Old and new solutions for the Bolinas water supply

A water-main relocation project is underway in an effort to outpace the town’s crumbling bluffs.
David Briggs
A water-main relocation project is underway in an effort to outpace the town’s crumbling bluffs.

When Bill Pierce visited the dam at Arroyo Hondo Creek one afternoon in April, the soft brush of water over the creek bed was not what he wanted to hear.

The Bolinas Community Public Utility District (BCPUD), for which Mr. Pierce is chief water operator, relies primarily on creek flows to supply the coastal town of 1,600, where drought, geography and aging infrastructure keep the district in a fragile balancing act. This year, the February flows looked like those of an average month of June.

Bolinas has long faced water issues on multiple fronts, even as its downtown sits level with the Pacific Ocean and borders verdant parkland. Its water-scarce status was enshrined in 1971, when a newly elected board implemented a controversial moratorium on water hookups.

But the lack of water hasn’t stopped BCPUD from finding ways to deliver the precious resource safely and reliably. An eroding bluff triggered a large water-main rerouting project that is currently underway, and this spring district officials are testing a nanofiltration system that could reduce harmful compounds in the water. Long-term problems like climate change are a bit trickier, however.

Though experts say overall rainfall is expected to remain steady in coastal Marin County, there could be more intense storms interspersed with drier periods. Although BCPUD is exploring the viability of a newly discovered supplemental water source, which could help, Mr. Pierce said, “When you’re tiny, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.” Either there’s water, or there isn’t.

Water supply
Bolinas sources its water from a dam built in the 1920’s at the Arroyo Hondo Creek, a few miles north of downtown. The water flows to a treatment plant on Mesa Road, where it is pushed through a microfiltration system and treated with chlorine. When demand surpasses that supply, the district taps into water stored in its two reservoirs, Woodrat I and 2. The treated water flows to storage tanks and gravity carries it to homes.

According to the California Department of Public Health there are currently over two-dozen water systems in California under moratoriums, but Bolinas’s is arguably the best known for both its longevity and the battles it has faced.

In November 1971, after two directors of the BCPUD board were recalled and two additional members lost an election to challengers, the board approved a water-meter moratorium at their first meeting.
The new directors had campaigned on their opposition to development—specifically to a proposed $8.1 million sewage disposal system.

(That plan was scrapped in late 1971 when the state refused to certify grants, saying it was too big and costly.)

Two groups challenged the moratorium. The Bolinas Property Owners Association filed suit in the mid-1970’s but dropped it in 1979 due to litigation costs, an apparent reluctance of the courts to intervene and improvements that were made to the district. There were also discussions of building a third reservoir that some thought could result in an end to the moratorium.

In the 1980s, the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) sued the district on behalf of four property owners claiming the moratorium was a disguised attempt to limit development. The district argued that stymied development was a side effect of the moratorium, which was solely based on a water shortage.

A federal judge threw out the suit, and in 1991 a special master appointed by a state judge found that BCPUD couldn’t support more hookups. The state judge ruled that the shortage justified the moratorium, that the district had no obligation to potential users and that the length of time an emergency moratoriums can last is unlimited.

“The logic behind it was that we have a responsibility as a water district to be able to know that we can responsibly serve our existing customers and meet firefighting needs,” Jennifer Blackman, general manager for BCPUD, said. “Things haven’t really changed since then. The water source is still the same water source.”

In 2009, Ms. Blackman said an emergency measure that limited households to 150 gallons per day due to prolonged drought conditions had a lasting effect on consumption. For perspective, conventional washing machines can use as much as 50 gallons per load, conventional toilets up to seven per flush and showers a few gallons a minute.

After the emergency, delivery trucks full of high-efficiency appliances appeared in Bolinas. And while BCPUD supplied about five million gallons to customers in 2006, in 2009 that number dropped to 3.8 million, a 24 percent decline. In 2012, Ms. Blackman said, it crept up to a little over four million, as dry weather increased demand for landscaping usage.

Ms. Blackman is careful to note that increased conservation doesn’t mean that the moratorium can be lifted. “The water supply we have—even though people have done this great job of conserving—is extremely susceptible to weather conditions.” If 2013 turns out like 2008, when the rains didn’t come in November as they should have, “I think we’ll almost certainly be facing a mandatory rationing again [in 2014],” Ms. Blackman said.

Though Bolinas has relied solely on Arroyo Hondo and the Woodrat reservoirs since the latter were built in the late 1970s, there is now the possibility that the town could get a supplemental source.
A few years ago, a well was discovered on BCPUD land near the Resource Recovery Center. Officials installed monitoring equipment and has consulted with a hydrogeologist in what Ms. Blackman called “a long-term process to be able to understand that aquifer”: how much water it can produce, the quality of that water and whether it could be treated cost-effectively.

Ms. Blackman said that in the best outcome, the well could offer a safeguard.Jack Siedman, board president, echoed that sentiment: “What we were realizing a few years ago when we had the rationing is that we don’t have even an emergency source of water.” The well, he said, could be such a source.

Water quality
Like the Inverness Public Utility District, BCPUD is grappling with the problem of disinfection by-products (DBP’s), compounds that occur when disinfectants such as chlorine interact with organic material in the water. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates two types of these byproducts because they have been linked to some cancers, and by 2004 the agency was asking small water districts to meet more stringent requirements.

Bolinas’s plan was to try to cobble together a host of cost-effective measures—using less chlorine and aerating the water—until it found out about Inverness’s nanofiltration system, which has substantially reduced the presence of DBP’s, earlier this year.

On April 5, the district hauled 300 gallons of its reservoir water, which has more organic material than creek water, to Inverness, to test whether IPUD’s rented nanofiltration system could solve the DBP predicament.

Bolinas water, like Inverness’s, has at times exceeded limits for DBP’s in recent years. In 2011, though the annual average level of tested DBP’s was within the acceptable range, both byproducts, measured in parts per billion, were just above the recommended maximum limits in February and November, according to a 2011 Consumer Confidence Report.

Results from the recent test run through IPUD’s nanofilter found an 80 percent drop in the amount of DBP’s in Bolinas water, and staff plan to make a formal request to the board in May to implement a pilot project. Though one director had some concern about the system’s cost, he believed it may be the only way to ultimately satisfy the state requirements for water quality.

A step ahead
Terrace Avenue snakes into downtown from the high bluff at the end of Overlook Drive, on the edge of Bolinas’s gridded Big Mesa. As erosion eats away the bottom of the cliff, the top looks more and more like it’s lurching precariously forward, trying to get a better view of the bay.

Last year the county finished repairing a massive collapse at the precipitous intersection that left one house without road access and threatened the accessibility of one of only two roads to the mesa. That project cost $1.7 million.

Now the town is hoping to preempt a water fiasco at Surfer’s Overlook. With a $485,000 loan from the California Department of Public Health’s Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, BCPUD is installing new pipe through a section of private property a few hundred feet back.  

A construction sign on the mesa flashes instructions to drivers to expect delays until at least May 8, to use Mesa Road instead of Terrace and to “Be Happy.” Ms. Blackman said “Don’t Worry Be Happy” wouldn’t fit on the sign.

The district is also working with the volunteer fire department and county to explore ways to stabilize the bluff itself. Though the short seawall that was built back in the 1960s has done an “amazingly effective” job at keeping the ocean from eating the toe of the cliff, it can only forestall dangerous erosion for so long, Ms. Blackman said. A company, Sanders & Associates Geostructural Engineering, is close to completing a potential design.

“It’s a little bit frustrating because if we could wave a magic wand and that stabilization project could go in tomorrow, we wouldn’t need to relocate the water main,” she said. But given the uncertainty of that project’s timeline, officials concluded they couldn’t take that risk.

The project will use sculpted concrete to mimic the appearance of natural cliffs. In a picture Ms. Blackman had handy of a similar project in Santa Cruz, the textured design appeared almost authentic.