Jeffrey Kightlinger is an eighth generation Californian and the general manager for The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Metropolitan). As the nation’s largest supplier of treated water, Metropolitan’s actions impact the 19 million people served by its 26 member agencies. Jeff talked with Steve Hirai and Katie Porter of Brown and Caldwell about how Metropolitan plans to maintain water reliability in Southern California in a changing future of extreme weather conditions from prolonged periods of drought to powerful atmospheric river storms.

In recent years, California and the Southwest have gone from extreme drought conditions to extremely powerful atmospheric river storms. What should Metropolitan and other agencies be doing to cope with these extreme weather swings?

It’s been a roller coaster in the last decade. The main tool we’ve been able to use to handle these conditions is really maximizing and flexing our water storage. It’s a lesson that came out of the 1987-1992 drought. In 1991, Metropolitan actually rationed water for the first time in its history. It was quite a disruption within Metropolitan. Southern California’s population had grown to 14 million people and the City of Los Angeles had lost half of its Owens Valley supply because of environmental restrictions and cutbacks. So that really caused a rethinking of where we were. We realized we needed more local storage to get through these inevitable droughts. That need was largely fulfilled with the building of Metropolitan’s $2 billion Diamond Valley Lake reservoir in 2000.

But there’s another piece of the planning that is not fully appreciated. While Diamond Valley Lake (DVL) worked with our existing plumbing and could be used to store Colorado River water, our board also authorized the construction of the $1.2 billion Inland Feeder pipeline. That very large, 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) capacity conveyance project allows DVL to be gravity filled with water from the State Water Project as well, to take advantage of big storms in the Sierra.

These two projects together have given us tremendous flexibility and storage. It’s pretty amazing that Metropolitan was thinking about this in the mid-’90s; that our weather was already flashy and every model we’ve seen on climate change indicates it’s going to get even more volatile, so we had to plan for it. The Inland Feeder will probably be empty seven out of ten years. But in those two to three big wet years we get to use it, we’re going to be able to refill DVL in three, four months instead of three, four years, because we now have this tremendous takeaway capacity.

And that’s exactly how it’s worked. By 2011, we pulled down Diamond Valley Lake and all our storage to less than half, and we were getting ready to go into mandatory cutbacks because 2008 through 2010 were drought years. Then 2011 was a wet year, and we refilled DVL in three months. We then pulled it down again through the next series of drought years from 2015 through 2017, and again, we refilled it in a wet 2018-2019. And now with 2019 being a very wet year, Metropolitan expects to have the biggest reserves we’ve ever had in storage.

So, we’ve really built a very robust, flexible system that has strong storage and conveyance capacity. That is going to be the key to a climate change future for Metropolitan and, frankly, for all of California. We’re going to have to build this kind of smart, resilient infrastructure.

The Proposition 1 Water Storage Investment Program has provided a resurgence in both above- and below-ground water storage projects. How important are these programs?

We’ve seen the incredible value that storage has played in Metropolitan’s ability to get through this last decade. The Colorado River’s annual flow is a little less than 15 million acre-feet (AF) per year, but you can store more than 60 million AF in the system. The storage level is four times the annual flow. But in California, we’re almost the exact opposite. We can store about 10 million AF and our annual flow is 30 million to 35 million AF. So we’re probably a third or less of what we can store of our annual supply, which means we’re much more hand-to-mouth, one year at a time. Two bad years in a row and our storage is tapped in California. We don’t have that same robust system that you have for the Colorado River.

So, Southern California has invested in our own storage, like Diamond Valley Lake. But if you look at the state, the state hasn’t done any significant storage expansion since 1960. Consequently, it was nice to see Proposition 1 passed by the voters. There isn’t sufficient funding to build a huge amount of storage, but we’re hopeful we will build some. We like a couple of the above-ground projects. We are interested in Sites Reservoir. Metropolitan has agreed to invest in that project. And we are intrigued with raising Shasta Dam because it would add a lot of cold-water storage that would provide flexibility for salmon and fishery management. And then some of the groundwater storage projects we’ve been looking at up in northern California seem very promising.

Metropolitan’s support of the Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River Basin demonstrated how important this agreement is for the vitality of the Southwest. The Drought Contingency Plan will provide stability of the Colorado River supply for the next seven years. What are some of the longer-term solutions and ideas being considered to address the existing Colorado River imbalance?

There is currently an imbalance of almost a million and a half acre-feet a year on the Colorado River. Clearly that’s not sustainable. And climate change will make it that much worse. So even under normal hydrology, it’s not sustainable. But given we have had both climate change and drought hitting the Colorado River and the Rocky Mountains pretty heavily, not only is it not sustainable, it’s close to a crisis. And though this year has proven to be an exception, one wet year doesn’t change the long-term drying trend. So, the Drought Contingency Plan was really to deal with an emerging crisis.

We’re all going to have to deal with that imbalance, which means we’re going to have to find a million and a half acre-feet a year to be shared among the seven Colorado River Basin states and Mexico. There will likely be long-term reductions, but we also want to evaluate if there are ways to augment the system. In other words, could we start partnering on groundwater recovery systems, recycled water programs, desalination programs, where multiple states can participate, develop, and grow the pie of water supply. Participants could exchange newly developed water with Colorado River water. You could have augmentation both on and off system, within the Colorado River Basin and beyond.

There may be ways to do multi-state programs like we did in the Palo Verde Valley, where we’re paying farmers to fallow and rotate lands. If you did that across the Colorado River basin and you had urban agencies and the federal government paying participants to contribute water, you could build up levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell and augment the system with enhanced storage. There’s a lot of out-of-the-box thinking that will require significant interstate and cross-basin cooperation. That will be new and challenging, but we’ve got six years to work it out.

Metropolitan has been a supporter of local resource projects for its member agencies to reduce reliance on imported water supplies, from the Sierra, via the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and Colorado River. As the supply of water from these imported supplies continues to decline, what is Metropolitan doing to ensure that a dependable water supply is available to its member agencies in the future?

Climate change, environmental issues and other stressors will continue to put limitations on imported supplies. Most estimates are that climate change has already taken away permanently about 10% of the Colorado River supply, so we know we’re going to have to invest in other supplies, such as recycled water. Back in the 1990s, about 1% of Southern California’s supply came from recycled water; now it’s almost 10% of our supply. So, we’ve been investing in and expanding local water supply projects. However, we’ve also picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit. It’s going to be much harder to find future projects that make economic sense.

The most ambitious water supply project under development now is our Regional Recycled Water Program. This is a project that Metropolitan is developing in partnership with the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. This project is different from our other local projects because it’s bigger, it’s more expensive, and it’s multi-jurisdictional. It covers multiple water district boundaries, cities, counties, and different water basins. The scale of this project requires a regional agency like Metropolitan, not a local agency, to execute the project. And I think you’ll see more of these types of projects, that are regional, multi-jurisdictional, more complex, more expensive, which will have direct Metropolitan involvement and investment versus just our financial support of local agency projects that we’ve seen in the past.

Will Gov. Gavin Newsom’s support for a single tunnel project for the California WaterFix significantly delay the project? What actions are being taken to preserve the years of work and progress on the project?

Going back to our experience with Inland Feeder and Diamond Valley Lake, we obviously know that conveyance works hand-in-hand with storage and you need very robust capabilities in both conveyance and storage to deal with the climate volatility that is growing in California. That’s why Metropolitan was a strong proponent of a two-tunnel system, with a robust capacity at 9,000 cfs. Moving to a one-tunnel project means you’re probably looking at the 5,000 to 6,000 cfs range. This is less robust and more constrained, making it more difficult to fill storage reservoirs and move water during big storm events.

But we understand that this is the governor’s decision, and that’s the approach the administration wants to take. We have pledged to work with him and his team. A part of the governor’s direction to his team and his pledge to us was that they want to preserve as much of the work that’s been done and streamline what changes have to be made, to lose as little time as possible.

We’ve been exploring with the California Department of Water Resources ways to formulate a streamlined plan to lay the groundwork to continue moving forward. I believe if everything goes well, we can complete a new environmental review process on a revised project, and parallel track other engineering work to keep the ultimate project delivery date close to the same. Or have just a very minor delay, if you do it correctly.

We’ve learned so much over the last 10 years that we can parallel a lot of the design work with the environmental review, so that we shouldn’t lose much time. We’re still formulating our plans, but that’s the goal.

About the experts

Steve Hirai is the managing director of the Large Infrastructure program for Brown and Caldwell. He has managed municipal water, wastewater, and energy projects in Southern California over the past 26 years.

Katie Porter Porter is the local leader of the Los Angeles office for Brown and Caldwell. She has guided projects related to conveyance, distribution system issues, water supply, treatment, operations, reuse, and discharges over the past 20 years.

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