L.A. Bets on the Farm

Faced with unprecedented drought, the West's most powerful water agency is mixing Wall Street tactics and rice farm supplies to hedge against Southern California's risk of going dry.

  • L.A. Bets on the Farm

  • Smoke lingers from the recent fires near L.A., where Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is charged with delivering water to 18 million people - half the population of California

  • A fallowed field near Blythe, California, disked into clods to keep the dust down

  • the Palo Verde Irrigation District, with red-shaded areas indicating fallowed fields.

  • Tim Quinn on the Sacramento River, part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

  • The Harvey O. Banks Delta Pumping Plant, which lifts water into the California Aqueduct. Pumps were shut down over the summer to protect the Delta smelt


LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA -- On the south edge of the Union Station plaza, in the heart of Los Angeles, a 12-story office tower stands swarmed by the constant stream of police helicopters that troop in and out of the L.A.P.D. air base a couple of blocks away. This is the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the most powerful water agency in the West. 

On the first floor, in an expansive boardroom that evokes the ambience of the U.N. Security Council chambers, a ring of leather chairs waits for Metropolitan's directors, representatives of the 27 agencies in the Los Angeles and San Diego area that buy water from Met. Eighteen million people - half of California's population and one of every 16 people in the United States - get their water from Metropolitan. That water powers a $927 billion regional economy that accounts for 35 percent of the gross domestic product of the entire Western U.S. If its service area were a separate nation, Met would fuel the eleventh-biggest economy on the planet. 

Metropolitan is the apparatus that has enabled Southern California to grow beyond the limits of its local water supply, and the agency's name has become synonymous with limitless power. Metropolitan pumps its water hundreds of miles, from the Colorado River to the east, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta, located far to the north. The agency has always been determined to control its future: In more ambitious times, Met's stealthy hand seemed to guide grand plans to pump water from even farther north, in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, to its dry corner of the West. 

Yet Metropolitan now faces a gathering crisis, and beyond a tightly guarded front desk and a bank of elevators, the view from general manager Jeff Kightlinger's top-floor office is terrifying. This has been the driest year on record in Southern California. The Colorado River has been gripped by drought for eight years running. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which feeds the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, was just 29 percent of average this year. And, in an effort to preserve the Delta's disintegrating ecosystem, a new federal court ruling dramatically cut pumping levels there. Next year, Metropolitan will have to ration water to its member agencies, raising the specter of a watery version of the California electricity crisis. 

"It's amazing how fast things have moved. It's like being run over by a freight train," says Kightlinger. "We're being outstripped by the events and we can't keep up with them." 

That crisis is, in broader form, one that the entire West will soon confront. Bedeviled by climate variability and change, water managers are struggling to provide a rapidly growing population with reliable sources of water. Surprisingly, Metropolitan may, in its moment of crisis, offer promising lessons for the rest of the region. Two decades ago, the agency embarked on a quiet endeavor to break out of the hidebound traditions of Western water, partnering with farmers spread throughout the length and breadth of the state and experimenting with increasingly sophisticated ways of managing risk. That effort - despite some mistakes along the way - is now helping Metropolitan counterbalance the rising uncertainties it faces. 

Two hundred miles east of Los Angeles, in the Colorado River town of Blythe, Ed Smith runs the Palo Verde Irrigation District. He works out of a low-slung office whose interior is painted avocado green and has the grim '60s feel of a Civil Defense shelter. The creepy ambience is further heightened by a high-definition aerial image of the irrigation district - taken by a Soviet spy satellite in the waning years of the Cold War - that's tacked to the wall of the building's bunker-like boardroom. 

"The scary thing," Smith says, "is that you can see - this supposedly came from Russian stuff, OK? - and look: You can see friggin' cars and trucks on the freeway." 

Looking at the satellite photo, it is hard not to get the sense of the irrigation district in the crosshairs of an evil empire - even more so because several such images made their way into Smith's hands via Metropolitan, which has used the now widely available photos to assess the irrigation district's potential water yield. 

Outside, the fields that appear in the satellite photo lie flat and lush, hemmed in by desert mountain ranges, jagged heaps of dusky slag that call to mind Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine. After a five-mile trip over roads whose painted striping has warped beneath the ferocious sun, Smith stops his pickup at a dry field full of gigantic dirt clods. Earlier this year, the field was taken out of production. To keep the dust down from the fallowed field, "they wet it," Smith says, "and then go in there and disc it, it so it makes these big ol' nasty clods." 

The cloddy field makes up a couple of the roughly 15,000 acres of ground that farmers scattered throughout the valley have fallowed to provide water to Metropolitan this year. It also represents the latest round in an ongoing and occasionally uneasy alliance between Met and farmers throughout the state. 

In 1986, Metropolitan dispatched an emissary, a sometimes-pugnacious Ph.D. economist named Tim Quinn, to the Palo Verde Valley to cut a fallowing deal. The farmers' initial reaction was cold. One person close to the negotiations related that Quinn "set down with these guys like a schoolteacher, and got his little chalkboard out, and explained to them why they weren't making any money in farming, and why they should be just tickled to death to have Met come and save them and take their water." 

Finally, however, after years of negotiations, the Palo Verde farmers agreed to test-drive the fallowing concept from 1992 to 1994. Farmers laid out about a fifth of their land - land they otherwise would have planted in alfalfa, cotton and melons - in exchange for $1,240 per acre, an amount calculated to cover what they would have earned had they used the water to grow crops, plus a little extra. 

For Western water bosses, the standard denomination for water is an acre-foot: about 326,000 gallons, enough water for two families in the Los Angeles area for a year. Metropolitan got 185,000 acre-feet of water out of the deal - but not for long. 

The agency stored the saved water in Lake Mead, upstream on the Colorado River near Las Vegas. But the winter of 1997 was so wet that it seemed likely the river would flood. To make room in Lake Mead for the coming floodwaters, the federal government emptied all $25 million worth of Metropolitan's water out the bottom end of the reservoir, from whence it flowed onward into the Gulf of California and floated away to sea. 

For Met, the deal had not been an auspicious adventure, but it was hardly the end of the agency's pursuit of farm water. 

In 1984, Carl Boronkay became Met's general manager, and he inherited a pledge the agency had made, 30 years earlier, to provide whatever water was necessary to supply the growing needs of Southern California. For decades, Met kept its pledge by importing water from the Colorado River and the Delta. But two years before Boronkay took charge, California voters defeated the Peripheral Canal, which would have been capable of siphoning the entire flow of the Sacramento River around the Delta and south to Los Angeles. 

Boronkay set out to transform Met's thinking, and he soon hired Quinn, who had been working at the RAND Corporation, a Santa Monica-based public policy think tank. One of the first things Quinn did was analyze the reliability of Metropolitan's water supply. He delivered his findings to the board from behind an overhead projector - the first of many times that the Nebraska native would induce a little heartburn among those he dealt with. 

"I compared our reliability to other sectors like electricity and telephones and natural gas, and all those places were virtually 100 percent reliable all the time," he says. "And it turned out that we were about 50 percent reliable. 

"It caught the board's attention." But more important, Quinn notes, "it really energized where Boronkay wanted to go." 

Spurred by a serious drought in the late '80s, Boronkay set Metropolitan on a path toward diversifying its water-supply portfolio. No longer would the agency rely solely on massive engineering projects, such as dams, for its water. Met began giving its member agencies incentives to increase water conservation. Those agencies also began to increasingly "recycle" water by treating their wastewater for reuse. And they added a long-neglected asset back to the portfolio by working to clean Southern California's notoriously contaminated groundwater so that it could be made usable again. 

But increasingly, the state's farms came to occupy a prominent place in Metropolitan's vision for the future. In one sense, the Peripheral Canal defeat marked a break between Met and agriculture. For decades, Metropolitan had joined the state's farm lobby in calling for new dams and water infrastructure. But as the prospects for more projects dimmed, Boronkay realized that agriculture represented a tremendous reservoir from which Met could potentially draw: Eighty percent of the water in California goes to the state's farmers. 

"I thought, just 5 percent of that agricultural water would make a hell of a difference to us," Boronkay says. "We could use just a little of the massive amount of water that's devoted to agriculture to save ourselves." 

Boronkay, who is now 77, has perfected the habit of delivering radical observations with a disarming grin, but the idea of transferring farm water to the city put him on perilous ground. The notional conflict between cities and farms stands at the center of the West's rip-roaring saga of water wars - thanks largely to William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's infamous raid on the Owens Valley early in the 20th century. 

Boronkay knew in his bones that simply buying farms to take their water was a political nonstarter. But he saw promise in experimenting with fallowing programs as a way to free up water. "Farmers can pull back: They fallow land if markets aren't good," he says. "So it's nothing strange." He and Quinn set to work puzzling out whether farming communities and urban areas might be able to forge a symbiotic, rather than a parasitic, relationship. 

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