.Marin City advocates raise drinking water concerns—again

As the crow flies, Marin City is less than seven miles from Ross. Yet Marin City residents have a significantly lower life expectancy than Ross residents.

For example, the Robert Wood Foundation collaborated with the federal government to calculate life expectancy by census tract. In Ross, a person can expect to live 91 years, while in Marin City, the age is 80.

The people of Marin City want answers about the causes of the disparity. A local organization, Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice, is determined to get to the bottom of the issue.

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The group’s members suspect contaminants in Marin City’s drinking water could be a factor in the decreased life expectancy because residents have complained about poor-tasting, smelly and discolored tap water for years. In 2019 and 2020, the Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice surveyed 280 community members, who answered open-ended questions about the water quality and other issues in Marin City.

The survey results are unsettling. Drinking water is a top concern, along with flooding and industrial contamination. Most respondents said they are worried about their tap water, and 76% indicated they drink bottled water at home.

These findings prompted Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice to work with the San Francisco Estuary Partnership to conduct tap water testing in 16 homes. Members of Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice were trained by SimpleLab, a marketplace for accredited water quality testing laboratories, to collect clean water samples from the tap. Each sample collection was carefully monitored by the local group, which also took responsibility for the chain of custody to the lab.

A total of 48 tap water samples were collected and analyzed for more than 150 contaminants. With half of the test results back from the lab, Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice has drawn some preliminary conclusions.

A group of bacteria, total coliform, was detected in some of the tap water samples. Although not all coliforms are harmful, fecal coliform and E. coli can cause illness and even death in humans. The presence of total coliforms is used to determine water quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Chemical substances known as analytes that were found in the water samples included chloroform, chlorine, dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid and more, the Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice said. Maria Ramos-Chertok, an attorney and volunteer with the group, said the levels of many of the chemicals exceed California’s detection limit for purposes of reporting.

The group raised their concerns with the Marin City Community Services District, an elected body representing unincorporated Marin City, which in turn contacted Congressman Jared Huffman.

The community now has Huffman’s attention. On Wednesday, June 22, he brought together more than 20 people for an invitation-only meeting to discuss safe drinking water in Marin City. 

Representatives from an array of federal, state and local agencies attended, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, California State Water Resources Control Board, the Marin Municipal Water District and Marin Health and Human Services.

James Muller is the principal program manager of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, the agency that helped Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice with the tap water testing. Muller is holding out for more results. For now, he believes the total coliform found in the tap water is the result of a sampling error because the test is very sensitive to these contaminants specifically.

More information and analysis is expected soon.

The Marin Municipal Water District, after being informed that coliform was found in the tap water, began testing Marin City water from a station out on the street. The testing has been conducted every weekday since late May and no coliform has been detected; however, they haven’t yet conducted tests at the tap inside a home.

The maximum contaminant level, or MCL, is a regulatory standard for the maximum allowable amount of a contaminant in the water. Contaminants are permitted in drinking water as long they are under an amount determined by state and federal regulations. Another measure, although not a regulatory standard, is California’s public health goals. Those figures, which are set by the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, are the level of chemical contaminants in drinking water that don’t pose a significant health risk.

“Through a regulatory lens, we’ve found no exceedances,” Muller said. “But if we look through the lens of the public health goals, what are the synergistic effects over a lifetime of use of this water? We haven’t seen that science come out. Maybe none exceed MCLs, but there are a lot of contaminants in the Marin City water.”

Paul Sellier, operations director at the Marin Municipal Water District, is confident the drinking water in Marin CIty is safe, clean and healthy, as is the rest of the county’s water.

“The system doesn’t allow us to provide different drinking water to different communities,” Sellier said.

Terrie Green, executive director of Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice, says the water pipes in Marin City are likely the culprit. Greenbrae, Ross and San Rafael have new pipes, and Mill Valley’s water pipes are being replaced now. Green is adamant that Marin City needs them, too.

“Our people are dying…,” Green wrote in a text message.

The oldest water pipes in Marin City date back to 1959, although pipes can last 70 to 100 years, according to Sellier. Now 63 years old, the pipes are nearing the end of their life span, yet Marin Municipal Water District has no plans to replace them anytime soon.

“In Mill Valley, my water has never been discolored, never had a bad taste and it doesn’t smell,” Ramos-Chertok said. “What’s that about? You can say the Marin City water is pristine all day and all night, but if what comes out of your tap is discolored and has a bad taste, it’s not pristine.”

Cynthia Koehler, who serves on the Marin Municipal Water District Board, said the agency is concerned. It has offered to do water quality testing at the meter and the tap concurrently, which will help determine whether the contaminants are coming through the agency’s pipes or pipes that are the responsibility of homeowners. There is no date set for the testing, but it is anticipated that it will start within a month or two.

Green wants the testing conducted by an independent company. Regardless of the outcome, she wants the six miles of water pipes in Marin City replaced.

Like Green, many people in the community don’t trust government agencies, which stems from years of broken promises and discrimination. Marin City began as a temporary home for shipbuilders in World War II. When the war ended, white people bought homes in the county. Black people were prevented from owning homes in certain areas through a process known as redlining. In Marin County, they simply weren’t permitted to buy property.

While there has been some progress since then, systemic racism still exists in Marin. The county has the dubious distinction of being the most racially segregated county in the Bay Area. Just three years ago, the Sausalito Marin City School District received the first California desegregation order in 50 years. There is still a long way to go to build trust.

Perhaps it could start with those six miles of new water pipes.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].


  1. I live in San Rafael since 2020 & i have to admit the water here is the worst I’ve experienced during my many years living in California. I constantly have to clean mineral deposits build up wherever the water runs.

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