In Inverness, 40 years of independent water

01/09/2020

This month, the Inverness Public Utility District is celebrating 40 years of providing water to the town. It was a long path to public ownership, and residents had dealt with a sub-par water system for decades. The district was only able to buy the system at the eleventh hour after failed attempts, and once it finally purchased and rehabilitated the system, a great flood wiped it out. Today, the district delivers high-quality water and is run by members of the community—an outcome that was not inevitable. 

“The big question when we took over in 1979 was, ‘Is the community big enough to run an independent water system on its own?’” said Wade Holland, the district’s first general manager. “Forty years later, I think we’ve demonstrated, yes we are. We do it efficiently and professionally and economically.” 

Julia Shafter Hamilton installed the first water system in Inverness in the 1890s. Ms. Hamilton was an heir of James Shafter, a judge who owned most of the land on the Point Reyes peninsula when he died in 1892. She incorporated the Inverness Land & Water Company in 1906 with the plan to subdivide 3,200 acres into 10,000 lots, build a resort hotel and run an electric rail line to Fairfax. The earthquake quickly ended the ambitious plan.

But in 1929, Ms. Hamilton decided to try again, and borrowed $144,000. Twenty days later, the stock market collapsed, and the bank foreclosed on her. When she died in 1936, her daughter, Bertha, inherited the water system.

Bertha Hamilton offered to sell the company to the town in 1948 for $20,000, with $2,500 down; payment would only continue while she was alive. Inverness resident Bruce Johnstone launched a campaign to form the district and fund the acquisition. He negotiated a purchase agreement with Ms. Hamilton, and a majority of the town voted to form the Inverness Public Utility District. 

But when it came time to vote on the $50,000 bond issue to fund the purchase of the water system, which required two-thirds approval, residents did not vote in favor.

Three times the issue came before voters, and each time the yes vote came up fewer than four votes short. After the third election, the district went dormant, until it took over the Inverness Volunteer Fire Department in 1951.

Pilot Larry Marks purchased the Inverness Land & Water Company in 1959; a year later, he sold the system and 600 acres of land to the nationwide Citizens Utilities Co., which would own the water for 20 years. Inverness residents remember the company as unresponsive, unsanitary and cheap.

“It was a great company to own stock in, because they always had a dividend for stockholders,” Mr. Holland said. “But they ran the utilities as cheaply as they could.”

Residents didn’t trust the long-term intentions of Citizens Utilities, Mr. Holland said. The concern was that the company was going to subdivide the watershed.

“People began to realize we should’ve bought the system in ‘48,” he said.

With the hope of improving the town’s water situation, resident David Plant formed a water committee that laid the groundwork for purchasing the system. The committee spearheaded opposition to a proposed 76 percent rate increase and pushed Citizens Utilities to improve water quality. Eventually, the group studied the feasibility of community ownership and held discussions with Citizens Utilities about a purchase. 

The town elected a whole new board of directors who would pursue public ownership.

In June 1979, voters approved a $750,000 bond issue to buy and rehabilitate the system. The measure required a purchase by the end of the year, but Citizens Utilities was a difficult negotiating partner, especially when it came to selling the watershed land. 

The company wanted to donate its 196 acres to a nonprofit for the tax write-off, but when it proposed giving it to the Trust for Public Land, the Inverness Public Utility District backed out over concern that the trust would turn the land over to the National Park Service. 

On Dec. 29, a last-ditch attempt to negotiate a purchase met success. Citizens Utilities agreed to sell the infrastructure to the district for $330,000 and give the land to the Marin Conservation League, which gifted it to Inverness. On three days’ notice, the district went from directing a small volunteer fire department with a budget of $26,000 to spending hundreds of thousands to upgrade a water system. 

George Zigounakis and Jonathan Van Bourg were hired to maintain the old system and help an engineering firm implement a new one, while the board ran the administrative side as volunteers for the first five years.

“It was a lot of 12-hour days,” Mr. Zigounakis said, recounting daily efforts to clear intakes of debris. “The job was very, very trying.” 

The roofs of the water tanks were broken, the filter system was out of date and the pipes were leaking. Federal funding and the bonds enabled the district to repair everything but the collection system in 1980 and 1981. The old filter system, which used a basic mesh screen and added chlorine, was replaced with state-of-the-art treatment plants using pressure sand filters. Storage was expanded, and over half of the metal distribution pipes were replaced with PVC pipes.

As work was wrapping up in January 1982, a huge storm caused mudslides that blocked the road out of Inverness. The storm collapsed houses, toppled trees and washed out bridges. Roads became channels of muddy water. 

The next Monday morning, the sky was blue, but the water system was destroyed. A slab of concrete was all that was left of a filter plant, and the collection points were nowhere to be found. Inverness was without water until that Friday, and the tap only came back on after a town effort. 

Volunteers carried sacks of cement on stretchers into the watershed to construct the first intake dam. Contractors still in town from the system rebuild went to work replacing broken mains, and the intake system was redesigned to make it more secure. 

North Marin Water District laid a pipe that connected the two utilities along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, but before water could flow through it, Inverness workers finished building a new collection system that brought water to the two remaining treatment plants.

A contract for Inverness to purchase water from North Marin was considered in 1983, but residents concerned about dependency on imported water circulated an initiative petition that barred the district from entering such an agreement. The board adopted the policy, and now only voters could repeal the prohibition. The valve connecting Inverness and North Marin water stays closed, and it can be opened only during a fire or natural disaster.

Richard Plant, an IPUD director from 1980 to 1984, said that citizens prefer to tighten their water usage rather than give up Inverness’s independence. “It’s pretty good-tasting water, for one thing,” he said. “And for another thing, it’s a good feeling to have local control over something that’s so important, rather than having to deal with people as far away as Novato.” 

The board again explored purchasing water in 1988, but 71 percent of voters rejected the proposal.

Today, the district is financially stable. It has an operating budget of about $1 million, up from about $150,000 in 1980, and it serves 517 customers. The district has maximized its collection of surface water without taking so much that the streams dry up completely. And in dry times, when the water supply is inadequate to satisfy regular demand, residents are willing to conserve.