 million-acre feet. We're selling a lot less water to serve many more people, and that was accomplished through increasing water efficiency. Metropolitan has funded hundreds of millions of dollars in water-efficient toilets, showers, washing machines, clothes washers, and then in 2015 we broke the bank and spent $350 million on ripping out lawns. That's the kind of stuff, the big stuff, that Met’s done.  Now we have the head room to store a lot of water in wet years and get us through the dry years.

Going into this year, this drought year in California, Metropolitan has more water in its reserves than at any other time in its history. This is pretty remarkable because we're coming off a decade of almost nonstop drought. We can store water in most years now, except for extreme drought years, because we've been able to reduce our demands to a much more manageable level.  Those investments in conservation actually result in more water in the bank that we can use in the dry years, like this one.

On that point, Governor Newsom last month notably declared a drought emergency in 41 California counties. Comment on how aligned Met’s approach to drought resiliency is to the Governor's most recent declaration.

One of the real challenges with the public is that it's tricky messaging for the Governor and it's tricky for us as well. Currently, Metropolitan has more water in its reserves than ever in its history. So, some regions of the state are really well-prepared and other regions are going to be struggling, which is a dichotomy that's going to be very tricky for the Governor to navigate. With some portions of the state in an emergency and others seemingly fine, that can create a sense of unfairness. We're obviously going to be supportive of the Governor and work with the administration on the steps they're going to take to deal with the impacts that are going to primarily be felt this year in the Central Valley.

Pivoting back to MWD’s infrastructure agenda, Met’s been building reservoirs and connecting supplies for decades, as you noted in past interviews. What accomplishments regarding the latter are you most proud of in your tenure?

I'm incredibly proud of the high level of infrastructure, development, and maintenance that we've managed. America has been crumbling for the past few decades, and kudos to President Biden for saying we've got to start reinvesting in our infrastructure; we've seen bridges, roads, and everything start to fall apart.

At Metropolitan, through my entire tenure we have invested heavily every year in maintaining and upgrading our delivery system, and it's really paid off. In the past, we really relied on having both base supplies— the Colorado River and State Project Water—working together to meet demands. But three times during my tenure we almost entirely had to switch off of one of these supplies. In the 2014-2015 season, the State Project went down to almost nothing, and we had to deliver almost exclusively Colorado River water throughout our entire service area. And then in 2018, the State Project went up to almost double its normal capacity because California had its wettest year ever in recorded history. So, we backed off our Colorado River supply and delivered less Colorado River to Southern California than we had in 75 years.

And then this year, again, the state is dry up north, and we're primarily delivering Colorado River water again. When I first became GM, we physically just could not do that. Our plumbing wasn't capable of that and our treatment plants couldn't handle those dramatic swings in water quality. We physically could not move water north/south through our entire system—now we can; and it's that resilience that we have built into the system that is an extremely valuable tool in dealing with the volatility of climate change.

Turning to the San Francisco Bay Delta and improving the reliability of water supply for MWD communities; give our readers a synopsis of the status of this endeavor.

People forget that two-thirds of California gets its water through the Bay Delta hub. It really is the switch yard for California water. The two major rivers in California—the San Joaquin and Sacramento—meet there and collect all the water from the southern and northern Sierras and push it out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge. The Sierra’s supply the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast/Santa Barbara area, Silicon Valley, and we get a portion of our supply from it as well. It's critical not just to Metropolitan, but to all of California and our farming economy, Silicon Valley, and all of our economy. And with climate change, it's imperiled.

The good news is that all of the modeling shows California is not drying up from climate change; we're still getting precipitation. The bad news is, it's falling as rain, not snow, which makes it much flashier and harder to manage and control. We're going to have to build infrastructure to deal with it just like we're going to have to put sea walls in the Bay Area or deal with eroding cliff lines between LA and San Diego.

 We're going to have to capture rainwater and move it into reservoirs in days, not months like we could with snow melt, which means bigger pipes that sit empty for long stretches and bigger, stronger, higher dams and reservoirs. We're going to have to start building those things to adapt to climate change. So far, our focus as a state has been on mitigation - on electric cars and making sure we're not adding more carbon to make the situation worse. That's a good, noble effort, but we also have to prepare for the impacts, and we’ve got to start with serious backbone infrastructure investment in seawalls, in our coastline, and in how we move and store our water supply. The challenge is acknowledged, but we haven't yet figured out how, when, what, and who's going to pay for it. That's where we need some real leadership and long-term thinking.

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You've invested during your tenure a great deal of political capital to improving the reliability of water deliveries from the Bay Delta to Southern California.  What have you learned from that experience?

There's been some lessons learned, no doubt about it, and we haven't gotten it over the top yet, so that just shows you how hard it is. In my mind it is the single hardest issue in California. When Governor Pat Brown pushed the building of the state water project, he barnstormed the state, and the Burns Porter-Cologne Act passed by less than 1 percent on a statewide vote. Jerry Brown tried to get the peripheral canal through and failed.

Governor after governor has tried to tackle this problem, and we just have a very deep north-south divide on this issue. It really takes a governor to use a lot of their political capital to do it. I don't have that kind of political capital. At the end of the day, to really sway the California electorate, it really takes the Governor weighing in. The General Manager of Metropolitan just doesn't have that reach or voice.

You mentioned that this was the third governor that you've been working with as GM. For collaborative purposes, what differences does it make which Governor presides in California?

I started as GM under Governor Schwarzenegger and then worked with Governor Brown on various projects, and now I'm working with Governor Newsom. It's important to know what their priorities are.

One of the projects that has eluded us in California is getting some sort of bypass across the California Bay Delta for state water project supplies. Governors have looked at it back to the old peripheral canal days, and I think people have come to think of it as a third rail of politics. But all three recent governors have embraced tackling this problem. I was on Governor Schwarzenegger’s Blue Ribbon panel that came up with a solution to look at a tunnel. Jerry Brown picked up the mantle he inherited from Governor Schwarzenegger to try and push it across the finish line. And Governor Newsom, even though he thought Jerry Brown's vision was too big with two tunnels, he is willing to do one and agrees that something has to be done. So, we've seen three governors endorse an approach to building something in the Delta, and I think that signals how we've turned a corner as a state.  I believe we're going to get it done once we reach some consensus on what we're going to get done.  I believe it’s no longer “if” we are going to build something, it’s “what” and “when”.

Let’s segue to MWD’s leadership on managing the Colorado River Compact—noting that people in Northern California and the states of Colorado, Arizona, Nevada etc., all think it's actually their water—not California’s. 

One of the more fascinating things I've been involved in in my career is managing Colorado River issues, which are so complex. Part of the history is that Arizona and California went to war with each other in the ‘60s—to the Supreme Court and then California’s Congress Delegation, pushed through legislation that made Arizona’s Central Arizona Project junior to California’s rights. In the ‘90s, we had the same contentious relationship with Nevada with blown up deals. So, historically the states have really battled with each other, and it has been a very difficult and contentious relationship. 

 Then, we started going into drought in 2000, and it took a lot to rebuild trust. I don't know how many plane trips I took to Arizona and Nevada to meet with my counterparts there and establish a relationship. We started making some easy deals at first and then more and more complex deals. We have put together about six additions to the Law of the River that we've made over the last 20 years. We've not gone to court in the last two decades, and I've never seen a more robust working relationship among the states than we have now. To the point where just this last December, we signed an MOU to work with Nevada to develop recycled water in Los Angeles, which we would then use to back up Colorado River water to Nevada. That kind of far reaching networking of the cities of Las Vegas and Los Angeles working together, on regional resilience, is unprecedented. And, to my mind, it really bodes well for the future.

Expand on your engagement on the Colorado River Water Use 4.4 Plan?

I worked with a couple other folks at Metropolitan as the team lead for developing California’s 4.4 Plan. Historically, California, which had developed earlier than the other Colorado states, used a lot more water and Metropolitan was the major beneficiary of that because Arizona and Nevada being hot desert climates weren't that inhabitable until the advent of air conditioning. So, their populations were low and we were able to take their unused water. They resented it, they didn't like it, but they couldn't do much about it. But starting around the 1990s those states began to grow and grow dramatically. And we knew we were on limited time to continue to use all the water we wanted, and that all came to a head in 2000.  California then had to go on a diet and reduce its taking of other states’ water. And it was a bitter contentious battle within California as to who would take the various cuts, and with the other states and the Secretary of the Interior, had to force California to make the tough decisions. 

It took almost eight years of negotiations, but we ended up with Metropolitan taking the majority of the hit. But as part of the deal, we added a lot of flexibility into the operating rules to enable Metropolitan to do transfers, to pay Imperial Irrigation District (IID), to pay Palo Verde, to pay others for water that we could then transfer. The other states agreed to let us bank water in Lake Mead and use that water when we need it. Arizona, who had fought banking for decades, agreed that would be a trade-off that they could live with. So, it took eight years of negotiation and a lot of complex work. It was fun and exciting being a lead in that, but it was only fun and exciting because we had success and got it done.

Let's move to the history of Pipeline 6, and how you have worked to bring renegade San Diego back into the fold, if you have.

San Diego is in the fold in many respects, and they're out of the fold in others. I would say San Diego very much appreciates the resilience and strength of Met’s infrastructure. San Diego has always supported my efforts to continue to expand the infrastructure, to continue to maintain it. They've purchased water from the Imperial Valley, and the only way they can get it is through Metropolitan’s infrastructure so they have supported those maintenance efforts. They don't like paying for it as much and they've sued us repeatedly on our rate structure, and what they think is their fair share.  So we've battled with them on how to pay for it, but we've worked with them on the necessity to build and maintain our system. Regarding the various pipelines that connect San Diego to Northern California and to the Colorado River, we've been able to work with them so that we can continue to have reliable water deliveries to the San Diego region.

 I understand some of San Diego’s angst regarding Metropolitan in the sense that, if you look at Southern California and the San Fernando, the San Gabriel Valley, the Orange County areas, they all have very strong groundwater supplies. These local supplies allow these areas in the event of an earthquake or drought up north to pump more groundwater and switch to other supply. The San Diego region, because of its topography and terrain, has almost zero groundwater, and it's the driest part of Southern California with very little rainfall. So their local supplies in a good case scenario only make up about 10% of their water. The other 85-90% of it has to be imported, which always leaves them with a deep sense of vulnerability. Consequently, they wanted to build up more independence to lessen that vulnerability. And in some of their minds, they interpret independence as meaning other supplies not delivered or bought through Metropolitan.

How does San Diego’s interest in finding other water supplies mesh with your Colorado compact concerns and the Colorado River distribution?

Some of San Diego’s local supplies are highly complementary of Metropolitan’s mission, like building supplemental seawater desalination. It’s extremely expensive on the one hand, but very complementary in the sense that it's not reliant on Colorado River or Northern California hydrology. They also have purchased water from Imperial Valley, which has to be delivered by Metropolitan and that is more complicated. This transfer ties up part of Metropolitan’s infrastructure for just one member agency. We have to figure out how to do that in a fashion that works for everybody, not just for one agency. Then of course, we have to work with Arizona and Nevada to make the arrangements to have that water move through the legal system. So, it creates a much more complex scenario that’s further complicated by their various lawsuits over rates and other issues. None of that is terribly conducive to finding a good recipe for everyone to work together.

You’ve noted the history of servicing the water needs of Southern California, but benchmark that progress against what Australia and Israel and other countries are doing to address drought and climate change to inform our readers of the art of the possible.

One thing that's pretty fascinating is if you look at recent climate change impacts, the really vulnerable areas are the temperate climates. We have basically five Mediterranean climates in the world—the Mediterranean, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and of course, California. Those regions basically grow all the world's vegetables, grapes, high-end produce, nuts, and all the stuff that people need and like to eat are grown in those five areas. And they've all gone through extreme drought because of climate change. The good news is, we've been watching and learning from each other. 

Australia had to heavily invest in ocean desalination and change the look and feel of its cities to deal with climate change. Israel has completely embraced ocean desalination and recycling its water to the point where they're now recycling over 70 percent of their water. Almost their entire municipal supply now comes from ocean desalination. Those programs are really expensive, but they were necessary in those climates because they’ve all gone through that kind of climate change impact. We're seeing it in Southern California as well. 

The good news is we've had a long track record of getting ready for it, so we didn't have to bite the bullet all at once like Australia had to. We've been able to spread it out and invest and prepare for this over the last 25 years. The drought that hit us between 2010-13 and 2014-17 was as severe as any drought that we've seen in Cape Town or Australia or anywhere in the world. We kind of rolled right through it because we've been preparing for this for 25 years and we were ready. But it's one of those never-ending things. Climate change is just accelerating, it's not slowing down, and so our resiliency efforts have to move faster as well.

At the end of last year, Wall Street, for the first time, began trading water futures as it does agricultural and mineral commodities. With traders now able to take a stake in the future value of water, what are the implications on the affordability of water for users and on Met’s agenda?

It's something we're going to have to really watch and see how it plays out. Currently, the water markets are mainly used for agricultural use. You've seen farmers that invested millions of dollars in high-end permanent crops like pistachios, wine grapes, almonds, walnuts, etc. If they can't get access to water, they'll lose that investment. These crops produce from 20 to 25 years, so it's a long-term investment that need water every single year. This kind of water marketing has been useful for these farmers where they can hedge the high price of water in a drought year against the lower price in a wet year. Metropolitan though is in the business of providing reliability every single year. So instead of hedging against a specific year type, we build long-term projects such as recycled water and water transfers for 25 years. We are more interested in long-term planning whereas right now water marketing is more of a short-term hedging tool. It'll be interesting to see if there is a role in marketing for the urban sector, can they meet our long-term reliability needs with these kinds of financial instruments or is it really just going to be useful for the agriculture spot market? It'll be interesting to see if it evolves into something that has a broader application.

This month, your board will have selected a new GM. What's likely to be included in the letter you leave in your desk for your successor?

Well, it's the kind of thing where you offer advice very carefully. I will certainly be there to help he or she in their new role at Metropolitan, and I'm happy to offer advice where it’s wanted. I felt it was time for me to step down, time for a new challenge, and time for a new GM here at Metropolitan. I do think that the big issues and challenges are maintaining Metropolitan’s strong financial footing and our infrastructure. As long as we maintain those two things, we’ll have the resources, tools and ability to reliably fulfil our mission. When you stop raising rates, when you fall behind on maintenance, when you get behind on debt, then you weaken the institution, and you don't have the tools you need when things get bad.

How should civic leaders “read” MWD’s future priorities by who they pick as your successor? 

What Metropolitan does is bigger than local water supply. Metropolitan, truly, is not just a regional agency; we're a kind of mega-agency. We interact across state lines on the Colorado River, we interact across national boundaries by working with Mexico on the Colorado. We're obviously a large player in Northern and Southern California on water supply. And so Met has obligations beyond just its borders; Metropolitan is an important institution for the entire American Southwest. What I believe is needed in the GM role is someone who really has that broad regional perspective. That's the kind of leadership I think is needed for Met.

So, what’s next for Jeff Kightlinger?

I purposely wanted to leave Metropolitan at an age where I could do another challenge, and I figure I've got a good decade or so to work on something interesting. A lot of people have approached me with some intriguing ideas. But I first want to decompress, take my time, and pick wisely. So I have promised myself—and I hope I stick to it—that I will not make a decision for at least three months. I don't intend to start a new job or new venture until January 2022. I'm really going to try and take some time, do some hiking in the Sierras, take some trips with my kids, go see some baseball games in different cities, and do some other fun things. And then, I’ll think it over and choose once. I don't want to do something for six months and realize I should have thought longer and chosen something else. So that's my game plan.

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