Deven Upadhyay is the assistant general manager and executive officer for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 19 million people. We asked Upadhyay to tell us how Met is handling California’s recent precipitation whiplash—and what future improvements might be in the works.
Met has seen big declines in State Water Project deliveries in recent years and the potential for significant cuts in Colorado River supplies. What kinds of challenges does this pose?
First, it helps to understand how the Metropolitan system works and how it interacts with local systems in Southern California. We operate a giant network of pipes and facilities that allows us to move water around the region. We import water from two sources: the Colorado River, via the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the northern Sierra, via the State Water Project (SWP).
For most of our service area, we deliver a blend of water to our 26 member agencies. They then take it and deliver it to their retail customers. At any given time in a particular year, our customers might be getting 100% Colorado River water, 100% SWP water, or most likely a mix of both. We deliver half of the water used in Southern California through our network.
In the last couple of years, with the stresses on the SWP system, we’ve been utilizing that network to deliver Colorado River water and water we’ve stored for dry times. The problem is that parts of our service area aren’t able to get Colorado River or stored water, including spots in the Inland Empire and in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
This last drought cycle was really stressful for those areas. Because there was very little SWP water available, we were pumping Colorado River water as far up the system as it could go, but it was not enough to meet demand. For the first time, we had to ask the state for health and safety deliveries of SWP water, and we had to implement extreme water use reduction programs. Agencies faced large penalties if they didn’t meet their demand reduction targets.
While we relied on the Colorado River during the recent drought, we’re also working hard to reduce our overall dependence on that supply. The whole community that relies on the Colorado River recognizes it’s in imbalance. Demands are outstripping supplies, and we’ve got to figure out a way to reduce use to a more sustainable number. We’re working to implement programs to do that in the least disruptive, most flexible way.
This is turning out to be a very wet year in California—how are Met and its member agencies responding to the additional resources?
We were in the depths of really extreme conditions on the SWP. Now, less than six months later, SWP supplies are high, Lake Oroville is full, San Luis Reservoir is full, and we’re receiving surplus deliveries because there’s so much water in the system. We’re even lifting penalty structures. The change has been remarkable.
But we need to continue to stay focused on efficiency. And we need to capture as much of this surplus as we can, because as quickly as this has flipped, it could flip back again. And we still have depleted reserves to refill. We’re really the squirrels of the water system, trying to sock away water to prepare for the future.
Over the longer term, how are you building out the system to make it more flexible and reliable in the face of a changing climate?
We’re focused on three areas.
First, we’re improving our water distribution infrastructure, so that both SWP and Colorado River water can move seamlessly throughout Southern California. Improved interconnections will allow us to deal with reductions in Colorado River or SWP deliveries, or a seismic event. If the “big one” happens, we’ll be cut off from imported supplies for a time, so having interlinks is super important.
Our second initiative is a major facility that will purify wastewater through a partnership with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. It will be one of the largest recycled water projects in the world and should increase regional self-reliance by 10%.
The third initiative involves reducing outdoor irrigation needs. We’re having a real discussion about how we’re using water to irrigate landscapes. Nonfunctional turf—for instance, in median strips and office parks where it’s strictly ornamental—will be a major focus. We’re focusing on a plant palette that is more native and California friendly, with minimal irrigation requirements. This is an important discussion for the Colorado River system, too: we need to address significant inefficiencies in the way water is being used. We’ve all got to pull our weight—and it’s not something we’re going to pull back from.