.Upfront: A call for shared sacrifice

Marin asked to join wider community in conserving water

by Peter Seidman

The state-mandated water conservation that began this week asks Marin residents to reduce their water use, even though the reduction will not do much to help the statewide water picture. Call it a mandate for Marin to accept its place as a member of the California community of counties. Call it a request for shared sacrifice.

How that call will play in a county that’s been highly resistant to participating on a wider stage regarding issues ranging from affordable housing to water use remains to be seen. The mandatory conservation began Monday. It recalls—or should recall—the failed attempt in the county to build a desalination project that could insulate Marin from drought. It also recalls—or should recall—the adamant refusal to accept the idea of a proposal to possibly construct a pipeline from the East Bay that could provide Marin with emergency water in the event of a severe drought.

The state-mandated conservation is part of the governor’s attempt to meet the challenges of the severe drought in other parts of the state. Marin has been lucky and has escaped drought conditions. The Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) serves about 186,000 customers in Southern and Central Marin. The North Marin Water District serves about 61,000 customers in Novato and West Marin.

The North Marin District, which receives the bulk of its water supply from the Russian River and reservoirs, must reduce its water use by 24 percent. The MMWD must cut back 20 percent.

Dan Carney, MMWD conservation manager, says that the State Water Resources Control Board arrived at the cutback targets by calculating the average per capita consumption using 2013 as a baseline. The average state-mandated cutback is 25 percent. The range of reductions that the state is requiring runs from 8 percent to 36 percent.

The MMWD receives about 75 percent of its water from reservoirs in Marin. It receives about 25 percent from the Russian River under a contract with the Sonoma County Water Agency.

The MMWD is in large part—actually 75 percent—insulated from drought conditions that could affect the delivery system in the rest of the state. Even so, the state requires Marin to show good faith as a member of the California water use community by following the 20-percent-reduction mandate even though Marin reservoirs are at about an average level.

Residents of the MMWD have already demonstrated an exceptional ability to conserve. Many district residents were around for the “Great Drought” in the 1970s. Putting bricks in toilets became a way of life—a way to reduce water consumption before low-flow toilets. Residents stopped washing their cars and watering their lawns. Short showers were de rigueur.

The water-reduction measures worked. Still, a pipeline across the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, in large part, saved the day and reminded district residents that Marin reservoirs are vulnerable to severe drought conditions. According to a district Urban Water Management Plan report, a periodically prepared document sent to the state, “The district’s programs for demand management through water conservation began in 1971, and a study in 1999 found that the per capita demand [had] been reduced by an estimated 25 percent during the period from 1970 to 1998.”

The state-mandated reduction will be assessed based on consumption from June of 2015 to February of 2016. The cumulative total reduction must meet the 20 percent target in MMWD and 25 percent statewide.

Meeting the target should be fairly easy for MMWD customers. Using 2013 as a baseline, customers in the district had already reached a 13.5-percent-conservation target in 2014. The historic lack of rain in 2013 helped spur the reduction. Residents of the MMWD need to reduce their consumption by just 6.5 percent more to reach the state target. To customers who already follow good conservation procedures, Carney says, “Thank you. I’m not asking for anything more.”

Carney says that meeting the state target, even though Marin reservoirs are in good shape, is a benefit to the district and the county. “Whether it’s a state order or people recognizing that it’s possible to increase conservation, it’s a good thing for Marin to raise conservation awareness.” Carney notes that even with a normal amount of water in the reservoirs and a normal amount of rainfall in winter months, MMWD still has only a two-year supply of water in MMWD reservoirs.

Running a pipeline from the East Bay similar to the one in the 1970s was a topic of discussion when the district once again considered the possibility of augmenting the water supply in the county if another severe drought hits the North Bay. The proposal to just investigate the possibility triggered strong opposition that resulted in the idea getting put back on the shelf. Chief among the objections was the unsubstantiated charge that bringing more water to Marin would bow to big-time developers slavering for an increased water supply. The argument was an intrinsic rejection of the planning process and a declaration of no faith in planners and elected officials. The debate about water supply entrapped the discussion about affordable housing and how much support the county should give it.

A similar objection was raised when a proposal for a desalination project was the topic of the day. Consultants submitted a report stating that desalination would work as a drought-proof water source for district customers. A report outlined four options that the water district could pursue. As with most public works projects, the initial cost estimates—including facilities ranging from $111.2 million to $173.4 million to build— grew as time went by, but the MMWD manager at the time said considering inflation, the costs were within an expected range.

There’s no doubt that desalinating water is a relatively expensive proposition, although costs are coming down as the technology improves. Creating a small plant that could be expanded was meant to address the cost issue. Critics also raised the possibility that desalination would harm the environment in the bay. But a close look at the environmental studies for the project showed few, if any, truly negative effects. A plan to take brine after desalinating the water, and pump the brine to a waste treatment facility in Central Marin meant that the salinity of bay water actually could improve because of the desalination process. Adding brine to the fresh water from the treatment facility would bring the water closer to the salinity level of the bay. The essential takeaway was that not all desalination plants are the same. Each one needs to be assessed based on its proposed procedures.

Another objection centered on energy use. Desalination takes power. Critics soundly rejected the idea that the desalination plant could combine with a solar facility either here or elsewhere in the state to produce clean-power sweet water.

But it was a philosophical rejection of desalination and also of a pipeline that created the strongest pushback to the idea that Southern and Central Marin need an increased water supply. Evidence of that position came with the caution among critics that increasing Marin’s water supply would mean that water could be exported out of the county. Water in a pipeline can flow both ways, critics charged.

Critics succeeded in forcing the district to go to voters for approval of a desalination plant, if and when the district decides to proceed with desalination.

That, in turn, raises the question of whether Marin residents in general, and MMWD residents in particular, see themselves as participating members of a wider community and would, as a matter of social service, be willing to contribute to the wider community’s water supply well-being.

The good news is that MMWD customers should be able to meet the additional 6.5-percent-conservation target—and make additional conservation gains through simple actions like shutting off faucets and following mandatory lawn-watering restrictions. Conservation rules and tips abound on the websites of the two Marin water agencies.

The bad news is that even with Draconian conservation measures, MMWD customers face the prospect of a water deficit when the next multi-year drought hits.

Contact the writer at [email protected]


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