Supervisors uphold North Marin well permit

07/21/2021

The Marin County Board of Supervisors denied an appeal of the permit for North Marin Water District’s proposed second well on the Gallagher ranch, largely on the grounds that the board didn’t have jurisdiction over the issues at hand. 

“I think this is a simple case of where our jurisdiction lies and where it doesn’t lie,” board president Dennis Rodoni said. “I don’t disagree with Gordon Bennett or the water district in this case. I think everyone’s interested in protecting the fish, and there’s certainly different perspectives [on] how to do that. And what Mr. Bennett is proposing may be quite logical, but it needs to be taken to Fish and Wildlife and the regional agencies to implement that, should they agree with him.”

The appeal was the latest failed protest brought by Mr. Bennett through his nonprofit Save our Seashore; the planning commission rejected his first appeal of the coastal and use permits in May. 

The water district says the second well, part of a plan from 2009, will make up for the less-than-ideal performance from the original Gallagher well, built in 2015, which was meant to pump up to 300 gallons per minute but typically only pumps half as much. The district has long struggled with salinity intrusion at its Coast Guard wells, a growing issue since the restoration of the Giacomini Wetlands; last year, the problem became particularly pronounced, making the water unpalatable for many and a health problem for those with sodium issues. 

This year, because of the delay in building the second Gallagher well, the district has installed a water tank in downtown Point Reyes Station so residents can fill up on drinking water if salt levels rise too high for those on sodium-restricted diets. The district now hopes to have the Gallagher well built by early 2022.

Mr. Bennett, who lives in the district’s Paradise Ranch Estates service area, is concerned about the well’s impacts on salmonids. He has taken issue with North Marin’s environmental review process and believes the district has other water source options that wouldn’t impact fish, including better conservation and the construction of storage tanks that could hold water pumped from the Coast Guard wells during less salty flows. 

At last week’s Board of Supervisors hearing, Mr. Bennett expressed particular concern about the minimum flows in Lagunitas Creek, asserting that United States Geological Survey data from last summer shows the district was pumping for a few weeks when it should not have been. A state order from 1995, reiterated in the California Environmental Quality Act document for the proposed well, says that creek flows need to be maintained to at least six cubic feet per second in dry-year conditions from mid-June to November, and that reservoir releases from Marin Water need to occur if flows dip too low. 

At the hearing, the water district’s general manager, Drew McIntyre, said the CEQA document also states that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife can deem impacts modest enough that more releases wouldn’t be called for.

The water district also contended in documents submitted to the county that its water rights have been changed multiple times since the 1995 order, such that “the only possible scenario where NMWD would ‘unlawfully pump water reserved for salmon’ solely would be when no flow enters Lagunitas Creek from any of its tributaries, including San Geronimo Creek, Deadman’s Gulch, Devil's Gulch, Cheda Creek, and Nicasio Creek.” 

The district also argued that real-time U.S.G.S. data for the water gauge at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, which the district relies on to make decisions about releases, is “provisional” and can be updated months later with “retroactive changes” showing different flows.

At the hearing, Mr. Bennett lamented the fact that the the 1995 rule on creek flows is not a proactive one; instead, it triggers mitigation only after a violation. 

“The only way that a mitigation measure now gets triggered, according to North Marin, is after they find whether there’s been any impact on the fish,” Mr. Bennett said.

Save Our Seashore has argued, in letters to the county and North Marin, that the well isn’t necessary, but at the meeting Mr. Bennett said that he didn’t oppose the project moving forward if the county put protections from the CEQA document into the well’s building permit; doing so would allow a local agency to hold the water district’s “feet to the fire.” “I’m not trying to roadblock this process,” he said, but rather move forward with “adequate protections.” 

Mr. McIntyre responded that the district already amended part of its project in response to concerns from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, and that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would provide oversight through a streambed alteration agreement, for which the district submitted its application in June.

For their part, county staffers said that it was a bad idea for Marin to add a requirement regarding streamflows in what the water district’s legal counsel described as a “very complicated hydrologic situation.” 

“I think the idea of inserting the county’s local code enforcement program staff into an issue that is really fairly technically complex is inappropriate,” county planner Jeremy Tejirian said. “In this case, we have regulatory agencies, resource agencies, with the scientific and engineering knowledge to regulate this use of water.” 

The president of the Point Reyes Station Village Association, Ken Levin, pleaded with supervisors to deny the appeal. “People need water and fish do too, and I think North Marin is doing its best to comply with all the regulations and get fresh, drinkable water to the people in West Marin, including all our thousands of visitors who come on a daily basis,” he said.

In an email sent after the hearing, Mr. Bennett said the water district was “creating a false dichotomy to con the community and squirrel out of the salmon protections they themselves proposed in their 2009 CEQA study. But if the community conserves this summer, there will be enough water to prevent salt intrusion. And if NMWD holds to its salmon protections, there will be enough water for the salmon also.”

As for what’s next? The “next stop,” he wrote, “is the coastal commission.”