Water report rankles Marshall, ponders sewers

01/21/2016

A county commission’s recommendation to excise Marshall from the North Marin Water District has drawn hearty protest from the East Shore Planning Group, which says the long-term impacts of climate change could force the area, which now relies on wells and spring water, to require the district’s services in the future.

“We’re not worried about the near term. In fact, the mid-term may not even be our concern. Our attention is focused on long-term water strategies,” Lori Kyle, the group’s president, told the Local Agency Formation Commission before it tentatively approved a final draft of a report on the county’s six special water districts last week. A second public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 11, when the commission will consider codifying its determinations.

Ms. Kyle said well salinization, the impacts of climate change and the possible diversification of Marshall’s ranches all point to a need for more water. Given the unknowns, “to be spun off now seems really an anomaly,” she said. 

Excising 7,700 acres from North Marin’s boundaries—including the East Shore of Tomales Bay and portions of northern Inverness—would “clean up” the district’s boundaries, since North Marin has never served those areas, said Keene Simonds, LAFCO’s executive director. 

(Some Inverness and Marshall residents who live within the boundary vote for North Marin’s board of directors.) 

North Marin’s general manager, Chris DeGabriele, called Marshall’s inclusion in the district boundaries an “artifact of history.” In the 1960s and ‘70s, during plans to develop a booming populace in West Marin, the district included the East Shore in its bounds as a potential spot for a reservoir. 

“That doesn’t diminish their concerns,” Mr. DeGabriele said. “But what the territory was annexed for a long time ago—over 50 years ago—is no longer contemplated.”  

The final report says that North Marin Water District should include the East Shore community in the detachment discussion. But it still contains a recommendation that the commission should consider “special legislation to expedite the boundary change and avoid the costs and uncertainties tied [to] holding protest proceedings,” a point that particularly piqued the planning group.

The East Shore proposal was just one of 15 conclusions and 15 recommendations by LAFCO, which is allowed specific powers, including to approve or deny boundary changes for special districts; conduct service reviews; dissolve or consolidate special districts if a study determines such a move would best serve customers; and analyze economically disadvantaged communities’ access to municipal services. 

Marin’s commission is comprised of two county supervisors, two city officials, two special district board members and a member of the general public. 

The water service report, the first of its kind, is meant to “inform the general public” as well as create a “source document” for future LAFCO actions, Mr. Simonds said. The review is to be updated every five years, according to state legislation. 

That five-year time frame has been a source of frustration for other West Marin districts.

The report concluded that water demands increased for almost all seven services areas between 2009 and 2013, with the exceptions of Marin Municipal and North Marin’s West Marin area. Since the increase outpaced population growth, the report tied it to usage, not development. 

The report also found that, given the county’s Housing Element, Marin’s population could grow by an estimated 30,000 people, which would “further stress systems already projected with deficits in single-dry year conditions.” (Mr. Simonds said later that such growth may not come for another 50 or even 200 years.)

The commission recommended that all agencies at least consider enhancing water supplies.

North Marin, Bolinas Community Public Utility District and Inverness Public Utility Districts each responded to a draft report that five years was too short a period from which to draw conclusions about trends. Their own analyses, with longer windows, show decreasing demand. 

In a letter sent in November, B.C.P.U.D. called LAFCO’s conclusion about it “erroneous,” saying water use in fact declined 5 percent annually from 2006 to 2014.

IPUD’s general manager, Scott McMorrow, said this week that a “massive blip” in 2013, when water use was abnormally high, skewed the five-year window and made it seem like use was increasing. The district’s 23-year analysis of water use shows flat or slightly decreasing demand.

Mr. Simonds said the differing findings simply reflect analyses of the same data using different time frames, and that the five-year window reflects the legislative mandate to update the study every five years. 

The final report was altered to make the benchmarks of the study clearer, and the agencies’ own data were added as appendices. 

Another debated finding centered on LAFCO’s conclusion that B.C.P.U.D. could not meet its average daily peak demand, which typically occurs on holiday weekends like Independence Day, when visitors flock to town. By LAFCO’s analysis, average peak-day demand between 2009 and 2013 exceeded current treatment capacity; by 2023 it could exceed it even more. 

The report said the town should boost its treatment capacity when it has available resources.

But B.C.P.U.D. said it has nearly four times the amount of peak-day demand of treated water in its storage tanks at all times, and therefore no reason to invest customer revenue in expanding its treatment plant.

The report also said peak averages for Inverness and Stinson Beach will match treatment capacity by 2023. 

Mr. McMorrow disagrees. “First of all, we think that’s its more accurate to look at a longer time frame. Secondly, one thing that peak-day doesn’t account for is storage. Even if you exceed peak-day demand, that’s what storage can be used for. We have 425,000 gallons in tank storage capacity,” he said.

But Mr. Simonds said it is LAFCO’s job to imagine different scenarios. “What if you had a peak-day demand event, plus a water line break or a fire issue? Your ability to address those types of issues comes under question,” he said.

The report also recommends that the commission assess the “viability of any service and cost efficiencies” of consolidating North Marin and Marin Municipal, the county’s two biggest water districts.

Perhaps the most surprising recommendations was that the commission start investigating wastewater potential in West Marin. 

The report says LAFCO “should explore and discuss the potential to establish community wastewater systems” in Muir Beach, Inverness, Stinson and Point Reyes Station, “given the increasing cost and environmental considerations tied to maintaining septic systems in the area.”

Jack Baker, a commissioner and a board director for North Marin, raised concerns about that recommendation. “It still seems there are a few things I’m troubled by, such as encouraging North Marin to get into sewer service out in West Marin. That’s a very complicated, dicey subject, technically [and] politically.”

Mr. DeGabriele said the recommendation made no sense in a study of drinking water. “You might want to take that up in some other avenue, but you didn’t study wastewater at all in this study,” he said. “There’s no nexus.”

Mr. Simonds disagreed, countering this week that septic systems can malfunction and contaminate the quality of drinking water. Creating wastewater systems in West Marin would take decades, he said. “But I think it’s important that West Marin start thinking of these things now—with LAFCO and with the county—so that if a game plan is ultimately to create a community wastewater system, planning starts occurring sooner rather than later.”