Six jockey for utility board in Bolinas

10/17/2013

Six candidates vying for seats on the board of directors of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, the municipal agency responsible for water and waste, each made their pitch to a standing room-only crowd at the Bolinas Firehouse last week.

The slate of candidates for the three open seats on the five-member board is the largest since 1977, when the board was fighting a legal battle to protect its moratorium on new connections to the public water supply against the Bolinas Property Owners Association.

The uptick in interest for this November’s election follows nearly a decade of virtually unchanged membership, with uncontested elections in 2007 and 2011 and the defeat of challengers in 2005 and 2009. This year, two seats were vacated by the retirements of Bobbi Kimball and Kim Bender. Jack Siedman, the board’s current president, is the only candidate seeking reelection.

The candidates are artist StuArt Chapman, school counselor Grace Godino, retired nonprofit manager Lyndon Comstock, retired commercial banker Remick Hart, business owner Bill Braasch and Mr. Siedman, a lawyer.

At a candidates’ night last Wednesday, the electoral hopefuls said their primary concern will be upholding the moratorium, but they also laid out plans for dealing with a number of other issues, ranging from updating aging infrastructure to opening a community swimming pool. They discussed educating new residents and curbing the overflow of tourists downtown. At one point, the candidates considered awarding legal rights to rivers and trees.

The piqued interest reflects the extent of BCPUD’s influence in the town of 1,600. Lacking a city council, the board’s meetings have become a forum for residents to express their concerns. The directors have embraced the role and turned the board into the most powerful local institution, a scope some worry distracts from the core concerns of water and drainage.

The district manages an intricate system of waterworks for the 2.5-square mile seaside town. The primary source flows the Arroyo Hondo Creek a few miles north of downtown, a glistening pool only three feet deep, 20 feet wide and 28 feet long created by a dam built in the 1920’s. If that supply cannot meet the demands required for every sink, shower and hose, the town can tap into its two reservoirs, Woodrat 1 and 2, both built in the late 1970’s. Last year, the utility delivered more than 4 million gallons of water from these sources to its customers.

Since 1971, this trickle of water has supplied the same number of hookups —precisely 580—after a newly elected board passed what has become Bolinas’s signature legislation at their very first meeting, the moratorium on new connections to the public water supply. 

The prolonged state of emergency has survived criticism and legal battles by the Bolinas Property Owners Association and the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation for more than four decades. Because of it, Bolinas can seem frozen in time.

But much of the infrastructure may be in need of a change. With many pipes now approaching three decades of use and a filtration system dating to the early 1990’s, the board wants to prevent inefficiencies that could increase costs or lose an already limited supply of water.

Staff members have always reviewed the highest-priority physical assets in need of upgrades, but a systematic inventory of the entire infrastructure has not yet been completed, though one will be presented to the board later this year, said Jennifer Blackman, BCPUD’s general manager. Without one, some fear, the district may be blindsided with huge capital costs. 

Among the candidates, Mr. Comstock has been at the forefront in advocating for such an overview of each component of the infrastructure, its replacement cost and estimated number of years of efficient use to ensure a long-term approach to planning.

“The proper way to go is to start setting aside reserves now,” he said. For example, if a $500,000 pipeline with an estimated 50-year life will eventually need to be replaced, the utility should start setting aside $10,000 a year now.

Muir Beach went through a similar process in 1996, estimating the cost of a 20-year capital plan at $530,000. Many pipes were over 30 years old. Water from the tap was occasionally red, brown oe black, due to buildup of iron and manganese, and the well required additional electric pumping during peak hours.

With an even larger system, BCPUD’s current infrastructure has cost roughly $9.2 million, according to the most recent estimate. The cost of replacement down the line will surely be even higher, Mr. Comstock said.

Another key component in need of an upgrade is the treatment facility on Mesa Road. Depending on a microfiltration system completed in 1995, the water supply has come dangerously close to the maximum levels set by the state Environmental Protection Agency, Ms. Blackman said. If regulations become stricter, as they did in 2004, Bolinas may not be able to meet the clean water standards. 

In 2012, for example, the annual average was within the acceptable range—though far from the recommended levels—but was above the maximum during February and December, according to a consumer confidence report.

The district is testing a cleaner nanofiltration system, which Inverness Public Utility District recently decided to purchase after it found an 80 percent drop in chemical byproducts of disinfection, which have been linked to cancer. The new system could be pricey, but it may soon be the only way to comply with the law.

A final upgrade the candidates considered was an emergency water source, whether purchased from neighboring landowners or the National Park Service or stored in an expanded reservoir. Many of the attendees at Wednesday’s meeting remembered the 2009 drought very clearly, when each household was limited to 150 gallons per day. If the rains don’t come next month, like the dry spell in late 2008, water may be rationed again in 2014. With climate change, many do not want to endure the hardship each year if a backup plan could be drafted, though some candidates worried about an added water source endangering the moratorium.

The primary difficulty of upgrading old pipes, filtering cleaner water and storing reserves is where to find the money. With a budget of only $1.5 million each year, finding a sizable portion for capital improvements is a daunting task, particularly when customers already pay some of the highest rates in the region. 

A typical single-family residence was estimated to pay $1,567 in total annual costs, while prices are nearly half in the rest of West Marin. A Muir Beach customer is estimated to pay $933; Inverness, $802; and Point Reyes Station, $664, according to a report by the North Marin Water District.

Along with the rest of the candidates, Mr. Comstock said he does not have a specific agenda in place for updating the entire utility system. “But I’ve seen enough to raise a lot of questions,” he said.

Much of the candidates’ night diverged from the core issues of water delivery and drainage. Residents asked about everything from what to do about the surfers who take up parking and urinate on front lawns downtown to whether trees and rivers should have their own legal rights. Everyone agreed that a community pool would be a huge asset, and all the candidates advocated better outreach to new residents, who might not know the best tactics for saving water and the other Bolinas ways of life. Mr. Hart stressed that the board should also connect with the immigrant workers in town.

At one point, Mr. Comstock said he was “nervous” that the board’s nuts and bolts “issues don’t get quite as much attention as I wish they were getting.”

Mr. Siedman politely responded: “If BCPUD doesn’t take on these issues, no one does.” He stressed that the board should continue to be a town forum.

But besides this minor disagreement, the candidates shared similar platforms.

“Since there are no issues which divide the candidates, it becomes a matter of personal preference for the voters,” Mr. Siedman told the Light. “What else can I say?”

All of the candidates were born outside Bolinas. All have trickled in over the decades, drawn to the small town’s charms. As Mr. Braasch commented at the meeting Wednesday of his move from Oakland to West Marin, “There’s no zealot like a convert.”

Ms. Godino has worked at the Bolinas-Stinson School as a counselor, librarian and math and reading instructor since she moved here in the early 1990’s. “Now I would like to give back to this town that has given me so much,” she said of her reasons for running. Ms. Godino said she will bring “a different kind of infrastructure” to the board through her ties with the many families she knows from the school and the conflict resolution strategies she has perfected as a therapist. “I work well with people,” she said, “whether or not I agree with them.” Her social skills earned her an endorsement by Don Smith, a board member since 2003.

Another endorsement went to Mr. Siedman, who has practiced law in Bolinas since he moved here with his children in 1977. After serving on the school board for three terms, he was elected to BCPUD in 1993 and has served as its president for many years. “I feel that I have contributed leadership, experience, historical perspective and an ability to be fair and impartial in dealing with the variety of issues that come before the board,” he said. “Bolinas is a unique treasure, and serving on the BCPUD is one way for me to help keep it that way.”

Mr. Hart said his retirement last year has given him the time he wants to devote to BCPUD. The town “has been and is a major inspiration in our family’s life for several generations,” he said. He added that his business experience will be useful for budgeting.

Mr. Comstock, another retiree who has utilized his extra time writing a biography of an early labor activist, has lived in Bolinas since 1994. He said the moratorium on water meters “was a wise decision at the time and still is necessary.” In preparation for the Wednesday meeting, Mr. Comstock studied the costs of improving the filtration systems, revamping the system of distribution pipes and constructing emergency water reserves—an effort that earned him Mr. Smith’s final endorsement.

Mr. Braasch manages a software business and The Well, an online community, but he is best known in town for his photography. If elected, he said he will work to improve the drainage system on the Big Mesa. “It’s important to preserve the natural beauty of Bolinas, to resist the urge to change the natural elements,” he said. “Bolinas should be a socially accepted nature loving town.”

Wearing a blazer with “WATER” embroidered in blue on the lapels, Mr. Chapman said he was running to preserve Bolinas’s culture and character. A longtime resident, Mr. Chapman objects to any road signs. As a self-described “water mystic,” he said he will “recognize the Consciousness of Water” and “serve the land, the watershed, the habitat, the people and the community.”

Though they offer unique backgrounds and skills, the candidates agreed on almost every issue.

On Wednesday, one listener joked that the candidates were “such a choir.” But his observation was not meant to antagonize. To him, the melody must have been sweet: Hold the line on the moratorium. No road signs, no meters. Keep Bolinas just the way it is.