Southern California has more water than expected

The California Aqueduct sends water from Northern to Southern California as part of the State Water Project. Metropolitan Water District received more water from the SWP this year than in the last three years combined.
The California Aqueduct sends water from Northern to Southern California as part of the State Water Project. Metropolitan Water District received more water from the SWP this year than in the last three years combined.
Max Whittaker for KPCC

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Finally, some good news about California water. For the first time in four years, the largest water wholesaler in Southern California is putting water back into storage instead of taking it out. That puts the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to 19 million people in Southern California, in a good position heading into 2017.

Given that most of Southern California is still in exceptional drought, how is this possible?

First, we need to understand where MWD’s water comes from and what it does. As a wholesaler, MWD’s job is to import water and sell it to local water agencies like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which sell it to us. MWD gets its water from two places: the Colorado River and Northern California.

This year, MWD received more water from Northern California than the previous three years combined -- 60% of what it requested.

MWD’s customers, in turn, didn’t use all that water. That left 130 billion gallons – enough for around 800,000 homes – left over to add to storage reservoirs like Diamond Valley Lake.

The last time MWD was able to add water to its reservoirs was in 2012. Since then, the total amount of water the agency has stored has fallen by half, as MWD has been forced to take water out to fill the gap between supply and demand during the worst years of the drought (the agency always maintains a six-month supply of emergency water for earthquakes and other natural disasters, said General Manager Jeff Kightlinger).

While the short-term outlook for MWD is better than in recent years, agency officials worry about long-term threats to supply. The Colorado River watershed is entering is 16th year of drought, and states that depend on the river have begun negotiating how to share the pain.

Meanwhile, water supplies from Northern California aren't looking good, either. In the past few years, MWD has received only a fraction of what it's requested from the State Water Project (60% in 2016, 20% in 2015 and just 5% in 2014), and the agency expects that unreliability to continue into the future.

As a result, MWD is a big supporter of the so-called California WaterFix, Governor Jerry Brown's controversial project to reroute how water is delivered from Northern to Southern California. The idea is to re-engineer the complicated water infrastructure in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to deliver water more reliably in a future that may be drier and more impacted by extreme weather events. Opponents of the project don’t trust the state, and say the tunnel will facilitate more water to be pumped out of the beleaguered Delta.

For MWD, the project is a lifeline. Without it, says spokesman Bob Muir, future water imports to Southern California could be reduced even further.