Former City of San Fernando Councilmember Sylvia Ballin reading the oath of office to Adan Ortega and to MWD’s Board of Directors. (Photos Courtesy of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

Adan Ortega was sworn in as the chairman of the Metropolitan Water District’s (MWD) Board of Directors Tuesday at a time when California is still reeling from damage caused by the recent major rainstorms.

During his acceptance speech, after he was sworn in by former City of San Fernando Councilmember Sylvia Ballin who previously served as the city’s representative on the MWD board, Ortega made clear the tough road California has ahead of it.

“We used to anticipate climate change; now climate change is a fact of life. In the old world, we used to think of drought as cyclical, as they came and went over the years. … In the new world, the storms that can save us and end the drought can also suddenly destroy communities, farms and our water supply, leaving us in a worse condition than with the drought.

“There is no longer such a thing as solving the drought.”

Ortega is the first Latino chairman of the board in MWD’s 94-year history. He is subsequently serving as the City of San Fernando’s representative on the board.

Although much of California stands in a precarious situation, Ortega said that the City of San Fernando is in a good position due to not only having groundwater, but access to water sources from both the Colorado River and northern California — whereas other communities, like Ventura County, may only have one source.

“I’m very lucky to represent a community that has that kind of resiliency, even though it’s not the wealthiest community in California.” Before swearing him in, Ballin remarked on the significance of a City of San Fernando representative being the chairman.

“Imagine that, [a representative of a city with] under 25,000 residents, a disadvantaged community, to be the chair of this board,” Ballin said. “Who would have ever thought — definitely not me. But here we are today. It is a moment.”

Ortega’s priority, he said, is to address climate change. One of the most challenging issues that has impacted California is extreme drought.

While the torrential storms that swept through the state have brought some much-needed rain, Ortega said that the heavy rainfall could lead to something more disastrous than a drought, especially for the Bay Delta area, which includes Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Alameda and Yolo counties.

“In the past few weeks, for example, there have been reports of the storms destroying the levees … that prevent ocean water from getting into the Bay Delta,” Ortega explained. “If ocean water gets into the Bay Delta, that means our ability to bring water into Northern California could end overnight.

“It won’t only mean the destruction of our ability to bring water south,” Ortega continued, “it will also destroy many small towns in the Bay Delta area, it will destroy agriculture in the Bay Delta area and it will also affect agriculture in the Central Valley, which depends on some of the same sources of water as we do [in the San Fernando Valley].”

Ortega further emphasized how severe the situation would be by explaining that the water MWD has been able to conserve in basins and reservoirs in case of a drought would essentially be gone overnight if the Bay Delta source is destroyed.

“We have to not be thinking that we’re going to be able to solve the drought,” Ortega said. “In fact, a plan for adaptation will have to rely a lot on, for example, storing water when it’s available and having the means to do it down here, not in reservoirs far away [like Lake Mead].”

Ortega recounted how, when he was MWD’s vice president of external affairs from 1999-2005, he couldn’t imagine that there would be critical water shortage conditions in all three of their major sources: Northern California, the Colorado River and local groundwater basins. About 20 years later, MWD now faces that very real crisis.

The organization has tried to make plans to build a conveyance system — a 30-foot-deep tunnel — under the Delta to bring freshwater north of the area, but having to restart their plans after Gov. Gavin Newsom scrapped the original ones and getting bogged down in lawsuits means it’s unlikely the project could see the light of day.

Due to the ever-changing climate and attempting to build more resilient infrastructure that could withstand it, Ortega said that there is no way around more expensive water. He also acknowledged the challenge of helping those that can least afford the rate increases, particularly in southern California.

“We have to work with others in the state to come up with a universal low-income rate assistance program,” Ortega said. “They exist for gas, they exist for electricity, [but] they don’t universally exist for water, so I think part of our effort is going to be to do that.”

Another option Ortega proposed is allocating a certain amount of water for people’s basic health and safety needs at a “basic price.” If a person exceeds that amount of water, then the price they pay will increase.

To tackle all these issues, the board will begin planning a climate adaptation master plan in Temecula to determine with MWD’s member agencies what it’s going to take to address the litany of concerns.

The damage has impacted more than just northern California. On Monday, between 3 to 6 inches of rain was observed in areas from south of San Francisco to north of Los Angeles. About 34 million Californians — approximately 90 percent of the state’s population — were under a flood watch. On Monday night, a flash flood warning was in effect for downtown Los Angeles until midnight.

This week’s rainstorm also caused mudslides, falling trees, power outages and evacuations across the state. In the San Fernando Valley, all the lanes of the 5 Freeway were closed early Tuesday at Lankershim Boulevard in Sun Valley. In Studio City, streets were closed due to a mudslide near Lankershim Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard.

Near the Salinas River in San Miguel, a 5-year-old boy was swept away by floodwaters on Monday. He is still declared missing.

As of Tuesday, the death toll caused by the storms is 17.

Although there is currently a brief respite from the rain, it is expected to return for a few days on Saturday, Jan. 14, through to Monday, Jan. 16.