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Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Is Thinking Big for the Future

Our Q&A with General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Kightlinger

Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager and CEO of Metropolitan Water District. Photo courtesy MWD

Jeffrey Kightlinger has been general manager and CEO of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for the past 12 years.

Metropolitan, a regional wholesaler, delivers water to 26 member public agencies serving 19 million people living in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.

It’s a big job with mind-boggling scale. Metropolitan delivers an average of 1.7 billion gallons of water each day to a 5,200-square-mile service area. It owns and operates the Colorado River Aqueduct, 16 hydroelectric facilities, nine reservoirs, nearly 1,000 miles of large-scale pipes and five water treatment plants.

Metropolitan is the largest distributor of treated drinking water in the United States.

California Water & Power recently spoke with Kightlinger about the ins and outs of his responsibilities and what Metropolitan is doing to keep in front of California’s ever-changing water picture.

CW& P: The Metropolitan Water District Board of Directors recently voted to make a substantial financial commitment to fund the California WaterFix, a $17 billion project to re-plumb the Delta and California’s water-delivery system.

How have you managed your time between regularly talking about the project while still focusing on Met’s regular operations?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Something this political and large does require a fair amount of time investment from the CEO/general manager. You still have to run your day-to-day business, so the most I can really eek out is about a quarter of my time for this project.

There are some peak periods where there will be three or four days of negotiations in Sacramento, but then I come back and work with the rest of my team on day-to-day management, budget and personnel and all the other things that are part of the business of running a large organization.

We had hoped to be at the stage we are now about three to four years ago. We have hit the targets that we wanted — in completing all the environmental documents, formation of joint powers authorities to manage the design and construction, and approvals of our board to finance this — but we are several years later than we’d hoped. We are getting there and we’re making significant progress. So that part’s rewarding. The frustrating part is the time it takes to get there.

CW& P: You said recently that for the first time, in 2017 Metropolitan achieved 1 million acre-feet conserved annually. How did it happen?

JK: We made a conscious decision in the early 1990s, coming out of a bad drought, that we had to focus on conservation. Prior to that, as the regional wholesaler, Metropolitan left conservation programs, by and large, in the hands of our local cities.

You had very scattered programs throughout the Southwest. And we made a conscious effort to regionalize conservation so that people, whether you live in Pasadena or Burbank or Orange County or Riverside County, all have access to similar programs.

About 20 percent of that million acre-feet has come from active conservation — actual products we’ve funded and put into place. That’s the low-flow shower heads and the lowflush toilets and the high-intensity washing machines. The other 80 percent is what we call passive conservation, because as soon as we establish that a low-flow toilet meets all market standards, then we work with the state and get it plugged into the uniform building codes.

The governor had a goal of removing 50 million square feet of lawn across the state in 2015, and our service area did 170 million square feet. We did the program on steroids.

It was huge! It was one of those rapid drought responses where we teed up quickly and we put a lot of money into it, nearly half a billion dollars in a two-year period.

CW& P: In light of climate change and the annual variability of rainfall, what are you thinking about surface and groundwater storage?

JK: We already have the most volatile weather in the U.S. in Southern California, and it looks to become even more volatile with climate change — meaning longer dry periods of perhaps three to five years followed by incredibly intense wet years. The other side is a shift from snow to rain as temperatures warm. The models are showing that you may get roughly the same precipitation. Now it’s going to be rain, not snow.

To get through what appears to be longer dry periods, we need robust storage. If we’re going to have those mega-wet years periodically, we’re going to have to capture it, move it fast and get it into storage. Then we’re going to have to live off that storage for longer periods of time.

We got the go-ahead in the mid-’90s to start spending money. The major investment we made was the $2.1 billion reservoir Diamond Valley Lake in Riverside [completed in 2000]. Then we added to it a $1 billion connecting pipeline that tripled capacity to move water into it from our existing system.

The idea being, in the wet years, this pipeline may be empty eight out of 10 years. But in those two [other very wet] years, it’s going to move huge volumes of water into our reservoir, which we then can distribute over time. The strategy has worked exceedingly well.

During the worst drought in recorded history in California (20122016), we pulled our reservoir down more than half and our other sources as well. Then 2017 was a record-shattering wet year again. Because we had this massive pipe and large infrastructure, we filled the reservoir completely again in a shorter period — less than four months.

Southern California could have easily been in an Australia or Cape Town, South Africa, circumstance [running completely out of water] but for those investments we made in the ’90s. In fact, we got through relatively unscathed. If this is indication of the future, so far our system has worked well.

CW& P: What type of investments is Metropolitan making to protect and harden its infrastructure in the event of an earthquake?

JK: In the last 20 years, we’ve invested a quarter of a billion dollars in seismic strengthening of our existing structures. We’re going to spend, over the next five years, another $200 million on seismic upgrades throughout our system.

We have a two-prong strategy.

One is, where we have critical infrastructure, we want a pre-event strategy — hardening it as much as you can so that, to the best of our ability, it will survive as intact as is possible and need minimal repairs to get back on line [in places] where we have something that’s critical to service a large area.

The second strategy is a very robust post-event strategy. Metropolitan has stockpiled a lot of material spare parts for when things break. We maintain a state-of-the-art machine shop where we can manufacture essentially anything in our system. If you have some of our 1930s equipment destroyed in an earthquake and you’re trying to find a replacement part, many people don’t even build it anymore, and many of the complicated pieces of steel pipe and pumping equipment are only manufactured now a few places in the world, in Germany and Japan. The backlog can be months.

The Colorado River Aqueduct, the L.A. Aqueduct and the California State Aqueduct all traverse the San Andreas Fault in relatively close proximity. If they all are disrupted, it might take six months for crews to replace them. We always have a supply of water we don’t even touch during droughts. That’s our earthquake reserve. On average, it’s a little over 600,000 acre-feet.

CW& P: With the general direction of decarbonization of energy production, what do you see as the role for water agencies in moving toward a greener energy future?

JK: Metropolitan has been very heavily involved. Over a decade ago, we were an early signatory to the California Climate Registry. We report annually on our energy use and our GHG emissions, and we’ve logged a steady decrease over that entire period. We’ve developed a lot of clean power because water is heavy and it takes power to move it around. We have 16 hydroelectric plants in our system. We can do a little over 130 megawatts of hydro generation.

We’ve developed up to 5 megawatts of solar power at our treatment plants. We have converted half our fleet to hybrid vehicles, and a lot of our trucks are natural gas.

Here’s an interesting stat: 19 percent of all of California’s electrical power is engaged in water. However, of that 19 percent, less than six percent of it is for the treatment of delivery of water. A big chunk of it — two-thirds — is involved in heating of water at the end use. Heating water is very energy intensive, and we need hot water for showers, clothes washers and dishwashers. So we have done partnerships with Southern California Gas and Southern California Edison to put money toward more efficient water-heating devices that then cause people to use less water because it gets hotter faster.

CW& P: You have worked in the water industry for more than 20 years. As a leader, what do you think about most, whether it’s in your own organization at Metropolitan or for the future of California as a whole?

JK: In the short term, I always think about natural disaster. We live in a place with fires, mudslides, earthquakes, horrific drought and flooding. We need the ability to run a smooth, efficient response, so we drill and we train on this constantly. We do dozens of tabletop exercises and coordinate with emergency response services. When the system’s broken, the public deserves a rapid response that’s not fumbled.

In the long term, I do worry California has fallen into a trend of wanting to debate and talk, but not spend and develop programs to deal with the future. In the past, we’ve built large-scale infrastructure and it served us well, but it’s aging.

Oroville had a big, broken spillway — it’s 50 years old. Our facilities need to be maintained and upgraded, and the time it’s taking us to add new projects is too long. We’ve become very lax at thinking in the long term, and that’s the part that worries me the most. Our political system is not tackling the long-term issues like climate change and resilient infrastructure, and they put everything on hold because it’s easier to study it further than to make decisions. But people understand we need action, and I’m confident that with that backdrop, we are going to start getting some things done.

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