For 15 years, Jeffrey Kightlinger was the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to about 19 million people — nearly half of all Californians — across six counties, including Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego.
That water comes primarily from two sources. The California State Water Project draws snow runoff from the Sierra in Northern California, where this year the snowpack in some places was at just 5 percent of its average. And water also comes from the Colorado River and its Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs, which are lower now than ever.
I spoke with Kightlinger, who retired in July, about whether we’ve crossed a permanent threshold of crisis. (We have, he said.) And whether the recently announced conservation measures, some of the strictest ever imposed, are enough. (They’re not.)
Here is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity:
What’s the current situation for water in Southern California?
Very grim. The State Water Project is only delivering 5 percent. An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons. On average, you hope to get a million acre-feet out of it a year. We’re going to get 100,000 acre-feet of it — 100,000 acre-feet would be 300,000 households for a year.
For an area of 19 million people.
Colorado has been more reliable than the State Water Project because it has more reliable rain in the Rockies. But the more important reason it’s been so steady and reliable has been a massive amount of storage on the Colorado River, which is in danger. So Lake Powell, Lake Mead — those can hold 50 million acre-feet of water together. In 2000, they were completely full. And now they’re only about a third full.
So we should never expect the big Colorado reservoirs to be close to full ever again?
I grew up in Orange County in the 1980s, and I remember water rationing back then. Is this different?
That was a real wake-up call because we’d always thought this geographic diversity — water from the Rocky Mountains, water from the Sierra, water from the eastern Owens Valley, and our local rainfall — that the mix of all these different hydrology meant we were pretty immune to drought. And we realized by the late ’80s, that’s no longer true.
We started a conservation program. Metropolitan began financing in the ’90s in low-flush toilets, low-flow showers. And the region has gotten incredibly more water efficient than it was. Those tools effectively worked for the last 30 years. But, well, not any longer.
Just because I have a low-flush toilet doesn’t mean I use it less.
That’s exactly right. The efficiencies have flattened out because we’ve done all the big stuff. The last 15 years have been the driest 15 years in California recorded history. This is a real permanent hardship that’s coming. And we’re going to have to take pretty dramatic measures.
What kinds of behavioral changes?
Getting rid of turf, getting rid of backyard watering. You water trees and that’s it. People have already dropped their water usage by more than half throughout Southern California over the last 25 years, and we’re going to need to see another 25 to 50 percent drop on top of that, over the course of a decade.
But this isn’t just a consumer problem, though?
The one thing we do know about climate change is that it increases volatility. So while the overall trend is drier, hotter, less water, we’re probably still going to have some big wet years in there — and having space to capture water is still going to be very valuable. We have to find the right investments in infrastructure to kind of smooth that out.
You’re going to have to really look at, what are the drought-proof water supplies like recycled water, desalination.
I think if anything, climate change means a bigger, more strong government investment in infrastructure is needed if we want to carry on this kind of lifestyle that we have.
That’s a big caveat.
And that’s an open political question that I think is legitimate. But I do think it is an either-or. We’re not going to continue to live in large cities and have this kind of lifestyle that we always have had and somehow not invest in adapting to a drier world.
Brian Gallagher is a senior staff editor for The New York Times, based in the Bay Area.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Ralph Balducci, who recommends Solvang, often called the Danish capital of America:
“Solvang is such a great vacation destination in California. Such a picturesque place that’s a bit hokey, but mostly oh so charming with some great shops and shopping, and excellent restaurants and bakeries, and kind people.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
Charles Young had a groundbreaking career.
Born in 1864, Young was the first Black U.S. Army colonel, the first Black military attaché and the first Black national park superintendent, after he and his troops were assigned to manage California’s Sequoia National Park.
On Friday, Young was posthumously promoted to brigadier general, following years of efforts to award him that distinction. Young had been passed over for the promotion before his death in 1922, CNN reports.