Malibu Water Expert gives future drought forecast for Malibu – and it’s not good

UCLA Water Resources Group Co-Director Madelyn Glickfeld. Photo courtesy of UCLA. 

A number of factors make our community more vulnerable to water shortages than others

By Madelyn Glickfeld

Special to The Malibu Times

Since last early summer, the State and the Metropolitan Water district announced that residents would need to reduce their water usage by 30 percent. They also said that watering of turf could only be done twice a week on specific days and times for ten minutes each time because of the serious water shortage.

This rainy season, the fourth consecutive year of drought is expected to continue – a weather pattern that’s becoming the new normal due to global warming. It’s the desertification of Southern California. Now scientists have published an article in Nature Climate Change that shows how serious this drought is, affecting all water sources. “The drought in southwestern North America for the past 22 years is the region’s driest “Megadrought” since at least the year 800, or 1200 years ago.  

There have been a number of predictions of water shortages affecting our entire region, but what about Malibu, specifically?

Malibu resident Madelyn Glickfeld gave us her take on why Malibu is unique and why the community needs to be more aware and worried about future water supplies than it is. A water supply and quality expert for many years, she is currently Co-Director, UCLA Water Resources Group, served as a member of the California Coastal Commission from 1986-1996, and was member and Chairperson of the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board (appointed by Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown from 2008 to 2018.) She has followed the droughts and drought response that have occurred since 2000.  

The following is what she had to say in an interview:

“We are going into a likely fourth consecutive year of drought.  Malibu and the surrounding Santa Monica Mountains get all of our water from the Metropolitan Water District, who imports water and sells that water to a “member agency wholesaler”—The West Basin Municipal Water District who serves many water retailers within their boundaries. Through that wholesaler, Malibu has had access to both the State Water Project from the California Aqueduct and the Colorado River Project from Boulder Dam.   West Basin is based in the South Bay and sends water to L.A. County Waterworks District 29 through a pipe originating in Inglewood, a long uphill climb.  

However, both of our water sources are in serious drought.  This year, the Metropolitan Water District has only received an allocation that is five percent of the contracted amount from the State Water Project. That is not enough to serve all retailers that have State Water Project allocations. Therefore, those water agencies that depend only on the State Water Project are getting all of that allocation.  The rest of us are relying only on the Colorado Aqueduct.  

However, for the first time, in August 2021, there was a declaration of water shortage on the Colorado River Project.  The two dams that supply Colorado River water to Southern California are near “Dead Pool” status.  The Water Contractors in the seven state Colorado River Basin have been taking out more water than flowed in for many years, and now the dam water levels are nearly below the discharge pipes, where no water can get out of the dam.  If it goes to dead pool, no water will flow out of the dam and no power will be generated.

The water agreement with the Colorado River Basin states wasmade 100 years ago. The water allocations to adjacent states were based on a series of untypical rainy years for the past 100 years. The agreement was made by consensus, but there has not been enough flow for at least two decades.  We have been on a deficit water budget for many years that brought us to this point. 

“The seven states with rights to the Colorado River water havenot agreed on how to reduce the water allocations in order to avoid “dead water” or “dead pool” at the dam level. California urban water users have offered to reduce their take of Colorado River water by 400,000 acre-feet, but the other states have declined that offer and no counter offers from other states have been made public.  

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior, which are responsible for protecting the resources of the Colorado River System, decided recently that unless the states can come to an agreement to reduce a total of two to four million acre-feet, they would decide themselves what to do.  That may include just shutting off the discharges from the two dams until they recover some stored water.

“This is the biggest California water crisis thing I’ve seen; and I’ve followed water for many years. What will Metropolitan Water District ask us to do if they receive another year of five percent State Water Project allocation and if they have to reduce our Colorado water allocation by more than 400,000 acre feet, very soon?

The next step, according to quotes in the LA Times, will be setting allocations for sale of water for each wholesaler, who will in turn have to set allocations to their retailers.  When your retailer is out of water, you are out too. 

Why is this so important for Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains? 

The most important reason is that we have no real alternative sources to imported water because there are no current large-scale water storage or recycling possibilities in Waterworks District 29. Rindge Dam is not functional, is old and could fail.  Besides, Malibu Creek has bacterial and nitrate pollution, and there is no water treatment plant available to treat it to water quality standards if the District were to use it.  

•​There is no other natural storage in our steep, narrow watersheds.  Other than one small groundwater basin in the Civic Center, there are no other groundwater basins to store water.  

•​The only storage possible in Malibu is water storage cisterns located in small neighborhoods or on properties to store rainwater for irrigation after it rains. 

•​Much of the “local water” that other water agencies are developing at large scale is highly treated reclaimed wastewater from sewer treatment plants.  However, Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains rely on septic systems, outside of a few old sewer plants and the Civic Center Treatment Plant.

The only thing Malibu can do right away is to work together is to decrease water use through permanent conservation.  Not for a temporary drought, but for a long-term water shortage.   We have the highest per capita use of water in Los Angeles County, if not the state, despite having the highest water rates in Los Angeles County.  Therefore, we have a long way to go. 

For the last two years, Los Angeles Waterworks District 29 has conserved between 11 and 14 percent of water use, but not met the MWD Conservation Targets of 30 percent reduction in 2021-2022. However, the month-to-month comparison is highly variable, with conservation gains from June to June and there are very small increases and decreases in water use from September to September. 



Month and Date​Total Water Production in Acre Feet​Percent Change

June  2020​783.40​

June  2021​694.40​‒11%

June  2022​597.20​‒14%


September 2020​702.20​

September 2021​705.20​+0.43

September 2022​699.00​‒0.88

Source: Water Agency Monthly Water Conservation and Production Reports

Unlike Las Virgenes MWD, which is very strict, Malibu’s Water District 29 and the LA County Board of Supervisors does not enforce water restrictions or communicate with customers about how they are doing.  

Los Angeles County Waterworks District 29 also has not done much to tell customers about the restrictions, to assist people in figuring out how to do this, or do anything I know about to warn those customers who were not reducing their water at all to complying with watering restrictions.  Without a concerted outreach effort and help from the District to convert turf to low water use planting, many customers, both commercial and residential, did not comply.  Many lawns stayed green. Irrigation stayed on. 

Community-based organizations, the County Supervisors, Los Angeles County Waterworks District and the City should all work together to look at ways in which we can help people achieve conservation targets, and look at options for replacing imported water with local water.  Because we have to.

This article was updated on Dec. 6.