Upfront: Troubled water?

LAFCO study looks at population growth and water supply demand in Marin’s districts

by Peter Seidman

The Marin Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), perhaps the least understood government agency in the county, is unveiling the first half of a study that looks at water supply issues—and whether water districts will be able to meet demand in the coming decades.

The study is a closer look at development potential and its consequences that started when the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) first released its estimates of population growth in the Bay Area as part of a new statewide mandate to tie transportation and housing into a single planning tool. The numbers ABAG issued triggered a barrage of criticism that continues to this day from opponents who object to regional government agencies predicting growth for Marin and the number of new housing units the county should provide.

One avenue of criticism from opponents of what they view as a move to urbanize Marin along the Highway 101 corridor focuses on the ability of water agencies to deliver adequate supply to current customers as well as new customers that would be added to the county population.

While the ABAG population projections can be seen as a macro take on potential population growth, the LAFCO study takes a micro-investigative approach, as it focuses on whether the water agencies actually will have supply capacity for projected growth. The results of the LAFCO study could either support or disprove the contention among development critics that Marin has an inadequate water supply for new development.

The first half of the LAFCO study goes before LAFCO commissioners this week for review. The first half deals with water agencies in West Marin. “For the purposes of getting some momentum and being able to have some regional discussion, we have divided a countywide review in two,” says Keene Simonds, general manager at LAFCO. The first half of the study looks at four agencies that supply water to the large majority of West Marin residents. Those areas are the Muir Beach Community Services District, the Stinson Beach County Water District, the Bolinas Community Public Utility District and the Inverness Public Utility District.

In the second half of the study, which LAFCO staff currently is conducting, the agency will look at the Marin Municipal Water District and the North Marin Water District, which supply water to residents in East Marin and relatively small parts of West Marin. This part of the study also will assess the capabilities of the Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District and the Novato Sanitary District. Those two districts provide recycled water.

Results contained in the staff report on West Marin, presented this week to the commission, will go through a 45-day public review period, after which staff will include comments and suggestions from the public as well as any additional information and adjustments LAFCO commissioners request. The results of the LAFCO staff estimates for the East Marin water agencies will go before LAFCO commissioners in draft form in April if all goes according to schedule. Simonds says that he thinks a final report on both western Marin and eastern Marin will be ready by the commission’s June meeting.

According to the California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions, “From 1963-1985, LAFCOs administered a complicated series of statutory laws and three enabling acts, the Knox-Nisbet Act, the Municipal Organization Act and the District Reorganization Act. Confusion over the application of the laws led to a reform movement that produced the first consolidated LAFCO Act, the Cortese-Knox Local Government Reorganization Act of 1985. In 1997, a new call for reform in local government resulted in legislation that called for forming the Commission on Local Governance in the 21st century.”

The goal of local LAFCOs focuses in part on determining spheres of influence for government agencies. Which town, city or agency should control what geographic area is within the LAFCO realm of investigation. Local LAFCOs play an integral part in the process that determines whether a geographical area can be annexed to a town or a city and fall under its jurisdiction.

A LAFCO also can look at government agencies to determine whether they operate at peak efficiency as separate agencies or would be better in a consolidated organizational structure. That may sound like a dry description, but the practical implications were far from dry when the Marin LAFCO took a crack at suggesting that myriad sewerage agencies in Southern Marin would be better off in a consolidated structure. The suggestion brought strong criticism from opponents who said a consolidation would reduce local control over their individual agencies. Other opponents questioned the financial implications of consolidating agencies. Who would cover the costs, after a consolidation, of a sewerage district that needed more infrastructure work than a neighboring district? Consolidation proponents remained firm that having numerous small agencies performing essentially the same tasks was inefficient and possibly harmful to the environment. Sewage spills in 2008 at the Mill Valley treatment plant led to that charge, which was called unfair by those who said the treatment plant essentially was safe. Consolidation would be safer for Richardson Bay and would save money for ratepayers, said proponents.

In 2013, voters rejected a plan that called for consolidating four Southern Marin sewerage districts into one large agency.

The Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000 directs LAFCO agencies to “regularly prepare municipal service reviews in conjunction with updating each local agency’s sphere of influence,” according to a Marin LAFCO staff report. LAFCO agencies also may investigate service reviews independently of any sphere of influence study “for the purposes of informing future planning and/or regulatory actions,” the report states.

The Marin LAFCO assessment of the county’s water agencies looks at three broad areas: population and demographics, water use and demand and supply capacity, and financial standing. The final assessment for West Marin will come in the finished draft after the pubic review process, but Simonds says that some preliminary information included in initial assessments show that the four water agencies in West Marin are on relatively sound financial footing.

The information LAFCO compiled regarding demographics and water use provide a micro insight into the four communities.

The population within the four West Marin districts is about 5,337 people, according to the staff report. The increase in population collectively during the last five years is nine-tenths of a percent. That’s a relatively small number, but it’s more than one-fourth the corresponding countywide growth rate. And the Muir Beach District has seen a 2.13 percent increase in population. That’s “nearly four times greater than the overall countywide growth” during the last five years.

The job of delivering a steady supply of water in three of the four agencies is complicated by the fact that they serve mostly seasonal residents. Full-time residents in the Bolinas, Inverness and Stinson Beach Districts account for “no more than 42 percent of any one agency’s service population,” the staff report states. In the Muir Beach District, on the other hand, 70 percent of the people in its service area are full-time residents. That makes the job of supplying steady water delivery easier in the Muir Beach District.

The demographic information contained in the study offers another snapshot of residents on the coastal side of Mount Tam. The median household income in the Muir Beach District is $169,063—well above the median for the county. The median in the Stinson Beach District is close to the countywide median at $88,750. (The county median in 2013 was $90,839, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) The Bolinas District is well below the countywide median at $54,636. The median in the Inverness District is even lower at $52,135.

The primary source of water in the Muir Beach District is groundwater. The other three districts rely on surface water for their supply. The LAFCO report takes a look at population projections and annual water demand and estimates that in 2023, two of the four districts, Stinson Beach and Inverness, will have adequate supply in a drought year. But in drought conditions, Muir Beach will have a 2.1 percent water deficit and Bolinas will have a 13.9 percent deficit. Bolinas already has an 11.9 percent supply deficit in a drought year, according to the report.

In looking at current peak day demand in drought, LAFCO found that Muir Beach has a 12.8 percent deficit. Stinson Beach is close to capacity at 93 percent of demand. Bolinas is at capacity with 100 percent of demand. Inverness, the outlier, is only at 34.4 percent of demand during a peak day demand in drought.

As important as water supply, the capacity to treat water affects the ability of water districts to deliver clean supply to residents. LAFCO finds that currently all four districts have adequate treatment capacity, but Bolinas is close to reaching capacity. Bolinas District treatment is working at 97 percent of demand. In 2023, the Bolinas District is the only district that will exceed treatment capacity. Demand will exceed by 17.5 percent the ability to treat water there, according to the report. Inverness will be close to capacity at 94 percent of demand.

Residents—and visitors—in three of the four West Marin districts have bucked the trend of reducing consumption. Eastern Marin has posted impressive conservation numbers, beating the statewide mandate. But average daily water consumption in the Muir Beach District has increased 6.3 percent during the last five years. Bolinas residents and visitors have increased their consumption by 11.5 percent. Inverness water users have increased their consumption by 6.9 percent. Only Stinson Beach water customers have reduced their average daily consumption, by 2.3 percent.

“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Simonds says. “When you think about West Marin, you think about [people being ] more cognizant of the tap. Water use in the three districts “has gone up more than their parallel [population] growth projections have gone up over the five years. That tells you there’s an intensification occurring. We don’t know why. Maybe their lawns are nicer now than they were five years ago. But something’s going on there. The use is going up.”

LAFCO serves two functions. It provides information on which planners can base decisions. It also can lower a regulatory hammer on how agencies govern and deliver services. In the case of West Marin, the focus is on providing information for planning.

The question of whether planners can use water that agencies provide to control growth is a complicated legal conundrum. Generally experts say water districts are forbidden to use supply directly to control development.

In a 1976 case—Swanson versus the Marin Municipal Water District—a state appellate court made reference to an earlier case in 1921 in Butte County: “Our Supreme Court stated that ‘a water company supplying water for irrigation has not the power to take on new consumers without limit. Its power to supply water is, of course, limited by the amount of its supply, and when the demands of its consumers upon it have reached this limit, it has no right to take on new consumers to the necessary injury of those it has. But it isn’t always easy to determine just when the limit of supply is reached, and the factor of safety, which should be allowed against exceptional seasons, may vary from locality to locality. … The matter is one of judgment, a judgment which it may [very] well be [and] should be exercised conservatively, but a matter of judgment nevertheless.’”

Marin Municipal Water District officials have declared adamantly that the agency can provide supply to current and projected future residents, with reasonable conservation efforts in normal drought conditions. Critics disagree and call for using the water supply and demand balance as a reason to halt or slow growth. The LAFCO study of the water districts should provide new information from an ostensibly objective source outside the water-agency realm.

Contact the writer at [email protected]


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