Bo to ration water

02/10/2021

Water will likely be rationed for Bolinas residents starting March 1. The village has already halved overall water consumption since last summer through voluntary measures, but the utility district says scant rains threaten its ability to provide water through 2021 without further conservation measures. 

Should the board of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District approve a resolution later this month, it will be the second time it has rationed water since it enacted a moratorium that limits the number of water hookups in the 1970s. The ration system will look the same as in 2009, though some board members have expressed concern that the approach—which will limit water by connection instead of by person—is inequitable.   

Since July, the district has counted just 10.2 inches of rain, a third of the average rainfall for this time of year. Last year was also dry, with a total of 22.7 inches of rain compared to the average 32.5 inches. Similar lows are seen across West Marin, though no other district is facing rationing at this time. 

“The current challenge that we have is a water supply problem, a lack of recharge with our water supply—it’s not currently a water use problem, with water use low right now, especially by historical standards,” Jennifer Blackman, BCPUD’s general manager, said at a community meeting last week.

Ms. Blackman said it is critical that overall use remain at least where it is today, and that the district could not risk the typical increase seen in the spring and summer. 

The board will finalize the terms at its regular meeting on Feb. 17. Staff are recommending 125 gallons a day per connection, with exceptions for around 14 local businesses and public-serving entities. The cap will be enforced weekly rather than on a daily basis, allowing some flexibility in day-to-day use. Should households fail to comply, they could ultimately lose their water. 

While the board mulled over the possibility of allowing residents who have greater water needs due to large households or multiple units to apply for exceptions now, staff recommended that residents first work with the district to see if meeting the limit is possible. 

Bolinas’s water system is particularly vulnerable to low rainfall. It is primarily fed by Arroyo Hondo Creek, a perennial creek on the southern end of the Point Reyes National Seashore; two reservoirs fed by seasonal creeks have provided additional supply since the 1980s.

Currently, supply is meeting use: Customers are relying entirely on Arroyo Hondo, which is flowing at around 78,610 gallons a day. Demand is around 62,000 gallons a day, which breaks down to an average of 102 gallons per connection. The reservoirs are refilling after the district was forced to dip into them prematurely last summer.  

Ms. Blackman told the board that two historic trends are guiding her recommendation for rationing: the fact that water use consistently goes up in the warmer months, and the observation that, in years with as little rainfall as this one, predicted supply cannot meet that seasonal demand. 

In the past 70 years there have been 12 other years in which rainfall was as low as it is today. In those years, the average rainfall was 20.7 inches. If the district should receive that amount this year, and see the typical seasonal use increase this summer, creek flows and storage would become critically low and water quality exceedingly poor by early fall. 

In the worst-case scenario, without a drop more of rain, BCPUD’s supply would run dry by November if use stays where it is today—and much faster with a seasonal increase. 

Limiting water to 125 gallons a day per connection will allow the district to make it through to the next rainy season, assuming the dry-year average is met. Rainfall and water use would continue to be monitored closely, and the rationing cap could change over time.  

Rationing has been on the table for months. In June, the district issued a heightened water conservation alert and asked residents to help bring down the town’s overall use by 20 to 30 percent. In October, the district made a voluntary request for no more than 150 gallons a day. 

Today there are disparities in use. In January, 470 customers, the majority, used less than the recommended ration of 125 gallons. Other customers used more: 69 used more than 150 gallons a day, and 33 used more than 200 gallons. Ms. Blackman said that among residential properties, big users could be those with a large number of people, high-turnover short-term rentals, large gardens, or residents with intensive-use habits like long showers. 

Rationing in 2009 was short-lived. The cap, set at 150 gallons with some commercial and public-serving exceptions, took effect at the end of January after only nine inches of rain had fallen. 

“But then we had the February miracle, so to speak,” Ms. Blackman said. “We were prepared and ready, but we essentially didn’t wind up having to live through it because as soon as we started enforcing, it started raining.” More than 10 inches fell that February, followed by three in March. The board lifted the ration in mid-March, and the subsequent rain year was much larger than average.

At a special meeting held on Monday night, four of the five board members agreed with the staff’s recommendations. Don Smith expressed reservations: He has advocated that the district consider rationing on a per-person basis, a sentiment echoed by several residents.  

“People have families or people living on their properties, which is a major source of affordable housing here,” Mr. Smith said. “Furthermore, if someone is renting out units to people affordably and finds the [allotment] is not enough to go around, they may just say, ‘Well, you can’t live here anymore.’ And that would be very unfortunate, too: Some of these people have jobs in town, they are volunteering for the town, they are a part of the community. We don’t want to see any more people leave town than has already been the case for other reasons.”

One resident said he already received an eviction notice from his landlord, who has 12 people living on the property. His landlord also spoke, saying he thought it was the more sensitive thing to do, considering he didn’t know if the district would give him an exception to continue housing that many people. He already has a rainwater catchment system. 

At the next BCPUD meeting, the board is expected to enact the rationing. Everyone who anticipates needing more than 125 gallons a day is encouraged to contact the district now so they can conduct a water audit and brainstorm conservation measures. 

Other water managers on Marin’s coast are also facing the effects of the second consecutive year of drought.

The Inverness Public Utility District declared a water shortage emergency in July. After proceeding into stage two of four, which restricted outdoor watering, the district rolled back to stage one once the rains began. As in Bolinas, customers are averaging around 100 gallons a day, and the system is relatively balanced and the storage tanks are staying full. 

Inverness has also recorded 11.16 inches of rain since July 1, around half the 90-year average. 

IPUD would have to move through all four stages of its declaration before considering rationing, said Wade Holland, the customer services manager. Recently, the Inverness Foundation proposed a parcel tax that would help the district increase its storage, though IPUD’s board has not yet discussed the idea. 

Mr. Holland is concerned about the future. “We are at a point of stability, getting enough each day to satisfy customer demand and have a reasonable amount of water in the system, but we are not getting a lot of excess, and that is ominous,” he said. “If we don’t get a lot more rain, and we are just meeting the status quo in February, things are only going to get drier.”

North Marin Water District has also asked customers to voluntarily reduce consumption. Should it need additional flow, it has an agreement with Marin Municipal Water District to purchase additional water from Kent Lake. The board of M.M.W.D. will consider voluntary conservation measures later this month.