REIMAGINING THE CADILLAC DESERT, Part 2: Where will water come from?

Colorado River Aqueduct by Hayfield Feb 2012 #1
The Colorado River Aqueduct, one of Southern California’s three main water sources. (Photo by Maven.)
Jeffrey Kightlinger, Mark Gold, and Dr. Richard Howitt weigh in on where Southern California and the West will find water supplies in the future

The Best Best & Krieger event, Reimagining the Cadillac Desert, brought together the region’s water experts for a day of discussion on the future of water for Southern California – and for the West.

In this panel discussion, Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District; Mark Gold, Associate Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability for UCLA and formerly with Heal the Bay; and Dr. Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis discuss the role of imported water, local water sustainability projects, conservation, and other factors in meeting the challenges of the Southern California’s and the West’s water future.  The discussion was moderated by Eric Garner, Managing Partner at Best Best & Krieger.


Let me tell you a little bit about Metropolitan, who we are and what we do.  Southern California as an entity has regionalized itself, at least when it comes to its imported water supplies.  That is Metropolitan’s role.  We supply water to 6 counties: Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Diego County.  And in that 6 county area, we have 19 million people, half of the state of California, down here in Southern California.

jeff-kightlingerThe realization in the 1930s was that we don’t have enough local supply to continue to grow, and we had to develop imported water supplies.  So Metropolitan’s first mission was to go develop and build the Colorado River Aqueduct and we did that in the 1930s.  Then Metropolitan’s mission was to team up with the state of California and to fund and develop the State Water Project, which brings in part of our supply.

Those two supplies are roughly 50% of Southern California’s water, but that varies widely throughout Southern California.  In San Diego County, 90% of their water is imported.  Historically, LA County has been about 50% imported, but that has gone down quite a bit.  By and large, that 50% of Southern California’s water being imported has remained true for the last 30 some years.  This has actually been quite achievement; in 1990, Southern California had 14 million people, and we imported half our water.  We’ve added 5 million people and use the exact same amount of imported water today; in fact actually it’s less, its’ about 15 to 20% less imported water today than in 1990, and we’ve added 5 million people.

The way we’ve done that is we’ve really pushed hard on efficiency, we’ve pushed hard on local supplies, developing brackish water desalination, a lot of reclamation, and a lot of other locally captured supplies.   These have really enabled us to live with the same amounts of water that we’re getting from the Colorado River in Northern California, and continue to grow and continue to thrive in Southern California.

We’ve done it for the last 25 years with a lot of great effort, a lot of good planning, and a lot of cooperation from the local agencies.  The real challenge is how sustainable as a model is that.

Metropolitan prepares an Integrated Resource Plan that looks out 25 years in advance; we update it every 5 years.  Our analysis is that this is sustainable for the next 25 years.  We can continue to build our local supply, our local resiliency, we know we can drive conservation down further, and as long as we can stabilize some of these imported supplies, we have that ability to grow in the next 25 years in a way that doesn’t lead us to the kind of shockwave that you saw in Australia, where they basically had to throw all the planning out the window and just completely on the fly, rebuild their system.

We have had a relatively similar drought over the last decade to what you saw in Australia, and I think it speaks to the resiliency of the system we have here that you didn’t see these crash ocean desalination programs, you didn’t see a complete jettisoning of the legal system to kind of manage through it, and that’s one of the reasons we have an incredibly resilient system that has been developed over the last 100-some years.

I just wanted to give you a little backdrop on how Metropolitan is and how it plays its role as the regions wholesaler, then delivering water to the local agencies, such as LA DWP, Orange County, San Diego County Water Authority, and all the retail agencies throughout Southern California and how we manage our local supplies at the local level, the imported supplies at the wholesale level, and make them all work together so that we can provide that reliability for Southern California.


I’m not here as Met director, and I’m not here representing the city of LA on their water cabinet either.  I am here as Associate Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.  I’m going to focus on local water.

What we’ve done at UCLA is we’ve put together this large scale research effort that’s hopefully going to be a research and implementation effort with some very audacious goals.  We put it together in 2012; it became official in 2013.  It’s called our Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.  One major part of it is, is it even feasible and how would get you to 100% local water by 2050?

mark-goldYou look at the city of LA the last 5 years.  It’s around 85% imported water from more than 200 miles away – Met water as well as LA Aqueduct water.  Because the drought has been so severe, or because climate impacts have been so severe, we’ve seen record lows coming out of the LA Aqueduct.  Last year, it was something like 60,000 acre-feet; the long-term 40 year average is 270,000 acre-feet, so things have definitely been very different in that regard.  This means the city has become even more reliant on Metropolitan Water District water; over 2/3rds of its water is coming from Met right now.

In 2014, Mayor Garcetti came up with a wide variety of large water goals, really big for LA, which is how do you get to 50% local water by 2035, and reducing Met purchases by 50% by 2025.  Those numbers may not sound that impressive, but you start thinking about it for LA.  Back in 2014, around 580,000 acre-feet per year in use; now we’re probably down to about 480,000 acre-feet or so, so there’s been some pretty significant impacts on the conservation side.

So when you look at that sort of change where we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of acre-feet, you’re really talking about changing infrastructure in a massive way, greening the infrastructure and relying more and more on local water.

So what is LA going to do to get there?  I can tell you that our research team has been looking at this for the city of LA for quite some time.  We’ve been looking at every aspect of city water and trying to look at what’s the maximum that could be gained from stormwater, what’s the maximum from recycled water, and can we get more out of our groundwater basins from more aggressive conjunctive use.  Taking more of an approach like Santa Monica is quite well known for, pump and treat contaminated groundwater rather than waiting until our grandkids get old, waiting for the polluters to pay for the groundwater contamination that they made.  Clearly Superfund is not really working in real time on groundwater remediation, and so taking matters into our own hands in that regard.

We’re starting to see some tremendous progress moving in that direction which is really exciting for me.  I started in this business working for Heal the Bay back in 1988 when I started there as their first staff member, and back then everything was all about reducing the amount of pollution going into Santa Monica.  That was the driver for Hyperion to comply with the Clean Water Act and go to full secondary; that was the same driver for the joint water pollution control plant, LA County Sanitation Districts to comply with the Clean Water Act, and both very expensive retrofits to build full secondary treatment, and we’ve seen the improvements in Santa Monica Bay.

Now for the very first time, I see the same operators of these facilities, the people who are in charge of managing the Sanitation Districts as well as the Bureau of Sanitation, they now look at the discharge coming from those coastal plants as a waste of water – this is supply; that may not sound like a big thing to you guys in the audience but that is a complete and utter 180 degree turnaround from where things were 25 years ago.  It’s actually looking at Hyperion, and looking at the joint plant as supply.

To see Metropolitan Water District partner with the LA County Sanitation Districts on this pilot project and talking about up to 150 MGD coming from the joint plant which is historically been the largest single point source of pollution in the state of California, it’s pretty amazing to see that happening.  Now the city of LA is pushing to try and get Hyperion into the mix, and so we’re looking at those as large water supply possibilities. Between them, you get 250 MGD or more coming from those facilities.  DWP, the work they’ve done on stormwater capture, the potential there is up to 100-150,000 acre-feet coming from those sources.

On the groundwater side, we’re talking more aggressive conjunctive use.  You’ve heard about the $700,000-900,000 project on groundwater remediation down in the Studio City area, to pump and treat and finally not waiting for Superfund to solve the problem.  Using that for local water supply and getting the most out of the San Fernando Basin, which we haven’t even scratched the surface on what could occur there.

Talk to people at the Water Replenishment District, and all the excess capacity that they talk about in west and central basin, and the ability to potentially use that conjunctive use for stormwater infiltration, even groundwater injection for highly treated wastewater, so it’s a really exciting time.  There is 600,000 acre-feet of brackish groundwater in West Basin that could be desalted, providing water supply and then also improving water storage in the region tremendously.

I could go on and on … It really is an exciting time in local water, I think unprecedented in the region’s history.  The real question is not are we going to go all in on local water, but to what extent and what are we going to actually choose from the standpoint of our local water supply, so it’s a great time to have these discussions.


I’m an economist at UC Davis and ERA Economics.  I want to talk about the big gorilla -agriculture and agricultural water use – because that’s where the water is.

It’s easy to say agriculture is 2-3% of the GDP and 80% of the water, but that’s rather like complaining that the movie industry down here is only 3.5% of the state GDP, and they have about 80% of the good looking people.  The point of that is that’s the business they’re in.  If you’re in the movie business, you’re in the good looking people business. If you’re in agriculture, you’re in the photosynthetic business, you need sunshine, land, and water.  You’re in the water business.

howitt_page_2Mark Reisner used Cadillac Desert as a symbol of excess and luxury and overdevelopment, so I thought we’d take a look at Cadillacs and see what’s happened.   We started off at 5000 lbs. and 300 horsepower, and now we’re down to the CTS and it’s nimble, agile, efficient, and even relatively fuel efficient.  The point is that Cadillacs have developed from the Cadillac Desert above to the modern CTS, and our water system, if given the incentives and the legal structure can do the same.

Let’s go back to the major factors … I’ll use some standard statistics of groundwater and climate change, because these are two big reductions in the supply that will hit agriculture, and what’s going to happen.

howitt_page_3We’ve done some analysis teaming up an economic model with a groundwater model of the valley.  If we implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed last year, this is the sort of cutbacks in agricultural water that we will have to achieve over the next 20 years in order to reach steady state, as the law demands.  So what we’re looking at is very substantial cutbacks.

How do you cutback? It’s as simple as this.  You can find more clever ways of using it, but since you’re in again the evapotranspiration business in agriculture, you’re not just running it through a fountain and back around, you’re putting it into the air.  There’s a limit to what efficient irrigation systems can do, and so what we’re facing in reality is a smaller footprint of both acreage and water use.  In fact, you’ve got numbers that run somewhere between 350,000 acres to 500,000 acres no longer producing the crops it’s currently producing.

So is that going to be a disaster? And the good news is no it’s not, if the world economy and the middle class keep growing and buying California produce.

howitt_page_4The second thing I want to briefly put up is a study we did about 3 years ago in which we looked at a prolonged drought due to temperature.  Temperature increase is very well predicted here, so if we look at what’s happening, by 2050 with a warm, dry climate change scenario run through the standard models, we can see that the net runoff that can be captured is going to be cutback substantially, somewhere between 24-28% less runoff.

We’re going to have a reduction in agricultural water deliveries, a reduction in the agricultural irrigated footprint, and an increase in the profitability.  If we predict current income growth, both in the US and in main markets in Asia and Europe, and so what we’ve got is the same effect as the Cadillacs.  We have to have more efficiency, more adaptability, and more product per unit of natural resources input.

howitt_page_5How are we going to do this with water?  I’m an economist, so I’m going to argue that markets will do it.  Here’s the interesting thing that happened in February, 2014.  The Buena Vista Irrigation District put 12,000 acre-feet up for bid for local agricultural people who wanted to buy their water.  When the bids were closed, everyone thought it would sell for about $600 an acre-foot. If you read the graph and go up to the far left hand corner, you’ll see that those first few units of water sold for about $1300 an acre-foot, and the whole lot was sold for over $1000 an acre-foot.  This is ag water, ag buyers’ free bids.

What we have here is the very first time when this happened.  First of all, you can see it was oversubscribed by 5 times.  The price was over twice what people expected, and for the first time, agriculture in an open market situation could outbid Metropolitan.  It’s a good sign.

What we have to have is a market system, and I would argue, a market system that takes into account both the environmental values, the local area of origin values, the social values, and above all puts some efficiency and equity into reallocating the water supply of the state, so we can roll with the punches, and we’ve seen the punches coming down the line.

howitt_page_6Where the market is right now?  This is the current structure.  My colleague at Ellen Hanak at PPIC put this together.  This is a mixture of markets between the environment, San Joaquin Valley farmers and the urbans; you can see the urban are relatively small buyers now.  This idea that the Southern California buyer comes in and grabs the water away from the farmers is just not happening anymore for several reasons.  First of all, they’ve looked after their own house, and secondly, in drought situations, it’s a push, price-wise – in fact there are many other urban systems which can be introduced to make real conservation for less than they can buy it from ag.

bill-howittSo what are my take home points?  We have to be more nimble, more valuable, and more flexible than we had in the Cadillac Desert era.  We have to have a different footprint for agriculture, and we’re going to downsize both the water use and the irrigated footprint and have more fallowed land, more clever cropping systems with cover crops, and more profitability as our markets grow.  We need a system which is both equitable and efficient for allocating water, not as a pure, private laissez-faire good, but as what I call a public commodity.  It is a commodity that has the characteristics of steel or power or air, but it also has significant social and local values associated with it.

However, given that we only need to move about 10-12% of our water through a market, I think this can be achieved without a wholesale change in our legal structure as happened in Australia.


eric-garner-panel“Mark Reisner ends Cadillac Desert with a discussion on the possibility of water being imported from Canada to the American West or Southern California,” says moderator Eric Garner. “I think most of us would probably say that’s not likely to happen in the near future.  But we’ve heard about the existing supplies on the Colorado, the Owens Valley, the State Water Project – putting aside the Delta issues for the moment, but in terms of new imported water sources or substantial water storage facilities being built, do you think there’s any likelihood of augmenting imported water supplies in the foreseeable future, or are we basically working with what we have?”


I think we’re working with what we’ve got.  We’ll probably build more storage. The system will have to get more resilient; I think that’s more climate change driven.  We’re going to have flashier events, more rain, less snow, and we can’t rely on the Sierra to be a reservoir; we’re going to have to build some more reservoirs, but effectively we’re working with what we have.

Once upon a time, Metropolitan had some pretty interesting plans to redirect part of the Columbia with the aid of about half a dozen nuclear power plants … And we also had some plans to redirect the Mississippi down to the lower area of the Colorado region, but realistically, those are not on the drawing board.  We’re working with what we have, but we do need to build some more robust conveyance, we need to build some more robust storage, but that’s all just for reliability.  Same amounts, more infrastructure just to use the same.


I don’t see any more imports coming here at all.  There might be more pressure for Nevada, but not for us.  I think the one thing on the storage side that I think hopefully will change, I don’t think SGMA went nearly far enough, is really getting a lot more out of our groundwater from a storage perspective and really utilizing that for storage, rather than just for backup when there’s water scarcity, which has led to the overdraft problems.  And I think that’s something that needs to change tremendously in this state and is likely to in the next 5-10 years.
“How far can we go with local supplies, be it local supplies in the Central Valley for agriculture, which is obviously highly dependent on the CVP and the SWP deliveries, or here in Southern California, which is obviously dependent on local and non-local Owens Valley water and Colorado water? asks Eric Garner.  “How far can we press and how far can we reduce our reliance on imported supplies?”


The whole effort that we’re trying to look at at UCLA is can we even get to 100% local for the LA County area.  If you look at water use right now as being ballpark 1.3 to 1.5 MAF a year within the LA County area, you can get there with better water recycling.  We’ve barely scratched the surface, obviously since we haven’t touched the coastal treatment plants and what the potential is.  I think on the stormwater side, we’ve done an OK job in the San Gabriel River and the watershed, but really hardly any at all within the LA watershed, so the potential there is obviously pretty substantial.

panel-2We can get a lot more out of our groundwater basins from the standpoint of conjunctive use, putting more in, pulling more out.  Can it get us there?  I think it’s going to be really tight.  And it might not be my favorite, but you have to remember UCLA is the birthplace of reverse osmosis, so I can’t neglect the fact that we have a number of faculty who are world-renowned for membrane engineering, and the reality is getting a lot more out of brackish groundwater which we’ve barely scratched the surface at all within the local region on that, really next to nothing.

Ocean desal could be done somewhere down the line, I think, as a last resort.  Obviously for cost purposes, greenhouse gas emissions purposes, impacts to marine life, but if there are breakthroughs, subsurface intakes so you’re not causing marine life impacts and reduction in energy which absolutely could happen with breakthroughs on membrane technology, then in our future, looking out to 2050, that could be part of it.  A lot of people, Orange County, San Diego, are rushing to it now.  San Diego already did, and the reason why is self-reliance is really incredibly important.  … Whether that happens in Orange County or in West Basin remains to be seen, but that could be part of a self-reliance local portfolio as well down the line.

I think we can get close and I think there are going to be some years where we could actually get there in some of our wetter years, and I think there’s going to be some years where it’s going to be really difficult.  Look at the fluctuation on stormwater in the last five years.  It’s just absolutely night and day, so relying on that especially for the infrastructure investment purpose in an area like LA where we literally averaged less than 8 inches of rain per year for the last five years, it’s extraordinary.  It becomes tougher for that sort of investment.

Obviously the recycled water side is much more reliable, but just a reminder for the audience that on conservation, really you see that in our wastewater plants.  All of the wastewater plants in LA are down 40% or more below capacity at this point because of how well we’ve done on indoor water conservation, so there’s still conservation side where we’ve just barely started dealing with outdoor irrigation in an effective way and there’s still a long way to go.

We’ve gone from 131 gallons per capita per day to 104 gallons per capita per day in Los Angeles in two years; Santa Monica’s gone from 141 to about 113; so there’s a lot of improvement that has happened and there’s still room for more improvement and we see that around the world in how they use water and consume it.


I agree totally about groundwater, and I think we ought to go for distributed systems.  I would add a cautionary note about desal, though.  We should take a careful look at Australia where their cities are very similar to ours.  They built six desal plants, four of them are not worth running.  Only two are operating right now.  The other four have been moth-balled, because they are just too costly, and they are extraordinarily expensive backup drought supply.  It’s a much cheaper drought supply to have contingent contracts, groundwater banking, and we many other avenues to go up before we dip our toes into something which is fraught with so many difficulties …


I could not agree with you more.


There’s obviously a lot more we can do with local water and certainly with water efficiency.  The public we serve, the ratepayers, they want a certain level of reliability.  We have gone through essentially a decade-long drought in California, a four-year drought and a five-year drought, two decent years in the last 10, and have been highly reliable.  jeff-kightlinger-2We asked for awhile for people to do 10% voluntary cutbacks; we got it.  The Governor came in and put a very strong order for 25% cutbacks and people did it, but by and large, water was delivered 24/7 365; we had sufficient amount of water in the bank to meet all demands for this last decade, and people want that level of reliability.

If we’re going to have that level of reliability, given we got 5-6” rain a couple of years here in Southern California, the only way we’re going to have that is to have some mix of imported water working with local water; either that or we’re going to have to do a massive desalination building program, which is crazy frankly, the cost economics of that.  So I foresee for the next generation and probably the generation beyond that, a reasonable mix of imported and local supplies, continued development, continued investment in both to make sure both are reliable, so it’s always going to be a mix as I see it.

“Let’s touch on infrastructure,” says Eric Garner.  “To make those imported supplies more reliable, maximize use of local groundwater storage, groundwater cleanup, recycled water, stormwater capture, certainly desal – all those things require new levels of infrastructure. … All that requires money.  How are we going to pay for this?”


It’s always a challenge, but the practical matter is people’s water rates are significantly less than many other things we pay for.  I don’t know pretty much any part in urban Southern California where a water rate is above most people’s cable TV bills, or above their cell phone bills.  The typical water rate per household in Southern California is somewhere around $50-75 a month.  It is expensive; no one likes rate increases, but if you look at our history of rate increases in water as we’ve built a lot of this infrastructure in the last 25 years to be resilient; they have gone up at the rate of somewhere around 3.5% per year as an average.  No one likes that; it’s gone up every single year, but it isn’t also typically it’s going to break the economy type of number.

I have found when you go out and talk to people, if they really see that they are getting something that they paid for, if they can actually see what they paid for, generally people have been accepting of it.  LA DWP just went out and got a rate increase.  It took a lot of education of the public, a lot of outreach, seven years, but eventually people said, ‘we get it, you have to pay for these things,’ but it does require a lot of education and the public’s become much less trusting of governmental institutions and that’s made the challenge harder.


Obviously rates have a lot to do with it. Rates got tougher because of the San Juan Capistrano decision from the standpoint of having rate structures that are really going to reward conservation a lot more and penalize water wasters more than they do.  Right now, it’s flattened out; you can still have your blocked rates structures but not nearly as vertical as you’d like it to be or inclined on.  That’s something Governor Brown promised everybody that that was one of the things he was going to try to reform; it hasn’t happened yet.  He still has a couple of years to pull that off.  That’s something that I think in the short term that would help tremendously.

mark-gold-1I’d throw stormwater in the mix from the standpoint right now. I’ve been trying to deal with stormwater and stormwater projects that are looking a stormwater as water supply in a serious way, and raising funds for that.  It almost takes an act of God; you need 2/3rds the vote of the public of 50% of property owners.  LA County supposedly will make a run at it; I think it’s the ten year anniversary of their supposedly making a run at it to try and increase those fees. I chaired one of those campaigns in Santa Monica; we only passed it back in 2006, about $10 a household per month, and it was only by 100 votes.  And that’s in Santa Monica where water and the ocean is everything there, and so it shows you how hard it is in the existing structure.

The feds have pretty much dropped out of the business.  Why we’re not more upset as a state that we have this unbelievable drought the last five years of epic proportions; you look at Texas, you look at Georgia, and they have drought and the spigot’s open from the standpoint of water projects for them.  It did not happen here for us.  Instead we devolve into an endangered species act fight for three years, when the reality is the investment in water infrastructure could have happened from the federal level; has not happened, which is just beyond disappointing at this point.

Then finally the state has been investing, we’ve all voted for it time and time again, I think we’re up to almost $20 billion in bond measures.  It has to be less about passing the measures and being a lot more strategic in using those funds, and that hasn’t happened as well as we would have liked.  The bond allocations and the projects that have been implemented, many of those projects are really, really good, but if you look at how they really not catalyzed water infrastructure as much as they could have with that amount of money.  I think that’s been an opportunity that we haven’t gotten the most out of.  And so I think that approach needs to change dramatically.


I think we ought to invest heavily in a different sort of infrastructure.  It’s ironic to me that we have a center of the IT industry worldwide here.  We’re in the information business, it’s an important sector of this economy, and yet in terms of water, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.  We don’t have know who is using what where.

dr-howitt-2Yet, the technologies are rapidly evolving and being refined for remote sensing of water use and the net ET ratio.  We’re now using satellite measures to measure things down to a 40 square meter plot.  We have systems in place which are rapidly improving for detecting what crop is being grown where.  We have the GRACE system starting to come in and measure underground groundwater.  If we don’t have a coordinated, interagency information set, we just literally groping in the dark.

We cannot manage what we cannot measure, and yet we’ve got the technology now to measure this water.  If you go to Idaho, you will find lawsuits settled on data based from satellite measures.  Why is Idaho ahead of us? They are not exactly a major irrigation state.  They are way ahead of us, and so what we have to have is a complete shift away from physical infrastructure to information infrastructure, and then we’ll get better markets; then we’ll get better management.


Real time metering would be nice.  And someone managing the data and making it publicly available.
“I wanted to follow up Richard in terms of efficiency in agriculture,” said Eric Garner.  “Some of the things you’re talking about – more efficient water use, they are not cheap.  What will that mean for agriculture in the Central Valley as that’s employed, either out of necessity if there’s insufficient water, or if it’s mandated?”


I see efficiency of water in agriculture coming from information on who is using what where on what, because if we had a really smoothly operating water market – I’m not thinking totally of the Australian market but something along that line; I have on my iPhone, I can tell you exactly what the water is selling for in different parts of Australia today.

We need information, because it’s not just the irrigation methods.  There is real misperception.  It might be that using flood irrigation on alfalfa could be a very efficient way of simultaneously producing fodder for the dairy industry and recharging the groundwater without nitrate contamination.  And so we have to go back and think about what we’re thinking about with efficiency.  Is it efficient with respect to the groundwater, as well as the surface?

Think how you respond when you know exactly how much energy you are using in your house.  You have a different perspective, and we need the same thing for agriculture as well as urban.

“Let’s turn to the tunnels in the Delta,” said Erik Garner.  “As I think most of the people in this room know, an alternate conveyance system, a peripheral canal, tunnels, or whatever has been under discussion for probably 50 years.  There was a vote in 1982 that obviously failed for a peripheral canal.  We’ve been deep in that process again for a long time.  Can you briefly set up where we are now, what the status of things is, and … is there a Plan B?”


Water in Northern California, in order to be imported to the Central Valley, the Bay Area, and to Southern California, it has always needed to bypass the Delta, which is entirely at sea level and is a brackish interface, a tidal estuary interface.  It’s not a place to import water from; that’s why San Francisco built a Delta bypass, their Hetch Hetchy system, East Bay MUD built their Mokelumne Delta bypass, it’s always been known.

panel-1In the 1930s, the California Water Plan proposed a Delta bypass for the Central Valley Project, so we’ve been looking at building Delta bypasses since the early 1900s, we built a couple, and the idea was to build some more going north-south, not just east-west.  We’ve been debating that for quite a while, and we’re still stuck on it.  And it’s very divisive, it’s a very north-south issue.  1982 went to a vote, went down.  Governor’s current plan is build tunnels instead of a canal.  It’s the exact same issue that’s been relooked at and studied and studied.

Currently right now, we’re in the environmental planning process; it’s only been going on about 8 to 10 years.  We’ve only spent $250 million, give or take.  We’re at about 100,000 pages of analysis, and we’re grinding our way perhaps potentially to at least a closing lid on the document and serving it up to state and federal leadership for choices, which is environmental parlance, a Record of Decision, Notice of Determination, so we can kick off a decade or so of litigation.

That’s how you build stuff in California.  We don’t’ do things.  We’re a very diverse state, we don’t do things easily by consensus, but eventually you have to make some choices, so Plan A is build this, that would firm up reliability of moving water, and north-south and east-west, that firms up that reliability and keeps it out of the Delta interface.

If we don’t do it, it means we’re going to have much less reliable every year water supplies coming out of there.  What does that mean? It means a lot of ag going out of business, it means a lot more heavy reliance on other supplies, such as desalination on the coasts, and a lot of ag going from maybe 15% out of production to maybe 25-35% out of production, and those are choices that California will be making.  Is that the choice we want to make?  That is a choice that can be made.  It’s an expensive choice and a lot of tradeoffs, but that may be the choice we end up making.


I think I have to wear my Met City of LA hat on this one.  One of the reasons I was really flattered and eager to accept when I was appointed to the Met board … it’s interesting for me personally because for those of you who know me, I’m a Dorothy Green protégé, and for those of you who knew Dorothy, she cut her teeth on this exact issue with the same Governor.  Dorothy’s long gone, Governor’s still here, and the project is still here, it’s just gone subsurface.  The reason I was excited was because part of what Jeff and Met are doing right now that’s so exciting to me is really looking at their future as just not being in the imported water business.

mark-gold-2I’m not trying to deflect here.  This is where really the City of LA position is, and that investment with this pilot project with the LA County Sanitation Districts and the joint plant and going big potentially in water recycling from our coastal treatment plants, and maybe even getting to the point where we’re doing what I would call Direct Potable Reuse Light, and what I mean by that is either distributing that advanced treated water to your filtration plants so it can be distributed that way, or injected into groundwater basins for storage purposes or a combination of both.  That’s the part of the water future that gets me excited about what Met’s going to be.

The reality is they have the capital to catalyze that movement.  It’s interesting because on the tunnels, it doesn’t work that way, you’ve been working for decades, but on water recycling, you potentially have the ability to cut off decades of that transformation because of the capital they have, and so I understand that from Jeff’s perspective, it’s not an ‘either-or’; it’s a both.  For the city, we’re really putting all of our chips on local water, and waiting for the time that the decision has to be made and then we’ll come up with position on what that is.

There’s a huge amount of discussion on a position from the City on the tunnels, and to be quite candid, it’s completely in play, and on any given day, it goes one direction or the other.  The thing that I think for me as a biologist that has been tough … we’re talking about coequal goals in the Delta, and then you divorce Delta restoration with the tunnels project.  I know a lot of people in the environmental community were in favor of that.  Personally I really don’t see the benefit of that, and that’s hard because no matter what happens, the Delta is in horrible shape and needs to be restored or at least enhanced in a major way, and I’m afraid that will be a victim of this whole thing.


I agree with Jeff that if we do nothing and we have no imports through the Delta in the future, it will be very expensive for San Joaquin Valley agriculture and for Southern California urban.

dr-howitt-1Remember, sea level rise is not a question; it’s just an empirical fact.  It’s going on and continuing to go on.  And as sea level rise goes on, the interface between the saline Bay waters and the river flow will move further upriver, and so it doesn’t matter how big a dyke you build or levee, sea level rise will make sure that the probability of getting quality water through there falls over the next 100 years.  So if you have some imported water through the Delta, we have to have an alternative facility.

One aspect that I haven’t seen analyzed in detail and I guess that means analyzed economically to me, is a staged system.  Instead of building two tunnels, build one and work out whether it can be run environmentally without damage to the Delta, and particularly hopefully to restore fish populations.


That’s not too dissimilar from the NRDC proposal in 2009.


Very similar, and I would hope, given Jeff’s experiences … of the possibility of some compromise between the fiscal aspects, because there is a group of people who can afford to pay for a couple of million acre feet, but not four or five million acre feet at the cost it’s going to be.  Build one tunnel, check whether it can be run environmentally benignly, and then if some time in the future, have the possibility of building a second tunnel, if people are prepared to pay for it.
eric-garner-1“I think we would be remiss if we did not touch on in the Delta context and more broadly the Endangered Species Act,” said Eric Garner.  “Cadillac Desert was written in 1986 and the public trust doctrine had just been incorporated into California groundwater law.  This was going to be a huge deal, and yes it is, but it also became in a large way a non-event, because then the Endangered Species Act came in and with it’s very strong prohibitions on take or killing of an endangered species really drives Delta operations; it certainly drives management on the Colorado River and other places, so I’m curious for thoughts about that.  One thing I’m curious about, we oscillate between extremes.  It’s either gut the endangered species act or we can’t change one paragraph or one word. Any prospect for any shift on this issue?  In other words, instead of divorcing them, bringing environmental protection and the projects together instead of them always being at loggerheads.”


To me, what’s happened with the Endangered Species Act is that it’s a powerful tool, and in the absence of meaningful watershed management within the Delta (or in pick another place where the ESA becomes such a powerful tool), you see severe degradation that’s occurred over decades and riparian ecosystems on the verge of collapse.  Not just the Delta, pick a river in Southern California and I’ll tell you the same story.  So the end result is, what else are you going to use, if you are trying to save that riparian ecosystem?

Using the most extreme example, the Center for Biological Diversity.  This makes me an old guy in the environmental movement.  I remember when they first started in the late 90s, and I felt like ‘really? you’re going to use that for everything?’ And the reality is, yeah, they are going to use it for everything, and sue Endangered Species Act whether it’s a climate issue, or whether it’s a watershed protection issue, or you name it, and they’ve had a great deal of success in that regard.

The end result is that there must be something wrong with the Endangered Species Act, even though you can see the success of the Endangered Species Act for many different species, and much better management of those endangered species throughout the entire country.  It really is a major success story, but it’s sort of like CEQA in that regard.  You can use different tools for different things, and that’s what’s happened, so in the absence of meaningful ecosystem protection, you end up using the sledgehammer to save the ecosystem.  That’s just not right, but that’s where we’re at, and if you’re sitting on the sidelines of the environmental community, or on the fishing community, I don’t see where they have an option other than to use that tool.


It’s become a tool.  It’s a proxy war.  We want to debate growth, we want to debate urbanization, and scale, and what are these large-scale policies, but if we can’t politically get the debate and the result, then we fight proxy wars through the Endangered Species Act.

jeff-kightlinger-1The prospects of amending it and changing it are pretty slim.  We got within one vote of getting a vote out; Senator Kempthorne of Idaho at the time carried it; it was a big deal for him to do because he put a lot of investment of his political capital, time, and energy and Idaho has like three listed species, so he was doing it because he thought it was right, not because it was something that was a big issue for Idaho; they don’t have any growth either, so it really wasn’t an issue.

Where the ESA is a sledgehammer, it’s entirely in the West.  It’s primarily in California where we have dozens of listed species, Hawaii has more, we have the second most, and it’s because we’re a very diverse state ecologically and we have a lot of people, so we have those bumping into each other.  Hawaii has the same issue, and then to a smaller scale, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona, and then that’s about it.  The rest of the country doesn’t have endangered species issues because the East Coast eliminated all their endangered species before the passage of the act, so it’s very hard politically to get them to weigh in on an issue where you basically have five or six states that have an issue, and then you have 40 saying, not really my fight.

It’s going to be a long term tough issue and I don’t know if there’s a solution.  There was flexibility in the Clinton presidency years; we came up with administrative things, no surprises, safe harbors, HCPs, we’ve implemented them elsewhere.  It’s only been this last ten years that Washington has become so polarized, so has this issue.  There has suddenly been no ability to compromise and come up with administrative …


There’s no trust.


There isn’t – there’s no trust.
Audience question: We’re not projecting to see lots more water coming our way; we’re looking at drought continuing over time.  Could you address the issue of how we could manage our growth to better address that reality?


I don’t think we should manage our growth.  What you should do is manage the water.  California is almost certainly going to grow in terms of the economy, and I think this is a good thing.  We have to manage the water.

How do we manage a scarce natural resource?  You have to price it.  We have to recognize water as a commodity.  We have to go from the Cadillac Desert view, which was run by politics and subsidies … and we have to move beyond that stage, go from a political good to an economic good.  It is an economic good.

California’s economy runs on information flows, energy flows, and water flows.  That’s three network industries.  Two out of three run with prices.  One runs with politics.  Let’s ditch the politics and move the commodity to run on prices.  I’m not talking about ditching the public trust components; I’m saying that water which is required for growth, you want to grow San Bernardino or someplace like that, fine let the system run.


I have a slightly different answer, not being an economist.  I live in Santa Monica, and Santa Monica is having a huge battle this November over growth that’s unprecedented.  The pushback on no growth is a measure that really goes very far out there; it basically says that anything over two stories that requires a variance from the general plan is going to require a vote of the public, which is not good government.  One of the things we started talking about in the city of Santa Monica that’s being talked about very seriously LA County wide, is a water neutrality ordinance.  If it goes forward, what that means is that all new and redevelopment will not be allowed to use any more water than the preexisting development.

mark-gold-3So you can imagine with most of the development pressure, you want to build something bigger that’s going to accommodate more people that what was there before, and that would actually have a pretty significant impact.  If you can’t do that onsite, it doesn’t mean you can’t build your development; it means you will have to pay for conservation measures elsewhere within the city or the county that are going to make up for that increased water demand.  So at least from the standpoint of development that does occur, that it’s not increasing our water footprint as a city or county.

LA County has taken it very seriously, Santa Monica very, very seriously, they’ve been working on it for two years, LA County is meeting on this every other week right now and trying to move forward, Supervisor Keuhl is spearheading the effort from the supervisor perspective, and we’ll see what happens.  I can tell you right now, the Building Industry Association is not really supportive, and so trying to do this in a manner where you’re not trying to stop development, but you’re trying to do it in a way where the environmental impacts are not going to be getting more severe from the standpoint of our scarce and getting scarcer water supplies.


California is a resource-rich state.  The rest of the arid Southwest would love to have our challenges with climate change and our challenges in some shrinking of supplies.  We have supplies; it is about management and it is about making the right choices to do it.  We have the ability to grow and develop if we choose; we just have to do it a lot more wisely than we’ve been doing it.  I’m optimistic to think that hopefully we’ll get there.

Coming up tomorrow …

  • Pat Mulroy, Senior Fellow with the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV and former General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority; David Pettijohn, Director of Water Resources, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; and Shana Epstein, General Manager for Ventura Water talk about the future of their regions’ water supplies.

For more information …

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