.Marin Municipal Water District slow to replace leaky tanks

Lyle Christie, completely frustrated, called the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) in early July to voice an interesting complaint.

“I’d like to report a gross misuse and waste of water, about one million gallons a year, and the culprit is you,” Christie said he told the agency.

It wasn’t the first time he contacted MMWD to air his grievance about the profusely leaking redwood water tank a few hundred feet from his San Rafael home. That would have been over a year ago, Christie told the Pacific Sun in a July interview.

During Christie’s initial call, he said MMWD told him the water tank on Bret Harte Road, dubbed the Courtright Tank, is “redundant” and they would take care of it. However, month after month, throughout the statewide drought, it continued to leak.

To make matters worse, the leak saturated the ground next to the tank and created puddles of water. Next came the mosquitoes, according to Christie. He and his wife wrapped themselves up in blankets when they were outside in the evenings.

“Vector Control did a test for larvae and mosquitoes in the ground where it was swampy,” Christie said. “Larvae are proliferating.”

Neighbors told Christie, who moved into his home in 2020, that the redwood tank, which is almost 50 years old, has been leaking for the past decade. During that time, MMWD would “hammer in redwood slivers” to try to stop the water leaks, according to Christie.

Recently, a neighbor placed a kiddie pool under the biggest leak in an attempt to put the otherwise wasted water to good use. The collected water was shared with nearby residents for their gardens.

In a surprising move, MMWD objected and removed the pool catching the water.

“They told us, ‘You’re stealing water,’” Christie said. “The neighborhood was up in arms.”

Another neighbor, a water engineer specialist with the State of California, calculated the tank was losing two to three gallons per minute, which equates to more than a million gallons annually. That’s the figure Christie gave to the MMWD in his recent complaint.

The MMWD employee who took the report said he would speak to the “upper ups,” Christie said. The neighbors decided to give MMWD a week to take some kind of action. Nothing happened.

Finally, on July 10, Christie took the neighborhood’s concerns to Nextdoor, a social media website, by posting a video of water gushing from the bottom of the tank and puddling in the grass. The video was accompanied by a summary of the situation.

Over the next couple of days, the post received 83 comments, with many Marin residents writing that they were outraged about the water waste and would also contact MMWD. One person, who doesn’t live in the neighborhood, emailed Larry Bragman, a member of the MMWD’s board of directors.

Bragman responded to the woman within minutes that he was “on it.” A follow-up email from Bragman said that the Courtright Tank replacement was on the agenda for a meeting scheduled on July 15.

Three days before that meeting took place, an MMWD crew arrived to repair the redwood tank. Christie posted a new video on Nextdoor the following day to show that the water had stopped flowing from the bottom of the tank and the ponding appeared to be gone. Christie credited social media for helping to resolve the issue.

It seemed like that was a wrap. MMWD had fixed the leaks and was discussing replacing the tank. Story over. Well, kind of.

We contacted Christie again last week to check-in. While the largest leak had been remedied, water was still escaping from other areas of the Courtright Tank. A visit to the site revealed shims and wedges had been inserted into the redwood in several places.

“It’s better,” Christie said. “You should have seen it before.”

The process to replace the Courtright Tank has been accelerated, Crystal Yezman, MMWD’s director of engineering, told the Pacific Sun in an Aug. 26 interview. 

The project was advertised on July 14, according to MMWD’s website, just four days after Christie’s post on social media. On Aug. 16, the board of directors awarded the contract to D & D Pipelines, Inc., a general engineering contractor based in San Francisco.

The construction is expected to begin in September and conclude in November, at a total cost of $277,000, including MMWD’s own labor costs for the project design and construction management.  

Instead of installing a new tank, MMWD plans to add 520 feet of pipe to connect the service area to another larger one, which serves 540 customers and gets its water supply from the Bret Harte Tank. Fortunately, that tank is made of steel and has a 500,000-gallon capacity.

Removing the 50,000-gallon Courtright Tank wasn’t a priority because it’s relatively small, serving 108 customers. When addressing issues in their system, the MMWD considers criticality.

“Risk is the probability of failure and the consequence of failure,” Yezman said. “If a small asset fails, there’s a small consequence. A larger asset might not have as much risk, but could have a much larger consequence if it fails.”

MMWD has been slowly replacing the redwood tanks in its system because the wood degrades over time. There were 50 and now there are six, including the Courtright Tank, Yezman said.

Christie’s post about the estimated million gallons a year leaking from the redwood tank was alarming to the public. However, Yezman pointed out that in a seven-year period, MMWD has saved 2 million gallons of water a day, with two full-time employees devoted to its leak detection program.

MMWD uses audio equipment to locate leaks underground and finds a leak approximately once every day. With 930 miles of pipes, it takes 18 months to go through the system.

“We do have to provide a water loss report to the state,” Yezman said. “We’re at about 10% loss, which is normal.”

Still, none of this explains why the redwood Courtright Tank wasn’t repaired sooner or maintained on a regular basis. Once MMWD sent out a crew, the water leaks were substantially reduced in less than a day.

Tyler Silvy, a senior communications specialist at MMWD, said during an interview with the Pacific Sun that he couldn’t find the timeline of complaints about the Courtright Tank.

Both Yezman and Silvy maintain that reports of wasted water are taken seriously. But Yezman was quick to say that although the rest of California is experiencing a severe drought, Marin is not.

“The water district of Marin has adequate water storage levels,” Yezman said. “We’ve lifted local emergency conservation. With the hydrology of our Mt. Tam watershed, it doesn’t take much rain to fill it. Marin is kind of magical the way it’s situated with the watershed, which is probably why the Native Americans revered the mountain so much.”

Hopefully, MMWD respects Marin’s precious water as much as the Native Americans—and the Courtright Tank neighbors.

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].


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