In an interview with San Fernando Valley Sun Editor Diana Martinez, Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager and chief executive officer for the  Metropolitan Water District of Southern California discussed the drought and addressed the need to conserve even during winter months. The Metropolitan Water District is the nation’s largest municipal water provider. With 26 member agencies MWD provides water to 19 million people in Southern California  at the wholesale level and cities and water districts in turn handle the retail side to consumers.

SFV Sun/El Sol:  As the general manager for MWD, I know you have many challenges in front of you, what would you say are your greatest challenges at this point?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Obviously, during a drought, the biggest challenge, of course, is water supply. There’s kind of two challenges.

One, of course, is making sure we have water for all our customers, which there isn’t simply enough.

The second is communicating to them what’s going on, or what’s happening. Making sure the people in Southern California understand.

That’s the number one challenge, and working with the public to get through the drought is very challenging.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Now that we are into our winter months, I’m sure that challenge is even more pressing. As people start seeing small drops of rain, how do you continue to make people care about the drought during our winter months?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: The good news about the winter months is that water usage drops. That makes our job a little easier during the winter months. The hard thing about winter months: because people use less water, they don’t use so much outdoors so it is hard to tell people to continue to conserve. We are under a mandate to conserve and use 25 percent less water. It’s hard to do in the winter months [because consumption already drops].

The good news is we got through the summer months, where demands are usually very high on us. Southern Californians have responded so well. We weren’t sure how much water people would cut back. We asked them to cut back 15 percent. Everybody responded by cutting back almost 30 percent. People really stepped up and did a good job.

SFV Sun/El Sol: In that spirit, there has been concern, though, that while people conserve they don’t necessarily see that savings indicated by their rates or on their bills. Why is that the case?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: One of the big challenges in our communicating with the public is getting people to really understand — what are the costs behind supplying water? What people don’t understand is, about 80 percent of our costs are fixed, whether we deliver one drop of water, or the two million acre-feet we normally serve. Metropolitan serves almost 2 billion gallons of water every single day, over the course of the year. Yet 80 percent of our costs are fixed, whether we serve the first gallon, or two billion gallons.

The reason is, because, people think they’re buying [the] water. What you’re really buying is concrete, dams, reservoirs, pumping systems, aqueducts, canals, iron steel pipes in the street. All that infrastructure has to be paid for every single year, whether it’s used or not. On the flip side of that, about 80 percent of our revenue is attached to sales of water. When people use a lot less water, our revenues go way down. Yet our costs stay the same. We have to pay for all of our infrastructure that we built over the years. We have to raise the rates to cover the costs. It’s a very frustrating thing for consumers. We ask them to conserve, they step up and they do conserve, and then they feel we punish them by raising their rates.

It’s a challenge for us to communicate it. That you’re not paying for the water. You’re paying for infrastructure that is going to be there for you, for your job, for your children, for your grandchildren. It’s really an investment. You’re not paying for the water you use, you’re investing in a system that has to be there, that makes life possible. But I understand that frustration because your natural instinct is to think, “I have high bills. What did I use? If I used less, my bills should go down.”

SFV Sun/El Sol: Many people who have large families are challenged to conserve. They may be doing what they can to conserve but with more people to consider, but their challenges as a large household may not be the same as another family that is much smaller.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: We are what’s called a “wholesale agency.” One of the approaches by many water retail agencies has been to develop what they call “water budgets.” They’ll actually determine the size of your house, the amount you have outdoors, the number of children and people living in your household, and give you a water budget.

It’s a base rate of conserving the amount of water for that. Then, if you use more and more, they charge more and more. Those water budgeting systems are becoming more the trend now. It really is something that they set the pricing and use based on your actual usage, and based on how many people.

SFV Sun/El Sol: I don’t think that that particular message has literally trickled down to large families who are trying hard to conserve or for people challenged by living on hillsides who are very concerned about the cost of watering even drought-resistant foliage, and concerned about fires when brush dries up. There are concerns about the larger effects of that — of having hillsides slide. It’s sometimes more complex than simply saying, “Okay, there’s consideration for it.” Information is not necessarily trickling down to households.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: We do a lot of outreach. We are a wholesaler, so I’ve seen people at the Department of Water and Power do a lot of outreach as well. And so do other water agencies in the city. But the goal is really to make sure consumers have enough information so they can conserve. We have a website, we offer rebates on all sorts of things [from] low-flow toilets to low-flow shower heads, to rebates to pull up grass. We do lots of these programs….

SFV Sun/El Sol: I know you have had lots of the programs, but we also hear that the money’s run out for those programs.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: During a drought, there’s no doubt about it.

SFV Sun/El Sol: In particular, for the Northeast Valley. I would say you would be hard-pressed to find the family member that actually was able to participate in the program [that replaced lawns with drought-friendly landscaping] because of lack of information getting to them.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Our statistics show quite a bit of penetration into the North Valley, and throughout the Valley.

SFV Sun/El Sol: In the Northeast San Fernando Valley?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: We have a chart that shows everyone who’s done an application so there is pretty even distribution throughout the entire San Fernando Valley. San Fernando Valley’s probably got the most in the LA area.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Okay, because I’m being very specific when asking about the Northeast Valley, not just the North Valley.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: I have a map that shows everyone that got a rebate. It shows pretty decent distribution for the entire service area.

SFV Sun/El Sol: When we went out and just tried to eyeball it — and heard from our readers — that just did not seem to be the case. We did wind up featuring a woman who benefited from the program who lives in Van Nuys but we had to go out of the Northeast Valley to find a resident who had benefited from the program.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: We can put you in touch with our conservation team. They can get you in touch with people.

SFV Sun/El Sol: California is having more frequent and intense droughts. There are those however, still saying there isn’t such a thing as global warming or climate change. Would you agree that this drought is a result of climate change?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: The actual water supply issues are probably not so much driven by climate change but by drought, a normal drought cycle. This one’s so severe that we believe it’s been at least made worse by climate change. One of the things we think climate change has definitely contributed to is the high temperatures. It’s never been this hot,[as it has been leading up to winter]. We’ve had dry periods in the ‘70s before, but we’ve never seen it this dry. It’s hot at the same time. I am personally convinced that climate change has had a significant influence and impact over this drought.

SFV Sun/El Sol: I’ve read some of your literature in the past that made reference to rural communities really having challenges. The small City of San Fernando, in particular, has had well problems and nitrate problems; two of its four wells have been shut down because of nitrates. Residents are sometimes so concerned about the safety of the water that they buy more bottled water. Even if they are independent cities, is there any help offered by MWD to help small cities with some of their nitrate or well problems?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Yes. In our service area we work closely with our member agencies on water quality issues. Metropolitan runs a very extensive laboratory system to help them with their ground water issues. Most of the big challenges, though, are outside of Southern California, in the rural areas. We do not help those agencies. It’s proven to be a very significant challenge, particularly in some of these rural areas.

SFV Sun/El Sol: In the City of San Fernando and in Southern California, the ground water issue is a big issue for us.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: We understand. We’ve done some work with the city, I know, on some possible solutions as well as treatment programs.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Again, getting into the drought and our winter months, what kind of outreach efforts are you going to be making? Are we going to be seeing MWD make the point that, even though their usage will go down, as you stated, that we still do need to conserve?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: We typically spend about $1.5 million on all of our advertising that reaches across Southern California. This year, we spent $5.5 million. It’s been a lot of money [going] into TV and radio ads. We did it in five different languages. We did all the new materials in five languages. It’s been a broad outreach across California. We’re really trying to reach people.

We will slow it down now that we’re into the winter months. We’ve also found that people really tune out once it starts raining. If the predictions of El Niño come through, then people really do tune out “save water.” They think of that as the summer. But we’re still going to try and keep that drum beat up because, as I said, Southern California’s done such a marvelous job. We don’t want to lose the momentum now.

SFV Sun/El Sol: With El Niño on it’s way, what kind of preparation has MWD made to “catch” additional water? (DWP is offering rain barrels for customers. ) As a water “provider” how has MWD prepared?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Although Metropolitan does not play a role in capturing any of the local rainfall from this year’s expected El Niño, the district is primed to take advantage of any increased rainfall and snowpack in the agency’s imported water sources in Northern California and along the Colorado River. Through the operational flexibility offered by investments like the $2 billion Diamond Valley Lake in southwest Riverside County, Metropolitan has increased the region’s storage capacity to nearly six million acre-feet of water, a 13-fold increase since 1990. Today, the district can capture and store more than one million acre-feet of water in a single year. However, lots of rain this winter doesn’t change the need to conserve and use water wisely.

SFV Sun/El Sol: How much “catch up” would really need to happen before you could say, “We don’t need to worry about a drought.”?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: One of the big tools we have against the drought is water in storage. The reason we tell people that we’re having mandatory cutbacks in water supplies is because our storage reserves were drawn way down.

We went into this drought — I’m going to use some water terms here — with three million acre-feet of water in storage. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons. Typically an acre-foot serves two households all of their water supply for a year. We had almost three million acre-feet of water in storage. We have under one million now.

We went through two-thirds of our storage in the first four years of those droughts. We can usually only add 400,000-500,000 acre-feet back if it rains a lot. One year isn’t going to solve it. It’ll help, but we need 3-4 good years to get back to where we fill our robust reserves against drought.

The best way to do this is to have people conserve. Even if it rains, we’re not sitting idly by. We’re putting water into the reservoirs. Refilling our reservoirs when it rains. That’s why we need people to conserve, so we don’t have to instead deliver that water for drinking.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Would it take four years, or 4-5 years, even with a Godzilla El Niño?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: If we get the Godzilla El Niño, no, it’d be much shorter. But it’d probably still be 2-3 years. We can’t do it in one year, no matter how big. Even with the Godzilla El Niño, we’ll need another good year after that. Then we’ll be close to whole.

If (El Niño is) just sort of average or normal here … even a little bit better than average, it’ll take 3-4 years and maybe longer to get back to where we feel our reserves are comfortable.

SFV Sun/El Sol: What’s the likelihood of that even happening? As the general manager, you have to wrestle with the fact that we have had a tremendous change here in Southern California with climate change. Is this something that we have to now accept as a way of life, with conservation as a way of life?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Absolutely. As a principle, we live in a very arid part of the world. What we’re trying to get the public to do is [understand] this is not about a drought; this is a way of life. We need to conserve wet years, dry years — every year. You need to rethink your lawn and your outdoor water use, really. You need to reduce your water use if we’re going to make this a place that’s comfortable, thriving — Southern California thriving. We’re going to have to get that water-conserving ethic down to the public.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Do you see Southern California changing in how it looks, and its terrain changing as a result of this?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: I do.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Going back to the desert that it really is?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: We’re not a desert. We’re more of a Mediterranean climate. This doesn’t mean sand and rocks. It doesn’t mean acres of lawns and beautiful elms: you know, the East Coast look. We’re more oak trees. We have beautiful sage. You have to find the beauty of our Mediterranean plants and our Mediterranean lifestyle. It can still be beautiful, but it’s not a re-creation of New England. That’s what we need to embrace, and that’s part of the ethic that we’re trying to set.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Bringing this whole issue home, and to the points that you make, how has your life changed? What do you do, as an example, for conserving? Have you made any changes in your own life, or is there anything you can share about your own experience that might be interesting to read?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Sure. About 11 years ago, I tore out my lawn and I put in a native plants area in my front house. My neighbors were, perhaps, their initial reaction was that I’d lost it. After a couple of years, a guy next door came over and said, “Yeah, I really like that. It’s pretty, isn’t it? Doesn’t look like it requires as much work. It seems the right thing to do.” So my next door neighbor did it.

It’s been a decade that we’ve lived there, and we have about eight houses within the block do it. I think people are open to change. They liked doing something they perceived as a good thing for Southern California. What makes it good is, you have one person does something and it has an effect. More people will do it.

That’s something that my wife and I did, and we were very pleased with the results. Then we noticed that it had an impact on our little localized community. It’s a very encouraging sign.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Are you from Los Angeles originally?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Yes, I am. I am an eighth-generation Angeleno, which is unusual. I’ve got three kids, so they’re ninth generation. Some day, if one of them has a kid, that’ll be a 10th-generation Angeleno.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Great. Where about in L.A. did you grow up?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: My ancestors were Machados [the Machado family] and they had original Spanish land grants back down in the Culver City area. I grew up in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. Went to King Junior High and Marshall High. My wife and I now live in Highland Park.

SFV Sun/El Sol: We would like to continue discussion with MWD particularly in the effort to outreach to all communities.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: We should do more together. We do have trouble reaching people, particularly this being a wholesale agency. We provide the water to the city, who then provides the water to the consumers. We’re a step removed and there’s no doubt we sometimes don’t get that connection.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Water is  a huge issue. As much as I try to read about it, there’s always more to learn. It can be overwhelming for consumers, and we are all consumers. I think we all want to do the right thing. At the same time, we need to save money. All the home, health, and pocket book issues impact all of us. I would like to continue the conversation.

Jeffrey Kightlinger: Absolutely.

SFV Sun/El Sol: Is there anything else I haven’t asked you that you feel is important for our readers to know?

Jeffrey Kightlinger: The one thing I would add is, I don’t think people actually know where their water comes from. A little over half of all the water consumed in southern California, about 55%, most of that water comes from either Northern California, about 450 miles away, captured in the Sierras, moved via aqueduct, moved over the Tehachapi Mountains. That’s water that’s moved almost 500 miles to get to someone’s house.

Or it comes from the Colorado River, 250 miles to the east. Again, moving over mountain ranges and coming across the desert; inhospitable territory. When you think about it, [when these systems were first built] it was [and is] a monumental effort to get the water to Southern California. We have to understand it is precious.