How “What if . . .”
Can Formulate Our Future
A Report on OCWA’s July 2020 Webinar
A Look at How ‘Scenario Planning’
Can Help Us Understand
What May Lie Ahead
By Tim Hogan
Over the past three decades, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) has utilized a unique planning device to prepare for future developments both within its system and with water in general throughout the State. This useful method — Scenario Planning — assists MWD to rationally develop its evolving Integrated Water Plan (IRP). From this, MWD envisions a range of plausible futures, a roadmap, if you will, to navigate categories of increasing uncertainty.
To explain all this, and shed light on its benefits, OCWA was honored to host Brad Coffey, Group Manager, MWD’s Water Resource Management, at our July webinar. Titled “What if . . .? Examining Our Water Future Using Scenario Planning,” Mr Coffey’s presentation was well received by an audience of over 110 participants.
As Mr Coffey explained, the drought in the late ’80s proved a wakeup call for many California water agencies, but especially for MWD, which looked to adapt a potential blueprint for Southern California’s future water reliability. What was needed was a long-term strategy, something that could adapt to changing conditions. In addition, it would need to account for the region’s diversified resource portfolio, an eclectic mix of conservation and recycling, desalination and groundwater recovery, along with fluctuating levels of both imported and stored water.
What MWD devised was a methodology of planning cycles that have helped the agency respond to a range of changing conditions. From the early years of drought in the ’80s and ’90s, into the periods of cutbacks in Colorado River allocations and restrictions on State Water Project (SWP) allotments in the early years of this Century, then through the Great Recession and the return of the drought, MWD’s planning has provided it the foresight to adjust and even thrive.
As Mr Coffey explained each of the divergent scenarios gamed in the IRPs, the wisdom of the approach was made clear. In each iteration of the plan, lessons were learned on what worked well and what issues needed to be addressed. Be it through diversification of water use or local supply development, increased investment in storage, distribution, and treatment, or a proactive approach to consumer outreach for conservation, MWD strived to remain atop continuing developments. The result was tangible benefits for both MWD and its customers. The IRP helped guide the way to a radical change in the supply mix for Southern California. Utilizing the plan, MWD expects to reduce both Colorado River and SWP sources by approximately 40% between 1990 and 2040. In addition, conservation and the development of regional sources will increase the share of local water by almost 60%. And through it all, potable water demand is expected to remain stable despite rapid population growth.
Lessons were learned as well on what didn’t work. In some ways, these were as equally important as the successes. It was found that certain presumptions never materialized, while gains in some water supplies were offset by unexpected losses in others. And where some supply estimates were shown to be overly optimistic, projections of demographic assumptions proved too high and associated demand did not materialize.
In all, Scenario Planning did not provide MWD a prediction; it gave a projection, a range of plausible futures. From the “roadmap” that was developed, planners were able to more adequately identify the drivers of future change. This allowed them to construct various scenarios they could use to develop potential resource mixes, all while fashioning useful, adaptive management strategies.
Useful as it has been, however, the process has its uncertainties, as well. The larger issues of climate change and its effect on supplies and demand, the vagaries of the political landscape and the future of regulatory actions, the impact of technological advances, and the ever fluctuating economy and demographics all lend a heightened air of uncertainty to any prognostications. But here again, the beauty of Scenario Planning provides the ability to remain fluid in the approach to every issue, and to adapt to circumstances as they develop.
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