Desalination vote may stall and confuse

07/29/2010

Marin County voters will have to choose between two ballot measures concerning a proposed $105 million desalination plant in San Rafael—one measure that gives Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) a green light to proceed with the planning process, and a citizens’ measure that requires another vote before the district can move forward. At a raucous meeting that went late into Monday night, district directors approved both measures.

The board of MMWD claims the citizen’s initiative ties its hands on an issue that might save the county from a water shortage emergency. But outraged residents argue that the district’s initiative is an underhanded maneuver to confuse voters and push through an unnecessary, unsafe and expensive project. Dr. William Rothman, who drafted the citizen’s initiative, received 18,000 signatures of support.

“It is truly unfortunate that the board has declared a poison pill ballot measure to thwart the district’s 18,000 voters,” said Frank Egger, former mayor of Fairfax. “You will confuse the voters and some will not even vote on the second ballot item because they’ll think they already voted on desalination.”

Measure 418 would allow MMWD to investigate, plan and contract workers for the project, but would require another public vote before construction takes place. The citizen’s initiative, Measure 419, would require another public vote before the district could spend any more money planning, engineering or contracting for the project.

Measure 418 has garnered support from Marin’s environmental groups and county officials. Marin Conservation League, Sierra Club and Supervisor Steve Kinsey voiced their support of the initiative at Monday’s meeting, agreeing that restricting the district from planning a desalination plant runs contrary to residents’ interests. “It is a superior alternative to the citizen’s initiative because it allows MMWD staff and consultants to undertake additional testing and permitting activities to decide whether a desalination plant is prudent for our community,” said Kinsey’s aid, Liza Crosse.

But many feel the $5 million already spent on various studies is enough—at least until residents have a chance to vote in November. Rothman believes that the board is not merely investigating a possible plant, but getting the pieces in place to expedite construction. “Why would you apply for a permit if you’re not planning on building it?” he asked. “With our initiative, they would be allowed to do all the evaluations they want, just not planning. With their initiative they’d be able to do anything short of picking up the hammer.”

Critics of the desalination plant have a laundry list of complaints. Rothman is concerned that the proposed plant’s reverse-osmosis membrane might tear, pumping millions of gallons of raw bay water into residents’ drinking water. He also claims the plant would pollute San Francisco Bay. But because it has not been designed, it is impossible to determine what its long-term effects would be. Aesthetics are another sticking point. Although no blueprints have been drafted, most desalination plants are large, industrial compounds at the water’s edge. The proposed plant would be located on a patch of district land in San Rafael near Pelican Way.

District directors warn that current water levels can only protect residents from two consecutive years of drought. The last such drought was in 1976-77, when the district imposed a strict rationing policy on residents. Users paid ten times more money for the luxury of exceeding their allocated water limit.

Water consultant Dietrich Stroeh agrees. “There was simply not enough water to serve 170,000 residents,” said Stroeh, who served as general manager for the district during the 1976-77 drought. “It was a pretty devastating time, but the allocation worked, and the pipeline [that runs across Richmond Bridge] went into effect.” Stroeh is the subject of the book The Man Who Made it Rain, which details his leadership during the drought.

Most of MMWD’s water comes from seven reservoirs—five in the Mount Tamalpais watershed and two above Fairfax. The remaining 25 percent comes from the Russian River in Sonoma County under a contract with the Sonoma County Water Agency. Consecutive winters with low rainfall greatly diminish the district’s ability to carry residents through an extended drought. “We don’t have the luxury of brownouts,” said Paul Heliker, MMWD general manager.

On Monday, opponents of the desalination plant made a strong case for further conservation. “I would suggest that we all cut our consumption in half,” said Bernie Steffan of Point Reyes Station. “Had you put as much energy into conservation as you’ve already put into desalination, we wouldn’t be facing this big dilemma.”

But Stroeh says conservation has reached a plateau. “There’s very little redundancy in the system anymore,” he said. “Low-flush toilets are in, irrigation systems are more efficient, plumbing that took up more water is gone. It’s not as loose as it was in [1976]. As a result, an allocation policy might work, but people would have to be much, much tighter. So I say let the people vote on the damn thing and if they approve it, let it rip!”

The district has a number of conservation programs in place, including an audit service to assess water consumption, rebates on efficient irrigation equipment and domestic plumbing, public awareness campaigns and raised public plumbing standards.