California remains plunged into a drought that — according to some researchers — has lasted more than two decades and is considered a “megadrought.”
Such events have happened before in history. But this megadrought, the researchers say, is being driven by human-caused climate change that is leading to longer, hotter, and drier temperatures. One effect has been the state becoming increasingly vulnerable to disastrous and widespread wildfires that destroy trees and vegetation, “bake” the soil and — when rains do come — increase flooding and dangerous debris from runoff.
It’s not just Californians who are suffering. According to the federal Department of Agriculture, “Almost all of the US drought is located west of the Mississippi River, with extraordinarily dry conditions in far Western states, which scientists warn is a consequence of the climate crisis. Much of the West’s drought is actually a long-term phenomenon, persisting from year to year without enough precipitation to lead to a full recovery.”
The Metropolitan Water Department of Southern California (MWD) is the water wholesaler for the Southland, managing deliveries to 26 agencies in six counties that serve 19 million people. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) receives an average of 41% of its water supply annually from MWD, through the State Water Project.
Adel Hagekhalil, MWD general manager, spoke with San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol reporter Mike Terry about the continued impact of the drought and why we must “find new ways” of using and conserving water to adapt to climate change.
This interview has been edited for space.
SFV Sun/el Sol: Can California literally run out of water because of the megadrought?
Hagekhalil: “We need to do something to deal with this changing climate. We are seeing hotter and drier days. The snowcap we’ve relied on for 100 years is no longer a reliable source of water, and we need new tools to manage water. If we don’t do it, well, yes, we could turn the faucet on one day and water may not come out.
“We’re not going to let it happen. But we’ve all got to do it together to prevent that from happening.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: In basic terms, what has been the effect of the megadrought, at least locally?
Hagekhalil: “What made Southern California the great [location] that we have is that we were able to bring water from outside the region into our area. We import water from the Sierras, both the Western and the Eastern Sierras, and also from the Colorado River or the Rockies. We have three aqueducts that feed our region; one is owned by the City of Los Angeles, called the LA Aqueduct. We have the Colorado aqueduct, which brings water from Lake Havasu, and the California Aqueduct, called the State Water Project, which brings water from Northern California and the Bay Delta area in Sacramento.
“We have relied on that water for many, many years and we have really stopped working on efforts for conservation, especially the last 20 years or so. Last year we had close to 90% of normal when it comes to the snowpack in the Sierra. What actually made it into our waterways, rivers, and lakes was 30%. In Northern California, during the month of December, we saw snow come in and everybody was excited and happy — we had about 100% of our snowpack. But you come into January and February and [they were] the hottest and driest months in the last 800 years…. [the latest report on April 1 by the state Department of Water Resources shows] the snowpack now is 38% below normal.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: What does that mean?
Hagekhalil: “We need to find new ways to adapt to this changing climate, to the shrinking water supplies. And the way we can do it is to change our relationship with water and deal with it as a precious commodity by conserving as much as we can.
“I think we’re going to be able to start using recycled water in lieu of the precious water coming down from different locations, and store that precious water in places like Lake Mead, Lake Oroville (pictured on the cover of the newspaper), and the Diamond Valley Lake… What we need to do right now is save every drop of water we can, then start working hard to expedite the investments into recycled water and water storage.
“Let’s not waste water. But also create more local water supplies. Treat and clean up our groundwater basins and protect them; when we have rain, capture the rainwater and use it to recharge the basins and those reservoirs that hold water; and recycle every drop of water we can so we save the precious water that drains from the snowpack into our reservoirs. Let it be stored so we can use it during the droughts that we’re going to see in the future.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: What appears to be the most devastating impact of climate change?
Hagekhalil: “It’s basically losing our snowpack and not getting the water that we used to get into our waterways and reservoirs. What we need to do right now is find a way to adapt to this missing part of the water cycle — the snow that melts and basically goes into our water system — so we can recycle and conserve that water.
“We’re gonna have heavy rains and or heavy years of rain, and then three-to-five years of heavy drought. We need to be able to manage our water that way. It’s like how you fund a family bank account; you have a checking account and a saving account. We all have to find ways to save money on the side when we have it, so when we have issues we can tap into it.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: How will mandates and potential fines for excessive water use affect residents and communities?
Hagekhalil: “It’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ fine system. We’re going to look for people who are using way more water than they need. And we’re going to work with them on how we can stop some of that because it may not be necessary.
“To me, the biggest thing is the priority of providing people water, especially in underserved communities. We are targeting underserved communities, ensuring that they receive [needed] investments. We’re also working through pilot programs like one we call ‘direct install’ [to help reduce repair costs] with the understanding that a lot of folks may be working two jobs and don’t have the time to apply for rebates — we understand that. For some communities like San Fernando, which uses groundwater for most of its water, it’s our position that we ensure we are protecting that groundwater basin. We need to ensure the protection of that water quality.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: There are homes in the City of San Fernando and throughout the Northeast Valley that are occupied by multiple generations of families that could potentially be using large amounts of water for bathing, cooking, washing clothes, etc. Would any mandate formula take something like that into consideration? And if so, how would it go about determining violations?
Hagekhalil: “Specific mandates about indoor water use would come from the local water agency — either the LADWP or City of San Fernando. I don’t believe either has mandates for indoor use. Some water agencies do have ‘tiered pricing,’ in which they set a baseline of water use and charge a rate for it. Water consumed above this baseline is then charged at a higher rate. I would suggest contacting the LADWP or the City of San Fernando to determine if they have such tiered pricing or ‘carve-outs’ for homes occupied by larger families.
“The larger concern is outdoor watering: it’s responsible for more than half of all residential water use on average in Southern California. Some water agencies do have mandates around the number of days and amount of time residents can water outdoors. And we will be seeing an increase in such mandates in the coming months to address the worsening drought. But this doesn’t relate to how many people are living in a home.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: You mentioned protecting the quality of the underground water in San Fernando. Is that water quality a MWD responsibility, a City of San Fernando responsibility, or even a joint responsibility?
Hagekhalil: “MWD does not manage groundwater supplies in the San Fernando Valley or elsewhere. However, we do support the health of groundwater basins throughout our service area by providing funding to our member agencies for groundwater recovery and remediation through our Local Resources Program.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: What is the bigger frustration: that the public doesn’t get the severity of the drought or just remains in denial?
Hagekhalil: “We take water for granted. We think water is [always] available. We need to appreciate that this water is valuable. I tell people to imagine a day without water. None of us want to be in that boat. We need to work together to do that. We need to kind of get an appreciation of the value of this valuable lifeline that we have; it’s not going to be there forever unless we take care of it.
“I think everyone needs to do one thing for water every single day. If you have clothes to wash, and it’s only a few of them, wait for a full load. If you have a leaky faucet or leaky toilet, we have rebates [to help] you fix them. If you water your lawn, instead of doing it five days a week or three days a week, do it one day a week. And if you want to use the rebate to replace your lawn or turf it with California native plants, do it.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: How practical is it to expect the public to do more conservation, such as capturing rainwater? It’s hard to get the public to do that voluntarily.
Hagekhalil: “The good news in Southern California is [a lot of] the water we use today is the same [amount of] water we used 40 years ago, even with the increased population. [MWD is] spending huge amounts of money on resources and rebates for our communities to replace old fixtures inside and outside the house with more efficient fixtures and equipment.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: Would such rebates pay for replacing older plumbing that might contribute to lead in water, or create a darker, brownish-colored water that families may have to boil it first before drinking?
Hagekhalil: “MWD provides rebates for water-efficient appliances and for leak-detection devices only. We do not provide rebates for the replacement of plumbing in residential homes.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: Facilities like golf courses; where do they fall into conserving water use?
Hagekhalil: “You can see a lot more [courses] where only the putting greens are green, but the rest of the areas are not as green. Instead of watering the entire golf course, they are watering only certain areas that are really critical for golfing, not the entire golf course.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: What is the future?
Hagekhalil: “Recycling water is going to be the future. We all have to do our job. But it starts with the home. Each one of us can do something while we are preserving the precious water we have now so we can invest and make the system improvements that we need to do over the next five to 10 years.”
SFV Sun/el Sol: One last thought: with summer approaching, what recommendation do you have for people that may not have or cannot afford air conditioning to help stay cool?
Hagekhalil: “To me, being outside and under the shade of trees is a big thing. So don’t forget to water your trees; it doesn’t take much for trees to be [properly] watered. And trees are part of our system to capture water.
“Finally, let me say we [at MWD] are here for you. If there’s any way we can support the community — everyone — in finding different solutions, we will. We hope that we all invest and do the right thing, to make sure that we create a future of resiliency for everyone.”