North Marin Water misses mark with drought plan, rate hike

06/09/2021

West Marin customers should vote no on North Marin Water District’s proposed water rate increase and urge the district to revisit its drought plan. The rate increase, which will be considered at a June 22 hearing, hinges on a structure that encourages excessive landscape use that draws salt into the lower wells. By failing to create conservation tiers that reflect a sustainable yield, the district is able to use salt intrusion as a false justification for rushing to build another well—one whose potential impacts have not been adequately studied.

The drought plan discriminates against those already conserving and growing families by mandating a universal 25 percent reduction from 2013 levels—that year being the last so-called normal year. Has your household size increased since 2013? If we have to go back eight years to find a “normal” year, how can that be normal? Drought is the new normal. 

Landscaping represents as much as 50 percent of North Marin’s summer water use; halving it would get us to a 25 percent summer drought reduction without threatening family health and safety or punishing growing families and those already conserving.

The district’s peak summer demand is 180 gallons per minute, but this year, given a 25 percent drought reduction, that amount will drop to 135. North Marin’s well at the Gallagher ranch, which is not subject to salt intrusion, pumps at 140 gallons per minute—more than enough to meet demand. The Coast Guard wells can be pumped for any extra demand during lower tides, and the district could upgrade its salt monitoring from periodic to continuous to precisely predict when it can pump from the Coast Guard wells. (There are also engineered solutions—injection wells and subsurface barriers—that keep saltwater at bay and boost sustainable yields, but alternatives like this are never seriously studied.)

The rate increase’s proposed tier 1 allows 250 gallons per 2.06-person household—an astonishing 121 gallons per person per day. That compares to the state goal of 55 gallons per person per day. Instead of a universal drought reduction, the district could utilize winter use as a proxy, focusing the conservation where it belongs—on landscape use. By splitting winter use into three parts—low, medium and high—those already conserving would not be penalized and water for family health and safety would not be compromised. After winter use is deducted from the drought goal, any remainder could consist of landscape use, divided equally among households so those with the most extravagant landscapes would be incentivized to conserve the most.

Water costs should be fairly and proportionally allocated to all users, with excessive water users responsible for the cost of meeting their own excessive needs. With stronger conservation, there would be no salt intrusion and the cost and construction of a new well could be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. Water for buildout is limited by North Marin’s water license, not its pumping capacity. So a new well does not create more water, it just allows continued excessive landscape use.

Whether or not we need a new well, any construction should be preceded by environmental studies on possible salmon impacts. It may come as a surprise that when we turn on the faucet late in drought summers, we may be in receipt of stolen goods. By law, a specific flow is required in Lagunitas Creek to protect salmon, and North Marin is prohibited from pumping that flow. The district believes it is lawfully pumping water supplied by tributaries to Lagunitas Creek that surpass the required flow. But in dry-year summers, tributaries evaporate and flows at North Marin’s pumps are lower than required. The water board requested the district establish a specific numerical flow that would determine whether it is lawfully pumping tributary water or unlawfully pumping salmon water, but the district has not done so.  

Salmonids have been observed breeding and nesting by North Marin’s pumps. The district argues that it only reduces creek water by a “negligible” amount, but is the effect negligible for salmon? The regional water board requested studies in February, but North Marin has been slow to respond.

For its part, Marin Water (formerly Marin Municipal Water District) is maintaining its required salmon flows while studying whether carefully reducing required flows in the future might save water for customers without doing unreasonable harm to salmon. In contrast, North Marin appears to have been taking salmon water before doing the studies to determine if it is harming salmon.

Water customers and salmon should be on the same side in drought summers when tributaries dry up. In fact, water users have a legal right to keep flows coming over and above the required salmon flows. North Marin does not have to take salmon water; instead, it can require that Marin Water release water at no additional cost. But North Marin won’t ask for the water; instead, it disguises its theft of salmon water with two unsubstantiated claims: that salt intrusion is unavoidable, and that the salmon are not affected.

To vote no on North Marin Water District’s rate increase plan and to tell them to revise their drought plan, mail and sign a letter stating 1) your opposition to both plans, and 2) your property address to North Marin Water District Attn: West Marin Rate Hearing, PO Box 146, Novato, CA 94945. Letters must be received by June 22. 

 

Gordon Bennett is a member and former chair of the Lagunitas Creek Technical Advisory Committee. He lives in Paradise Ranch Estates.