New Study: WaterFix Is Unnecessary for SoCal’s Water Supply

Last week, my colleague published a report entitled Mismatched: A Comparison of Future Water Supply and Demand for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Its Member AgenciesThe report compares the 2015 Urban Water Management Plans prepared by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and its member agencies. It documents that in average water years, MWD's plan assumes that demand for imported water is hundreds of thousands of acre feet higher than the local agencies’ plans. What’s more, the report demonstrates that if all of the local supply projects included in these plans were constructed, demand for imported water would drop precipitously. While the results are not as stark in dry years, even in dry years MWD estimates higher demand for water than the member agencies in Southern California.

Even with a growing population, the report documents that water supply agencies in Southern California plan to sustain the economy with reduced purchases of imported water from MWD, by continuing to use water efficiently and investing in local and regional water supply projects like water recycling, stormwater capture, and groundwater cleanup. In contrast, MWD envisions higher per capita demand for water, far less investment in local water supply projects, and greater dependence on imported water. 

These are two very different plans for Southern California’s water supply future, and the decision whether to pay tens of billions of dollars for WaterFix may determine which of these plans the future looks like.  

It’s important to keep in mind that the urban water management plans analyzed in the report are legally binding plans, which local agencies use to assess availability of water supply for future residential and commercial development. They generally identify specific water supply projects that are being proposed, planned, or implemented. And these plans show that reducing water imports from the Bay-Delta is feasible for Southern California, provided that local agencies continue to make investments in local and regional water supply projects that create new cost-effective water supplies, create good paying local jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve water supply reliability.

But implementing water supply projects costs money, and ultimately Southern Californian residents must choose where to invest their money. Investing in some projects means that money is not available to invest in other projects. Indeed, a 2012 report by the University of Southern California warned that “Some investments, such as the SWP proposed tunnels, will preclude others due to financial constraints.” Some tunnel proponents want you to believe that WaterFix is part of an "all of the above" strategy for water, but “all of the above” is not a sound financial strategy. As a colleague emphasized a few years ago with respect to energy policy, “An ‘all of the above’ energy policy that includes our most expensive and environmentally risky resources is a guarantee of costly disappointment.” 

WaterFix, the $16 billion project to build two environmentally destructive tunnels in the Bay-Delta and take more water from this imperiled estuary, is part of MWD’s vision for a future of increased dependence on the Delta. In contrast, Los Angeles’ Sustainable City pLAn will cut purchases of imported water by 50% by 2025, and the San Diego County Water Authority also aims to significantly cut purchases of imported water through investments in water recycling and other local supplies. 

If WaterFix is approved, we estimate that over 40 years, LA residents would collectively pay more than $1 billion (2040 dollars) in property taxes to pay for WaterFix, even if LA residents do not use a single drop of water from the Delta. If LA does not reduce purchases of imported water, the total cost likely would be more than $4.1 billion (2040 dollars) in property taxes and water rates to pay for WaterFix over that 40 year repayment period. That’s $1 billion to $4 billion that cannot be invested in local stormwater capture projects, the regional water recycling project in Carson, turf removal, or other sustainable water supply projects.  

As my prior blog showed, when one uses realistic assumptions, investments in local and regional water supply projects like the Carson water recycling project are more cost-effective than the tunnels, and will generally produce more water more reliably year to year. What’s more, these investments create local jobs in Southern California, and they are more sustainable with lower greenhouse gas emissions and without the environmental harm caused by WaterFix (or the likelihood that water diversions from the Bay-Delta will decline in the future due to environmental degradation and climate change). 

The Mismatched report shows that these are the types of projects that local agencies are planning to invest in. That is, unless MWD convinces them to pay for the tunnels and a future of greater dependence on imported water.