Several major developments have altered the course of water management in California this year. First, Governor Newsom significantly modified the plan to bring water to the southern region through the Delta. Second, California forged a historic agreement with seven other states to cooperate in times of drought. And not least, industry veteran Gloria Gray took the helm at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. In this interview from The Planning Report Gray shares how she plans to steer the largest water supplier in the nation through changing political priorities and climate conditions to continue safeguarding the future of California’s water.
“The Metropolitan Water District supplies water to one out of every two Californians, or one out of every 17 Americans.”—Gloria Gray
You were recently elected chair of the Metropolitan Water District—the second woman to chair that agency in its history. Share your overarching goals for MWD.
Gloria Gray: The Metropolitan Water District is the largest supplier of treated water in the nation. Our service area includes 19 million people—about one out of every two Californians, or one out of every 17 Americans. Our work as an agency supports a thriving trillion-dollar economy. It’s a huge responsibility to carry out our mission to provide a quality and reliable water supply to the communities we serve, and I’m honored and excited to be a part of it.
Southern California is a very complex region, and water is a very complex subject. As I’ve met with our member agencies to learn about the specific issues they face, I have developed a great appreciation for just how diverse our stakeholders are. What this means is that the Metropolitan board must bring a diverse body of thoughts and ideas to approach the challenges of maintaining a reliable water supply for our region. Today, our board has both seasoned and new members, as well as more women than ever before.
My first priority is to continue Metropolitan’s legacy of successfully carrying out our mission. We face some challenges in making sure we continue to have an adequate supply of water in light of the stress climate change is putting on our imported water supplies. About 30 percent of the water used in Southern California comes from Northern California. And about 25 of the water used here comes from the Colorado River. These imported supplies, coming from hundreds of miles away, remain the cornerstone of the region’s water supply and we have to ensure their reliability. But we must also work locally to develop climate change-resilient local supplies. All of this takes investment and while we face these challenges, we also need to ensure that our water is safe to drink and as affordable as possible. And of course, we have to manage our resources in an environmentally responsible way. I am a very optimistic person, and I do believe that we can meet these diverse demands. They are challenging, but we are on the right path.
How informed are your member agencies, and the public, about the challenges of climate change?
It’s very important to continue our efforts to raise awareness about water issues throughout Southern California, especially in communities that have historically been left out of the conversation.
My background is in community service. I worked as an associate hospital administrator for LA County for a number of years before my recent retirement. I was also involved in education as a board member for the Inglewood Unified School District, and I’ve done a lot of work with community-based organizations. I’m used to meeting with these groups, and I consider outreach part of my job as Metropolitan’s board chair.
Before I joined the West Basin Municipal Water District, I was like the average person out there: I didn’t think about water beyond assuming that it would come out of my faucet. I know that once people see how complex it actually is to ensure that clean, reliable, safe water comes out of your faucet, they become totally engaged. You may be surprised to hear it, but if you get out there and start talking to people about water issues in their communities, people become excited and engaged about water.
The drought a few years ago did a lot to get people interested in Southern California’s water supply. Conversations about the effects of climate change are, too.
Last November, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure W: a parcel tax that will raise $300 for water quality and stormwater capture infrastructure. As an importer of water for the Southern California region, how does this significant investment affect MWD’s planning for water supply and resilience?
Metropolitan imports water from the Colorado River and Northern California, but we have also invested a great deal in the development of local supplies to help the region build a diverse supply portfolio. As we face a changing climate, a growing population and environmental constraints, we need an all-of-the-above approach to ensure Southern California has a reliable and resilient water supply for generations. That’s the message in our Integrated Water Resources Plan and it’s why Metropolitan has invested more than $1.4 billion in water recycling, conservation and groundwater recovery since the 1990s. And now staff is taking a hard look at opportunities to support stormwater capture projects. So Measure W fits right in.
MWD is partnering with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts on a proposed 100-150 million gallons/day water reuse facility, and a similar proposal has been discussed for the Hyperion Treatment Plant. What is your position on these projects?
These projects would provide a new local supply of water for the Los Angeles region—adding to the diverse portfolio I just mentioned.
Metropolitan’s Regional Recycled Water Program would purify treated wastewater from the County Sanitation Districts’ Carson plant that is currently sent to the ocean. We’re completing construction of a demonstration facility that will open this summer. That demo plant will provide data to help us decide whether to move forward with a full-scale facility, which as you mentioned would produce up to 150 million gallons of recycled water daily. It would be one of the nation’s largest recycled water plants.
Both of MWD’s primary water sources have seen significant changes over the last year: the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan was recently signed, while the Delta water conveyance project was reduced to one tunnel. What does this mean for MWD’s long-term planning?
Last month we celebrated a milestone for the Colorado River: the completion of the Drought Contingency Plan, an agreement among seven Colorado River Basin states, Indian tribes and Mexico to boost storage levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell and prevent the reservoirs from reaching critically low levels. That was very challenging, and I’m proud to say that Metropolitan played a lead role in making it come together. This is a bridge solution with an expiration date of 2026, but it’s a sign that we can work together on the longer term issues stressing the river to ensure its long-term sustainability and reliability for the people, economies and diverse ecosystems that rely on it.
When it comes to the Delta conveyance project, our board voted for a dual-tunnel solution, but Governor Newsom has indicated that he supports one tunnel. We’re just pleased that he recognizes the need for new conveyance to modernize the State Water Project, and we’re looking forward to working with him on that. For us, the critical issue will be ensuring that the project has the capacity to meet the needs of Southern Californians. We’ve been in conversation with the governor, as well as Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, to convey that need to the new administration.
MWD is one of the most significant regional agencies in the country, with a diverse group of players from the Tehachapis in the north to the San Diego border with Mexico in the south. What are the issues that bring you together and what are the issues that still challenge board consensus?
MWD has 26 member agencies throughout Southern California. Each of those member agencies has issues and priorities that are specific to their region. I see my job as fostering robust discussions and open debate, and ensuring that the board has the information needed to make the kinds of critical decisions that we face. And despite those varying priorities, the region benefits when we work together – we have seen that time and time again – when we built the Colorado River Aqueduct, when we built Diamond Valley Lake, in our extensive investments in conservation.
At the end of the day, majority rules: the board takes a vote. But as I lead, I am willing to listen to all perspectives and collaborate. I do believe that there is commonality to be found in differences of opinion, and figuring out that common thread is a matter of talking it out, expressing your perspective, and listening to other sides of the issue. I believe in collaboration, transparency, openness, partnership, and one more simple thing: respect. That is my leadership style. I believe the policy that comes out of the end of this process is better for it.
The MWD board has seen tension in the recent past between San Diego and Los Angeles. Is that tension over policies a challenge to the consensus and trust that you are trying to build?
History is important, but moving forward is more important. Not only am I now chair of the Metropolitan board, but the San Diego County Water Authority also has a new chair in Jim Madaffer. We have been talking about how to resolve those issues and develop a more cohesive relationship between the two agencies, and I’m very hopeful about those discussions.
In addition to chairing Metropolitan’s board, you also represent the West Basin Municipal Water District as a member agency on the board. Speak to the issues specifically facing West Basin.
The West Basin board has been very supportive of my becoming chair of Metropolitan. Being chair does require a lot of work and commitment, so their support is important.
West Basin, like many of Metropolitan’s member agencies, is looking at diversifying its water supply portfolio and developing local resources to reduce our dependency on imported water. Water recycling is already a big part of our portfolio; we’re very proud of our Edward C. Little water recycling facility in El Segundo, which is distinct from other plants in that it produces five types of “designer” water based on customer needs. We’ve had folks from all over the world come to see what we do there.
We’re also looking at another option for local drinking water supply: ocean desalination. We completed a Draft Environmental Impact Report on our potential project last year and released it to the public for an extended period of 91 days to receive feedback from all stakeholders. Staff and our consulting team have been processing the questions and comments from the community and other stakeholders and are expected to prepare the final EIR for the Board’s consideration in the summer of 2019.
West Basin’s water recycling program has always been an important part of a strategy to drought-proof the region and has produced 200 billion gallons of recycled water since its inception.
Metropolitan continues to recognize the importance of supporting member agencies in the development of local projects through our Local Resources Program.
Building on your response, how is Southern California meeting its goal of relying less on imported water and more on recycled water?
As I mentioned, Metropolitan has invested significantly in recycled water projects since the 1990s – to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars. And now we’re on the verge of taking our commitment to recycled water to the next level, with our Regional Recycled Water Program. For the first time, Metropolitan is taking the lead on a large-scale regional recycled water project, rather than just financially supporting projects developed by our member agencies. The program is starting with a $17 million demonstration facility at the Sanitation Districts’ wastewater treatment plant in Carson. Information from that facility, which is launching operations this summer, will help staff and our board make the next decisions on whether and how to develop a full-scale recycled water plant.
A full-scale plant would be a big investment – $3.4 billion – and a new sort of endeavor for Metropolitan. But because it is such a regional project, crossing multiple water district boundaries, multiple counties and multiple groundwater basins, it will take a regional agency like Metropolitan to make it happen.
How is MWD working with disadvantaged communities?
About half of the residents in Metropolitan’s 5,200-square-mile service area live in what are considered disadvantaged communities. We continue to work with our member agencies to find ways to connect with these communities and develop solutions to water challenges that are both beneficial and cost-effective. And we have to keep this in mind as we work to update our water infrastructure and develop more local supplies.
We’re also making an effort to make sure our rebate programs are more accessible to low-income residents, who may lack the resources to take advantage of some of our rebates – for example they may live in apartment buildings without yards, so they can’t participate in our lawn replacement rebate, or they may lack the resources to take advantage of our rebates for high-efficiency appliances.
So we recently launched a pilot program that increased rebates for high-efficiency toilets in disadvantaged communities and created an incentive for their installation by third parties. We’re looking forward to the results of this pilot so that we can identify what we should do next.
Staff is also working with our member agencies to help them develop local conservation programs aimed at increasing water savings in disadvantaged communities. It is a priority of mine to make sure we’re working with our member agencies to engage all the communities we collectively serve.
Lastly, what benchmarks do you look forward to in 2020 with respect to MWD’s agenda?
By 2020, I hope that we will have solved some of the issues we face right now regarding our two major sources of water. In terms of the Colorado River, next year we will continue to work with the other Basin states to develop a long-term approach to making Colorado River supplies more sustainable.
In terms of the Delta conveyance project, I would hope that by next year, there will be a decision on the project’s capacity. But the commitment to modernize Delta conveyance is there from the new administration, and certainly from Metropolitan.
And our board will be making some important decisions regarding the Regional Recycled Water Program and the future of a full-scale plant.
These are exciting times. The Metropolitan family and individual water agencies are all facing challenges, but we are working together to solve those challenges.