California Water Wars Spotlight: MWD, The 800 lb Gorilla


The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) is the biggest supplier of treated water in the US. It delivers an average of 1.7 billion gallons of water daily to 17 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. MWD is composed of 26 member agencies including the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) and has quite rightfully been called the 800 lb. gorilla of California water.

When you turn on a faucet in southern California, the water probably originated hundreds of miles away and arrives through a byzantine system of water projects, canals, and tunnels. A major source of MWD water is the Colorado River Aqueduct, which is pumped uphill five times on its 242 mile journey from Lake Havasu. It has 92 miles of tunnels, 9 treatment plants, 9 reservoirs, and many miles of canals.

More water comes from the State Water Project, which originates in the Sacramento Delta. It delivers water to Central Valley farmers as well as to southern California.  It is the largest single user of electricity in California, at about 2-3%. In total, water pumping and treatment uses over 6% of total electricity in California.  Hydroelectric power can bring some power back, but water projects are generally net users of power, not net producers.

The final major source of water for MWD is the Owens Valley. This was a major focus of the movie ‘Chinatown’, which was a fictionalized account about William Mulholland and the water wars of the 1930’s. The Los Angeles Aqueduct moves Owens Valley water to L.A. and is owned and operated by DWP. Loss of water in Owens Valley has been a concern for decades. DWP is now legally mandated to restore water to the area, which means there is less to export.

This convoluted and expensive system, while certainly a marvel of engineering and dedication, is clearly somewhat less than sustainable. Southern California is semi-arid desert made lush by piping water from long distances. But the Sacramento Delta and the Colorado River are having serious problems. Water supplies that used to be reliable are no longer so.

Aquafornia says “In the West, it is said that water flows uphill towards money, and nowhere else could that be truer than here in Southern California.” At the center of this is the Metropolitan Water District gorilla, which labors at the Herculean task of supplying clean water to 17 million people.  Even more than Central Valley agriculture, MWD is the primary power in California water politics. The MWD gorilla seeks increasing amounts of water and has the power and clout to get it. This makes everyone else nervous.