Water supply dwindling for small districts

07/08/2020

The streams and creeks that supply West Marin are running low after the extraordinarily dry winter, and local water system managers are sounding the alarm. The Bolinas Community Public Utility District and North Marin Water District have already imposed water-use reductions, and the Inverness Public Utility District may do so later this month. 

While larger providers in the county rely primarily on reservoirs and are still operating at capacity thanks to the wet winter two years ago, smaller water systems on the coast that have less storage are hit hard by a dry year. 

“We are very concerned about how we will get through the next five to seven months, until we get to next year’s rains,” said Wade Holland, the customer services manager for IPUD. “This is the driest year IPUD has faced since we bought the water system 40 years ago, in 1980.”

Twenty-three inches of rain fell in Inverness from October through June, compared to the nearly 38-inch average since 1925. Just five other years rivaled this year over the past century, with an all-time annual low in the mid-70s at 18 inches. Even the drought years from 2012 to 2015 saw around five to 10 inches more rain each year in Inverness than fell last year. The rainfall was similar across West Marin. 

IPUD, which serves its customers from water caught from streams and creeks that descend from the Inverness Ridge, is in a particular bind: the tanks that are part of the distribution system turn over the water they contain every three days. On July 22, the IPUD board of directors will consider declaring a water-shortage emergency, something it has done only around five times over the past four decades, and most recently in 2014. 

The declaration outlines four possible stages. The board is considering passing stage one, which would immediately prohibit the use of water for construction without a permit from the district, for drinking at restaurants unless requested by a customer, for refilling pools, or for washing the exterior of buildings, among other restrictions. In stage two, washing vehicles is prohibited, and there are heavy restrictions on outdoor watering. 

Other districts are also taking action. 

In June, the Bolinas Community Public Utility District issued a heightened water conservation alert and asked residents to help bring down the town’s overall water usage by 20 to 30 percent. In addition to asking residents to limit outdoor watering and time showers so they don’t last longer than three to five minutes, the district reached out directly to 20 percent of the top users. 

BCPUD, fed by Arroyo Hondo Creek, has two storage reservoirs, but it generally doesn’t dip into them until September; this year, the reservoirs were used in May. “That rang alarm bells,” said general manager Jennifer Blackman, especially since those reservoirs are needed for firefighting.

Like IPUD, the Bolinas district has only had to issue a heightened alert a handful of times throughout its history. It rationed water just once, in 2009. That year, many residents bought low-flow toilets and made other improvements, resulting in a sustained overall reduction in use.

Recently, however, BCPUD noticed an upswing in water usage, beginning this Memorial Day weekend. Ms. Blackman said the warm weather, and possibly more gardening while people shelter, could be at fault. 

She dispelled rumors that the increase was due to out-of-towners. “People started sheltering here in March, and we didn’t see an increase in consumption until Memorial Day weekend. Everyone is guilty,” Ms. Blackman said. 

BCPUD will monitor the meters on a monthly instead of a quarterly basis. Consumption has already turned down, Ms. Blackman said. 

The North Marin Water District, which pulls water from a series of wells along Lagunitas Creek to supply customers in Point Reyes Station, Olema and Inverness Park, has also asked customers to voluntarily reduce their consumption.

At the same time, North Marin enacted its emergency water conservation ordinance, triggered when rainfall falls short of a minimum threshold of 28 inches. As a result, the flow from Kent Lake—which supplements Lagunitas Creek—was reduced by 25 percent, so usage had to decrease by a corresponding 25 percent, in order to protect endangered fish in the creek. This mandatory reduction—compelled by litigation from 2002 and a California State Water Board Order from 1995—was only imposed in one other instance, in 2014.   

Yet Drew McIntyre, North Marin’s general manager, said the reductions—mandated between July and November—were already within reach. Prior to alerting customers about the needed reduction, actual use was already at least 12 percent less than the baseline year. That’s thanks in part to improved practices and infrastructure from customers, Mr. McIntrye said.  

The Stinson Beach County Water District, which relies mostly on wells in the Mount Tamalpais watershed, reported no concerns about water supply. The very wet winter in 2018-2019—when rainfall almost doubled averages—helped. 

Ed Schmidt, the manager, said the wells were level and the creeks, which account for 30 percent of the district’s water, were as dry as they normally are this time of year. “It’s a geographical thing,” he said. “The west side of Mount Tam, where we get our water from, is so wet: It’s a luxury spot.” 

Marin Municipal Water District is also in good shape. The district, which services almost 200,000 in central and southern Marin, has 75 percent of its water stored in seven reservoirs. As a result of the rains two winters ago, reservoirs are at 78.7 percent capacity, not far below the average capacity for this time of year, 82.73 percent.