The San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol Editor Diana Martinez interviewed Adán Ortega, the chair of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Ortega took office on Jan.1 2023, and is the first Latino chair to be elected to the post. He represents the City of San Fernando on the board and has dedicated his conference room as chair of the MWD as The San Fernando Room. He served as MWD’s vice president of external affairs from 1999 to 2005. Also, as principal of Ortega Strategies Group, he has worked in government relations for 30 years and has helped lead efforts to bring technical assistance to small community water systems in disadvantaged communities around California. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is a regional wholesaler and the largest supplier of treated water in the United States.
The following are excerpts from the conversation with Ortega.
A Background of Extended Experience
“I’ve had the privilege of working with water agencies of all sizes. The last 10 years, I’ve dedicated myself to the small water systems in California and those that serve disadvantaged communities like the City of San Fernando, and [now] being able to operate at the level where I’m chairing the board of the largest urban water supplier in the United States certainly is humbling. There’s the saying that you best appreciate the summits when you dwell in the valleys. And I’ve been in the valleys for a decade, and so being able to operate at the summit of water in this region and perhaps the state is very gratifying. And it basically brings together close to 30 years of experience that I have working with these water agencies of different sizes. So, I think I’m in a unique position, just given the privilege I’ve had to work with agencies of different sizes — in both the urban [and] the agricultural sectors — and then also the work I’ve done with environmental groups around the state and the country.
Nitrates Found in the Well System in the City of San Fernando
“When four of the wells came up with high levels of nitrate, San Fernando then turned on their supplies from the Metropolitan Water District. San Fernando had not purchased imported water from MWD for about five years. When there are issues with [an area’s] local supply, we can turn on this other supply that does not contain those contaminants. While our water at Metropolitan is much more expensive — it’s been able to supply the City [of San Fernando] as it takes steps to treat the water that was impacted by those wells. You didn’t hear that much about it in terms of alarm, because those wells were shut off and the supplies that they were providing were replaced with supplies from the Metropolitan Water District.”
Is Water Taken for Granted — What is the Best Water to Drink?
“I would argue that people really don’t take it for granted as much as they think they do. One of the paradoxes of being in this arena is that our number one cost is for assuring safe drinking water [with] filtration systems meeting new standards. Yet, no matter how much we invest, a large percentage of the public distrusts tap water, and have a preference for bottled water or water that they buy in the vending machine. But when you use water out of the tap, it costs about a third of a penny. When you go to a vending machine or you buy water out of a bottle, they can cost as much as $1 a gallon — for the same water from the same source.
“And bottled water and water that comes out of the vending machines are not as closely regulated as tap water. When you also have a regulatory process that’s constantly revising standards, [that can] give the public the impression that the water isn’t safe. And an aging infrastructure can impact the taste and smell of water, so you have all those complex matters that play on people including the sense of health and safety. We haven’t, as the water industry, done a good job of overcoming that so that people adequately understand what’s impacting the quality of the water that they’re ingesting. That’s one of the challenges that I communicated to the board that we have, and we need to basically organize to meet that challenge. That’s one of my goals in the next two to four years to make sure that we start addressing some of these more complex paradoxes in the delivery of water to residents.”
People Expect When They Turn on That Tap, Affordable Water is Going to be There
“I served on the AB 401 panel. AB 401 (Dodd) was the bill that required California to come up with the low-income rate assistance program. The regulated utilities under the PUC are allowed to make a return that some call profit. They have a low-income rate assistance program, but there’s only about a handful of suppliers or retail suppliers that have one. There are some municipal suppliers that have it, but they cannot use the money from water sales to offset the cost for low-income users because that comes in conflict with Prop 218 [which restricts the use of general taxes].
“So, one of our challenges with affordability is coming up with the universal low-income rate assistance program. I think there’s growing momentum to accomplish that. It’s something that’s a priority for Metropolitan in our climate adaptation master plan, because we’re incorporating the human right to water, and affordability is an issue. Statewide, it’s been estimated that it’ll cost $600 million a year to provide that assistance for low-income residents across the state. And so trying to figure out a funding strategy for that low-income rate assistance program is one of the formidable challenges that we have to undertake as an exercise in adapting to the [changing] climate because it means that, as I mentioned, water’s going to get more expensive, and we’re going to have to help those low-income earners be able to afford their water bills. It is a basic human right.”
With Torrential Rains Between Dec. 31, 2022, and March 25, 2023, Can We Now Be Comfortable with Use?
“We can never be comfortable again. What we’ve experienced over the last decade is what’s commonly called climate whiplash. If you may remember, droughts were far and few between, at least through my childhood. And yet, if you look at the last decade, we may have a drought and respite of a year or two before we hit the next drought. And so you can’t take anything for granted. In fact, Metropolitan just finished its first 25-year planning horizon, under what we call our integrated resources planning process that began back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And today, as you know, Southern California has grown by over 5 million people, and yet we use less water than we did in the 1970s.
“Currently, we’ve seen reduced reliability of our supplies from the Colorado River. We’ve seen a 20-year decline in supplies from the Colorado River simply because of the way that hydrology has worked, attributed to climate change. And then you have a lot of uncertainty in our seismic [activity] from Northern California. So, you have two things that have happened. Number one, our supplies have become less reliable, but consumption overall has gone down. And it’s gone down because there’s been great efforts to replace, for example, five gallon toilets with waterless urinals and one gallon flushing. It’s happened because we’ve invested about half a billion dollars in replacing turf around the region, which has resulted in a lot of savings.“
“When people first came to California, they experienced their own kind of climate change. They came from different parts of the world, where they found a climate that wasn’t like home. And they attempted to adapt, you know, by building aqueducts, where once they depended on rivers back home, by bringing vegetation that grew in other places to give life to agriculture here in California and to provide the jobs and the industries that later evolved.
“What we need to appreciate as residents is that we didn’t have to go anywhere in our generation to experience climate change — climate change came to us. And in an interesting way, it’s bringing us back to the basics of rediscovering California and living within what California’s environment can provide us. So, the reason why people need to understand water is because they will also understand their place in this state, and the conditions under which we can thrive and survive here. As I mentioned, we use less water today than we did in the 1970s. What we do with that water now is more important than ever.”
People are More Aware of Landscaping Their Homes to Conserve Water
“We’ve spent over a billion dollars since 2016 [with the city of Los Angeles and Metropolitan and member agencies] to inspire people to reclaim California’s natural landscape heritage. And the hopeful sign that it’s seen less and less as a sacrifice. They know that there was a time and perhaps there are places still that consider it the extent — the coming elimination of decorative turf. I think people are beginning to find the beauty of our natural landscape heritage and appreciate it in a way that they didn’t before.”
“So, I think the landscape is going to change. It’s already changing. You’re beginning to see it for example, at highway medians and in many cities or landscaping common areas with California friendly vegetation. It doesn’t have to be cactus. It doesn’t have to be desert-like. I have a California friendly garden at my house and it’s as green as anybody’s and yet, I don’t use a lot of water because my plants are adapted to California. I think it’s beginning to happen, and I think by the time the next 10-15 years roll around, we’ll be looking at pictures of Southern California as it was and I think will be appreciating the landscape that is.”
More People Should Consider Working in the Water Industry
“We have a reason to be concerned about how we operate our systems into the future because of the declining workforce that’s available in this area. The educational system will have to turn its attention to the kinds of things that we do to prepare students for the kind of training required in order to be able to fill these jobs. We want to work with educational institutions, to inform people [of the opportunity].
“There was a time when lawyers were getting all the money and that’s where all of the glamour was — everybody wanted to be a lawyer. I think that the tables are turning and the biggest opportunities that people are going to have in careers will be in areas like water and infrastructure. They are needed to provide the workforce that we need in order to be able to carry out our mandate to provide safe drinking water.”
“I think people need to think about water as a rediscovery of California as a place. And that includes everything — it includes how we eat and where we get water to be able to have affordable food, how we work within our industry and how we stay healthy. And then the final reason has to do with the fact that it’s going to cost us. It’s going to be expensive, and we need to be prepared to help those who are finding affordability a greater challenge that crosses economic lines now and it’s something that we have to be conscious about.”