The MWD's boss tells it like it is on California's water woes

This drought means a new normal for SoCal's water wholesaler, the MWD

The Metropolitan Water District was formed in 1928, when the Roaring '20s in Southern California meant a roaring abundance of water too. Today the nonprofit wholesaler provides water to half of the people in California, through cities and water agencies. Water is getting harder to find, the price is going up — truths brought home by this week's 15% cut in how much water the MWD will sell to its members. One of them is Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power, whose own independent water sources are being stretched, forcing the DWP to get more of its water from the MWD. Jeffrey Kightlinger has run the MWD for more than nine years, a job that's now about doing much more with a lot less.

It used to seem California water agencies wanted us to just turn on the tap and not think about the value of water. Why?

It fed our ideas about what California was — this lifestyle, transforming California from an arid-looking desert to a lush environment. In the utility business, we pride ourselves on being so reliable that the consumer doesn't have to think, is my toilet going to work today? Is my light switch going to work? We want to be there 24/7, 365, under all circumstances, because people expect it.

So for 80-plus years, the MWD has been about getting and selling water. Now it has to be about saving water.

Yes. We're going to be reliable, but that doesn't mean you have the right to use whatever you want. This water came from 500 miles away so you can brush your teeth. A lot of effort and energy went into getting it there. So be respectful of it.

When we had to ration water in the 1990s, we realized we can't bring in any more. We set a goal to cap our water sales and accommodate growth through conservation, recycling and reclamation. We're actually selling less water today than in 1990, and we have 5 million more people. It's kind of a goofy business: Our goal is to drive down our sales and not grow our revenue.

Yet you have to make pretty much the same amount of money to run a system with less water, even as water gets more expensive.

We're trying to make it go further. We've done it for 25 years, and we believe we can do it for the next 25, but it does get harder. You have to pay for water [maintenance], for conservation and recycling programs. But by and large, most people seem to get it, that if you reduce your water usage every year, [even though] the price goes up, it balances out. Rates have gone up, but the typical household bill has gone up less than inflation, because they've conserved.

You're also giving out rebates to take out grass.

Right now the biggest expense we have is giving people $2 a square foot to take out turf. We've done about $60 million to date and expect to do $100 million by the end of the year.

But most of it is going to businesses. Some large golf courses are getting seven-figure checks.

Our board figured water savings is water savings. It doesn't matter if it's at a household or at a business. We also wanted to be visible. Big businesses are very visible. We are trying to get a market transformation. We want people to not even think about doing a lawn.

But if homeowners see a neighbor tearing out a lawn, they may think to do the same.

There's a value to having it for individual houses as well. As the money tightens up — we can't do this forever, $2 a square foot for every inch of Southern California — we're going to have to start rolling it back and probably start putting in caps for businesses.

Almost a dozen years ago I took out our front lawn and put in native plants. We were the first house that did it, and people said, you're a water guy, of course you did that. Now I've seen about eight houses in three blocks from us that have done it. It's become socially acceptable.

What will water cutbacks look like, one house at a time?

The state [water] board has calibrated it with pretty broad brackets. One bracket covers those using 110 to 165 gallons a day per person. For them, the cut is 25%. There's a huge difference between 165 and 110. If you're at that upper end, it might be a lot easier to get to the 25%.

[Cities] try to calibrate for the household, [similar to] giving people a living allotment of water. Above it, you start seeing higher tiers and prices. You can still use a lot of water per capita per day at your house, but [above a certain amount] you'll be paying triple.

If you have a big yard, if you let your lawn die, you'll get to 25% overnight. But if you're living in a condominium, and it's going to be a matter of shaving 30 seconds off a shower, there's very little [give].

This isn't like earlier droughts when the thinking went, it'll rain and snow again. This looks like the new normal.

In the 1970s, we had a pretty bad drought and we told people, don't flush, put a brick in your toilet — the idea was, get through it, and life went on as normal. In the '90s we retrofitted virtually every toilet in Southern California, low-flow shower heads, all the technical stuff. This time, the change we're trying to make is outdoors. It's not a matter of letting your lawn go brown for a year then getting it back next year. It's a matter of removing it. We want Southern California to see lawns as more for your kids or your dogs to use. We're trying to get people to get rid of the lawn that's just there to look pretty.

But about 80% of California water still goes to agriculture.

[You] open the newspaper and see they're growing 8 zillion tons of almonds and that's where the water's going — so why do I need to get rid of my lawn?

Early in my career I did a lot of beating up of agriculture, saying they need to reform their practices. Now I find myself defending them because agriculture is making great strides [with] drip irrigation, incredibly high-tech [irrigation] microsystems. High-water-usage/low-value crops [like cotton] are leaving the state. There's a lot of water usage for almonds, but they're high value and all on microsystems.

We're talking the day after a rainstorm. Water gushed down the streets and out into the ocean. Why can't that water be saved in the aquifer as it was for centuries?

We capture a fair amount up in the San Gabriels and feed our aquifers that way. But in the 1930s and '40s, L.A. was prone to horrific floods, and the Army Corps of Engineers built huge flood control systems. Now people are saying we'd like to reverse-engineer it. That would be good, but it's going to cost billions. The places where the water would go now have houses on them.

What about everyone's favorite deus ex machina, desalination?

It's doable — Israel is doing it — but it's expensive. It's the most energy-intensive water you can get, and California has made bold steps to renewable energy, so that makes it hard to go after energy-intensive water. Look at the Carlsbad [desalination] plant going online this year: It will be three times the cost of MWD water.

Our water system is a 150-year-old crazy quilt, a patchwork of rights and legal fights.

The MWD is a true example of regional government — six counties, 19 million people, half the state population. MWD has to coordinate with about 250 retailers. A lot are mom and pop [operations], and more consolidation would have been a lot more effective. Our water rights system has always been "first in time, first in right." Urban values are of higher value to the state economy than, say, growing cotton or alfalfa, but because cotton and alfalfa got here first, they have higher water rights. Now the only way to correct it, other than decades in court, is the market.

Republicans and Democrats are divided over more water storage; the GOP wants dams, the Democrats want groundwater.

It's like screwdrivers versus hammers. You need both. Groundwater doesn't evaporate, it has a low footprint, you don't have to build infrastructure and it's cheaper. But it's slow to get into the ground and slow to get it back out. In August, I can pull down surface water fast and then refill it with groundwater. We need both. It's peculiar how it's become political.

What's become of the old north-south state water feud?

I grew up in Southern California and went to Berkeley. I was flabbergasted [to find] it was "hate LA." It's not as virulent today as it was. Northern California is relying on more imported water as well, so they've realized we're in this together. On the other hand, in Sacramento you see a "Stop Governor Brown's Delta Tunnels Project" sign on virtually every block. In Southern California, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who even understood what the issue is.

Are you doing more water-saving messaging?

In a typical year we spend about a million and a half on PR. This year, it's $5.5 million. We had a [TV character] in the shape of California looking sad and depressed as people were wasting water.

Isn't it time to start scaring people a little?

I think so. We've been trying to do it with humor and consciousness-raising . Now I think it's time to jolt them.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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