Southern California’s Regional Plan for Water


Fountain in front of Metropolitan Water District headquarters, by Union Station in downtown L.A. Image courtesy of jshyun under Creative Commons License


In much of the U.S., water is something that is taken for granted until there is either too much or too little. For communities in the semi-desert coastal plain of Southern California, establishing and maintaining reliable water sources has been an urgent concern since the 1920s, when there were only two options: ceasing to grow or importing water from someplace else. No single municipality could afford the infrastructure necessary to import water, so 11 cities coalesced to found the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and began planning for water on a regional basis.

Established by a 1927 act of the California Legislature and incorporated in 1928, the MWD has been major force in western water politics ever since. Its history has been colorful, controversial, and contentious enough to inspire conspiracy theories. Despite, or perhaps because of, its intermittent internal political struggles and continual threats of withdrawal by the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), the MWD has through its 85 years evolved into one of the preeminent regional water planning bodies in the country.

MWD members include 14 cities, 11 municipal water districts, and the SDCWA. The municipal districts and SDCWA are not only retail water purveyors, but also wholesalers selling to more than 200 area water agencies. MWD’s area extends from the San Gabriel Mountains on the east to the Pacific Ocean, and from Oxnard in the north to the Mexican border—covering some 5,200 square miles and providing water for about 19 million people in 6 counties. Seven watershed management agencies operate within its service area, in collaboration with MWD.

Through the decades, the MWD has demonstrated an enviable organizational resiliency in response to external political pressures, infighting, and changing climate conditions. Its early objectives were simply to acquire water rights and build the facilities necessary to import, store, and distribute water from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Bay Delta. Today, MWD’s Integrated Regional Plan (IRP), last updated in 2010, addresses the growing uncertainty of water supplies from its various sources and assesses actions necessary to address this and other effects of global climate change. The IRP is a collaborative effort of members, non-member water agencies and companies, environmental and other stakeholder groups, along with the general public.

The MWD is currently an active participant in the statewide debate about refurbishing the failing California Aqueduct and restoring an essential water resource, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, to environmental health. The stakes are high for the MWD, which currently derives about 30 percent of its water from the California Aqueduct. It is unclear how long it will take for California’s diverse regions to accommodate local concerns and reach agreement on a Bay Delta plan, but ultimately the challenge of global climate change must move everyone to the realization that has held the MWD together since 1928: the provision of water is too complicated, too expensive, and far too critical to plan alone.