Water & Drought

Drought still grips Southern California, keeping pressure on state water supplies

El Niño has been little more than a cruel joke in Southern California this winter.

The torrential rains haven’t materialized. Groundwater aquifers have been pumped to near-historic lows. A sizable reservoir two hours east of Los Angeles, built for $2 billion as drought insurance, is two-thirds empty, its boat launch closed.

“It’s actually been a shockingly bad year,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the umbrella agency that delivers water to much of the region.

Northern Californians who believe the drought is over should think again. While north state reservoirs are brimming, the meager rainfall in cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego means continued strain on California’s man-made water system. Southern California, short of water but with economic and political clout to spare, will press the state to deliver plentiful water from Northern California for the near future.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sacramento water expert Lester Snow, former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said much of the state’s water infrastructure – including Sacramento Valley’s second-largest reservoir – was paid for by Southern California agencies to store north state water and ship it south.

In addition, many Southern Californians resent the north for treating their water needs as somehow inferior, given the south state’s enormous economic contributions.

“It’s not as if you (in Northern California) have a claim on that water that is morally superior to Southern California,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego. “So let’s all share.”

Sharing doesn’t come naturally in the contentious world of California water, and the mandatory water cuts that have hit communities such as Sacramento particularly hard have sharpened the traditional geographical schisms. The north-south tensions have put state water officials on the spot, as they wrestle with the consequences of a glass-half-empty winter that did little to alleviate drought conditions south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Some Northern California water agencies, which enjoy among the strongest legal water rights in the state, are calling for an end to the drought emergency and the stringent conservation orders that remain in place despite healthy precipitation in the Sacramento Valley and northern Sierra Nevada.

Meanwhile, some Southern California agencies, along with farm organizations in the San Joaquin Valley, complain that a portion of El Niño’s bounty is flowing to the ocean instead of being pumped south, the result of environmental concerns over endangered fish species in the Delta. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has taken up the cry of the south-of-Delta water users, urging President Barack Obama to ramp up the pumps.

Metropolitan officials couldn’t agree more. With so much water cascading through Northern California’s rivers, “you should have been able to move another half-million acre-feet of water (south) in the last 60 days alone,” Kightlinger said last week.

In an hourlong interview in his 12th-floor office at Metropolitan’s headquarters, with its panoramic view of downtown Los Angeles, Kightlinger argued that it’s in Northern California’s “enlightened self-interest” to keep his region, its massive population and its powerful economic engine well-hydrated.

“If Southern California starts to falter economically, it has a ripple effect throughout the entire state,” said Kightlinger, a genial lawyer who is also one of the most powerful figures in California water.

Metropolitan is a $1.8 billion-a-year behemoth. It supplies water wholesale to 19 million residents and consumes about half of the water delivered by the State Water Project, the giant delivery system built in the early 1960s by Gov. Pat Brown, father of current Gov. Jerry Brown. Kightlinger is one of the leading proponents of Jerry Brown’s controversial plan to re-engineer the system by building a pair of tunnels beneath the Delta. The idea is to improve the reliability of a delivery network that has become increasingly fragile as fish numbers in the estuary continue to plummet.

“What we don’t want to do is bring more water south,” Kightlinger said. “What we want to do is stabilize the system.”

A land with comparatively little rainfall even in the best of times, Southern California has dealt with water shortages for much of its history – sometimes making enemies along the way. It was more than a century ago that the city of Los Angeles bought up much of the land and water rights in the Owens Valley, about 200 miles north, effectively drying up a once-prosperous farming community. The episode still reverberates in rural communities, where suspicions persist about Southern California’s seemingly insatiable demands.

In the 1930s, Metropolitan built the 300-mile aqueduct to import water from the Colorado River, and Metropolitan’s somewhat grudging financial support was crucial to getting the State Water Project off the ground.

In recent years, Metropolitan has taken a more diversified approach, stepping up imports when possible but also working to curb consumption. After the U.S. government took almost half of Metropolitan’s Colorado River water away in 2003, giving it to Nevada and Arizona to resolve years of squabbling, Kightlinger’s agency reached out to farmers of the Palo Verde Valley for help. The result was a multiyear deal in which Metropolitan pays farmers to fallow some of their land and part with their Colorado River water.

At the same time, Metropolitan has invested heavily in recycling, low-flow toilets, cash-for-grass and other measures to tamp down demand, while one of its member agencies, in San Diego, built a $1 billion ocean-desalination plant.

And Southern California does not live on imported water alone. Roughly 35 percent to 40 percent of the region’s supply typically comes from local rainfall, much of it stored in vast underground basins regulated by obscure government agencies such as the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

Founded in 1959, the district monitors groundwater levels to ensure they are not overpumped. It also finds sources of water to replenish what’s taken out by the 4 million people living in the district’s 420-square-mile service area. That puts Southern California decades ahead of much of the Central Valley, where unregulated groundwater extraction has depleted aquifers to the point where portions of the valley floor are sinking.

The drought, not surprisingly, has put the Southern California groundwater agency in a bind. A rainy winter generates about 54,000 acre-feet of new water for the Water Replenishment District. Not so this year.

“We had two years in a row where we got negligible, almost zero,” said district general manager Robb Whitaker. “This year … we’re at 10,000 acre-feet, and we’re a month away from the end of the rainy season or less.”

Since the drought started in 2011, water levels in the district’s basin have dropped nearly 50 feet, a loss of 70 billion gallons. Normally the district would buy water from Metropolitan to replenish its underground reserves, but for four years Metropolitan has had little to spare. The agency is spending $100 million on a water-recycling plant to try to ween itself from Metropolitan.

“There was so much hype about El Niño, and there was so much hope, but we didn’t really see it,” Whitaker said. “It makes these efforts (to recycle water) all the more relevant.”

El Niño’s uneven performance is one of the great ironies of the drought. Original forecasts called for heavy downpours in Southern California and so-so precipitation north of the Delta.

Instead, the reverse happened, leaving Southern California gasping.

Downtown Los Angeles has received 6.59 inches since the “water year” began in October, according to the National Weather Service. While that’s almost an inch more than last year, it’s less than half the historical average. Sacramento has received twice as much rain as Los Angeles.


But if it had to be one end of California or the other, it’s been better for the state as a whole that the heavy precipitation has fallen on the north. Even as 75 percent of the demand for drinking water and irrigation lie in the south state, three-quarters of the state’s reservoir capacity sits north of Fresno. The state relies on those reserves and Sierra snowmelt to buoy it through summer and fall.

The heavy rains that have fallen on Northern California have resulted in increased deliveries to Southern California through the State Water Project, which accounts for 30 percent of Metropolitan’s supply. The state project is expected to deliver 45 percent of what Metropolitan and other customers have requested this year.

While that’s twice as much as last year, it’s well short of a full allocation.

“Like it or not, the entire state is plumbed together,” said Shane Chapman, general manager of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District in eastern Los Angeles County. “To a degree we don’t get precipitation locally, we’re more dependent on imported water.”

The drought’s continuing impact is perhaps best viewed at one of the gems of the Metropolitan system: Diamond Valley Lake, a man-made reservoir built on a cluster of former chicken and onion farms in the Riverside County community of Hemet.

Spanning 4 1/2 miles from west to east, capable of storing 810,000 acre-feet of water, Diamond Valley doubled the region’s reservoir capacity when it opened in 2000. In the past year it’s become a vivid symbol of the drought.

Diamond Valley is fed entirely by the State Water Project, and multiple years of meager deliveries reduced lake levels to their lowest point ever over the winter. The reservoir’s public boat launch, a massive ramp longer than two football fields, has been closed since April 2015.

Even with the recent uptick in state water deliveries, Diamond Valley has a desolate look. The water level sits 20 yards below the bottom edge of the concrete ramp.

Touring the lake on an agency pontoon boat last week, Metropolitan regional manager Glen Boyd pointed to water marks on the reservoir’s inner stone walls, showing lake levels roughly 100 feet below where they’d been a few years ago.

Boyd said there’s a chance the boat launch could reopen later this spring. But Metropolitan’s press officer, Bob Muir, who regularly gets phone calls from fishermen eager to bring their boats to the lake, said he’s unable to provide a firm answer.

“Diamond Valley Lake shows the drought is alive and well,” Muir said as the boat skipped along the choppy waters. “At least in Southern California.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler