Statewide water shortages and a tear in the supply chain pose critical policy questions for Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. The following is Part two of a two-day series on California’s resolutions to water shortages. Barry Dugan wrote in Part one, “Popularity of water recycling boosted by drought, climate change.”
In part of a larger bid to burnish his environmental legacy before leaving office, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is shining the spotlight on water. Building on his ambitious 20-year water plan and dovetailing with the governor’s February declaration of a statewide drought emergency, the mayor has recently stepped up efforts to restrict water use and penalize waste.
In a high-profile move meant to draw attention to his conservation agenda, Villaraigosa recently transferred attorney and veteran political figure David W. Fleming from his post at MTA to the board of the Metropolitan Water District, the agency that supplies Los Angeles with more than half of its water. Fleming, who currently sits on 14 boards, comes to the new position with a prolific history of public service and business experience.
“David is eminently qualified to lead us through the drought and water shortages that have become an inconvenient reality for Los Angeles,” the mayor said in a statement.
In an interview with Public CEO, Fleming affirms his interest in taking on the new challenge, echoing an increasingly popular adage: “What oil was to the 20th century,” he says, “I think water is going to be for the 21st. I think it’s going to be the single most important resource. It’s a scarce resource and we’re going to have to treat it that way.”
Fleming joins Metro at an interesting time, when the political storm surrounding water is still distant, but promises to intensify as consumers begin to feel the pinch. After two years of drought, both state and local officials are warning that Los Angeles will be paying more for water this year.
Reporting low reservoir levels and below-average snow and rainfall consolidation, the state’s Department of Water Resources, which supplies Southern California with around one-third of its water through the State Water Project, is projecting only 20% of normal allocation this year – the lowest in nearly two decades.
This means less supply for Metro, which imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River to supplement local resources. The board will soon decide on a measure that would slash supplies to its 26 cities and member agencies, including LADWP, by an estimated 15-20 percent. This move would make mandatory conservation measures “inevitable,” according to Fleming.
The DWP has already adopted a drought shortage plan, under which customers will see 44-percent (second-tier) price increases unless they reduce their consumption by 15 percent. Unless halted by City Council, the plan will take effect this summer.
Fleming balks a bit at the idea of imposed conservation and mandatory restrictions, putting more faith in volunteerism and public awareness.
“I’m more Jeffersonian than anything. I have an uneasiness about heavy-handed government,” says the attorney, who was a prominent leader behind the San Fernando Valley secession movement nearly a decade ago, which he helped bankroll.
Whether mandatory or not, conservation efforts will have to be substantial if Metro plans to get ahead of the statewide drought crisis – which is compounded by the fact that Southern California’s two main water sources are compromised.
“Were facing supply challenges in both sources for Southern California,” says Bob Muir, a MWD representative. “The Colorado River Aqueduct, and Northern California through the San Joaquin Delta – right now is in a state of environmental collapse, and because of that the US Fish and Wildlife Service introduced an opinion which will limit supplies.”
Pumping restrictions meant to protect endangered ecosystems and fish species in the San Joaquin River Delta could mean a forty-percent decrease in imports from the North each year.
But the problem, says Fleming, who thinks of the proposed ruling as a worst-case scenario, is not just the supply of water.
“Traditionally we have wet years, we have dry years,” he says. “But the real problem is the distribution of water. Most of the water is found in the north of California, and most of the population is in the south. Other than the canal we built in the 1960s, we really haven’t put water where it’s counted the most – in the Southern part of the state and the Central Valley.”
Rather, Fleming contends the fundamental problem is “how you deal politically with an environmental issue,” indicating a Northern California “political mindset” that approaches the state as if it were sawed in half.
“This is a long term problem that has to be dealt with,” says Fleming, adding that, in addition to environmental impact, “people throughout the state have to realize the economic impact of distribution system that isn’t functioning perfectly.”
A consideration of economic impact might also to look at where the water goes once it gets here. Some experts contend that 85 percent of water imported from the north goes to agricultural production, including water-intensive cash crops like cotton, which are in a way subsidized by the higher fees urban consumers will pay in a shortage. Considering this, the governor’s invocation of drought and population growth to justify increased pumping in the San Joaquin Delta might make less sense.
Yoram Cohen, director of UCLA’s Center for Water Technology Research Center, is adamant that the region needs to reevaluate its water supply, and address sustainability.
“I think that it’s high time that we develop water independence for Southern California. Relying on water supply that comes all the way from the North or Colorado costs a tremendous amount of money. As a result, we’re not focusing our efforts to develop our [own resources],” he says.
Cohen estimates that we recycle about one percent of our water in Southern California, while pointing out that there are places in the world that approach 60-70 percent – or coastal cities like Israel and Singapore, where a significant percentage of the population’s drinking water comes from the sea.
Fleming also advocates desalinization, and Muir confirms it is a future focus area for Metro, noting that LADWP is one of the agencies working with metro to put a desalinization unit online in the future.
But Cohen insists current policy fails to address the connection between energy and water.
“Our energy and water areas in the states are managed independently and one has to recognize that both are connected – it takes energy to move and treat water, so we can’t have independent policies.”
With persistent drought and an impending energy crisis, waning resources and a giant body of water at our feet, why have we not adopted a more aggressive policy?
“It has nothing to do with technology,” says Cohen. “It’s more a ethical policy [issue], the ability of state and county representatives to sponsor bills that provide incentives instead of punishments, as we do in a crisis situation.”
And while Cohen commends Metro for being “a forward-thinking water agency,” like other agencies he says it “reacts to pressures and crisis. And unfortunately, in order to implement new technologies it takes time. It has to be a long range vision. That’s part of the problem we’re suffering from.”
In fact, says Cohen, much of our current water policy is built around this crisis model.
“The policies we have right now are just reactionary. We wait until things get really bad, then we jump the gun and impose restrictions on water use. Then crisis is over and we go back to business as usual – the policy is not long-term,” he says.
“I remember [about] 20 years ago,” says Fleming, “we went through a rather rigorous rationing process and it worked. It was followed by a couple very wet years, so everyone went back to business as usual. I don’t think we can put up with business as usual [this time].” he says.
“If we have wet years, we’ll forget about it,” says Cohen. “If we have more dry years, maybe we’ll wake up. Policy needs to provide incentive for recycling and reuse; significant public education is essential. Without that, we won’t make any significant progress.”
“So much of it is awareness,” says Fleming. “When people begin to realize that we have a very limited resource – that water is the key to life – I think we’ll get a lot of cooperation from the public.”
More on David Fleming here.