West Marin prepares for extreme drought

David Briggs
Marin's reservoirs are typically 90 percent full at this time of year, but after two dry years, they are at less than half their capacity. Nicasio Reservoir is revealing the skeletons of old buildings and roads, and that's with water pumped from the Soulajule Reservoir, which is normally used for storage. Marin County supervisors declared a drought emergency this week.  
05/19/2021

Creeks are dwindling, reservoirs are draining, and water suppliers are sounding the alarm. 

Marin declared a drought emergency this week, the latest step in a crisis that will only deepen into the summer. Water providers large and small are conserving and creating backup plans, and they are searching for new sources of water. Prospects of outside help are diminishing, so suppliers are turning to their customers to save them from running dry. 

“You only have to drive by Nicasio Dam or Stafford Lake to see the dire conditions we are facing,” Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said. “Drought conditions are the worst we have seen in over 140 years in Marin. Please take this drought and recommendations from the water agencies seriously. While we have plenty of water for health and safety of our families, it is important that we do not waste any water.”

The resolution adopted by supervisors declares an imminent threat of disaster and grants Marin emergency powers to address the drought. It requests that the state extend its own emergency proclamation to include Marin, potentially making disaster funding available and waiving regulations that may hinder response efforts.

Last year was already bad. Rainfall from July 2019 to June 2020 registered among the drier years on record and around half of average. Water districts asked customers to voluntarily conserve, and they did. Storage systems and sources needed a wet winter to recharge, but the rains never arrived. This year was the driest ever recorded in parts of Marin, and no significant storm is expected for at least five months.

Droughts are a part of California’s natural weather patterns, and the problems of today have been faced in the past. Just four years ago, the state came out of the longest drought ever recorded in the region by the United States Drought Monitor. The most severe drought was in 1976 and 1977, when a six-mile pipeline was built across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to pump water from the East Bay to Marin, and a rainy winter turned things around.

But this drought year comes with the added stress of climate change making weather events more extreme and harder to predict. 

Water agencies are offering rebates for conservation improvements and adding restrictions including limitations on outdoor watering, which is responsible for an uptick in consumption during the summer. Mandatory rationing is on the table everywhere in Marin, though questions of how to fairly enforce restrictions remain. 

At least 10 different entities serve water to West Marin. Inverness, Muir Beach, Stinson Beach and Bolinas all have their own public districts. Point Reyes Station, Olema and Inverness Park are served by wells from the Novato-based North Marin Water District. The San Geronimo Valley is connected to Marin Water, the county’s largest provider. Residents in Marshall, Tomales and more remote areas get their water from private wells, and Dillon Beach is served by two private water companies. 

Each of these providers is impacted to varying degrees, depending on their sources and system. 

Our collective challenge

The Bolinas Community Public Utility District put up a large sign at the intersection of Mesa and Olema-Bolinas Roads that displays the town’s water use for the week, and how it compares to a mandatory ration trigger of 76,000 gallons per day. If that threshold is crossed, all households will be limited to an average of 125 gallons per day—and that limit will likely be lowered to 100 gallons in the future, general manager Jennifer Blackman said. 

The sign underscores that conservation is a town-wide issue. Residents have accused others, such as weekenders and vacationers, of using too much, but at a meeting last week, Ms. Blackman stressed that the vast majority of residents increased their consumption over the past six weeks, and there are no villains. If people can keep their water use where it is now and avoid the usual summer increase, rationing can be avoided.

“This is a crisis that is our collective challenge as a town,” Ms. Blackman said. “We’re only going to survive this and get through this if we think about this as a community and not pit people against each other… Look in the mirror and ask yourself what you can do.”

Violators will receive a written warning for the first and second time they exceed the limit, and their water will be turned off after the third violation. They will then have to appear in front of the board of directors to negotiate terms to restore their water service.

Directors are discussing an exception to the ration limit for larger households. Currently about 100 of 592 connections are using more than 125 gallons per day. Fourteen are businesses, and 30 are households whose use is very close to the limit; about 10 percent of homes are well above the ration limit. 

During a drought in 2009, plumbers were busy replacing hot water heaters, showerheads and faucets with more efficient fixtures. Those investments are paying off today with lower consumption; now, the biggest place to save is outside.

Preventing leaks is important. Hoses have been left running and toilet flaps have failed, resulting in hundreds of thousands of gallons wasted in recent months. 

“We really cannot afford to have those kinds of water losses, and they are absolutely avoidable if people simply turn the water off…when [they] are going to be away,” Ms. Blackman said.

Bolinas, which draws its water from Arroyo Hondo Creek, is pursuing two new wells that would greatly add to its water supply. One showed an impressive flow of a couple-hundred gallons per minute, hydrogeologist Rob Gailey said. He still must conduct tests to make sure the water is safe to drink; staff submitted applications to the state water board and asked for an expedited process. 

Ms. Blackman did not share a timeline for adding the wells to the water system, but she said the goal is to bring them online this year. 

Bolinas has been under a water moratorium since 1971 because of its scant supply. The town’s “checking account” is the creek, and its two reservoirs are the “savings account.” Each day the reservoirs are not used is a success.

Bill Pierce, one of the chief water operators, said that if you had long-term knowledge of the watershed but no calendar, you would think it was fall right now. Standing on its banks, he can normally hear the creek flowing at this time, but today it is quiet.

A foggy summer can offer some relief. When the weather is warm and sunny, Mr. Pierce said he can see creek flows drop, and the lower end runs dry. When the fog rolls in, the opposite happens.

“That is due to the fact that we share the Arroyo Hondo canyon with everything that lives up there, and they are all drinking out of that creek,” he said. “Fog is vitally important to this town.”

Stinson Beach and Muir Beach benefit from being on the west side of Mount Tamalpais. Ed Schmidt, the general manager of the Stinson Beach County Water District, said when the clouds hit the mountain, they rise up and drop their moisture. The tanks are at a comfortable 85 percent full. 

“Fortunately, we’ve got a good fog drip here,” Mr. Schmidt said.

Inverness is on its own, too, with storage limited to aboveground tanks that are replenished by creeks each night. The district enacted a moratorium on new water connections last summer, and now four different properties are seeking meters. 

Nicole Bartolini and Joshua Garcia purchased an undeveloped property in Inverness in January with plans to build a 1,200-square foot home with two bathrooms and a drought-resistant landscape. They said the seller and local real estate agent did not tell them about the water moratorium, and they made a significant financial investment thinking they had permits and water access. Now, they’re stuck. 

They wrote a letter to the utility’s directors, asking for an exception on the grounds that construction won’t happen until next spring and will use trucked-in water, and they will defer landscaping work. 

Directors will hear the letter at their meeting next week. In the past when Inverness instituted a moratorium, nobody applied for a new connection.

Wade Holland, the district’s first general manager, said water operators have an informal rule of thumb that if the creeks are flowing at 700 gallons per minute by the end of February, the supply will be more than enough that year. Less than that doesn’t necessarily mean trouble, but this year, creeks were flowing at 110 gallons per minute.

“It’s ominous,” Mr. Holland said.

On Wednesday, the creeks flowed at 50 gallons per minute. While individual usage is relatively low, the population of Inverness has increased during the pandemic and strained the system.

Rationing can take three different forms, each with pros and cons. The simplest way is to limit water per connection, because usage is relatively easy to observe. The downside is that larger families are disproportionately impacted. Such restrictions do not distinguish between a house with six people and one used only for a weekend. 

Limiting water consumption on a per-person basis is more equitable, but it requires manpower to take a census. Mr. Holland said the district would have to hire another full-time employee to take this route. 

The third rationing method is to require customers to cut back by a certain percentage based on their previous usage, which punishes those who have already conserved. All of these options would be discussed by directors before enacting any rationing.

For San Geronimo Valley customers of Marin Water, restrictions have been imposed, though employees are more focused on education than enforcement. Spray and drip irrigation are limited, pool covers are required, car washes and power washing are banned, fountains can’t be refilled, and outdoor watering is prohibited between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. 

The district expanded rebates for replacing lawns, adding a hot water recirculating system, installing smart irrigation controllers and other upgrades. The goal is to reduce consumption by 40 percent from 2013 levels, and small users will play a big part.

“In Marin, there is not a tremendous amount of industry and commercial demand on the water,” general manager Ben Horenstein said. “The residential is really the driver.”

Water levels in the district’s seven reservoirs are the lowest they have been since 1983, when the dam at Kent Lake was enlarged. Typically, reservoirs are above 90 percent capacity at this point, but today they are less than 50 percent because they did not refill this winter. The supply is supplemented by water from the Russian River, and Sonoma Water is planning to cut back on diversions. 

By law, water is released from Kent Lake to keep creekflows high enough for the fish, but the district is exploring the potential for holding more in the reservoir. Staff met with the Lagunitas Creek Technical Advisory Committee, and a contractor is studying if the required releases are functioning as intended.

In Point Reyes Station, Olema and Inverness Park, the North Marin Water District is trying to reduce consumption by 25 percent this summer. Like Marin Water, customers will be prohibited from watering activities that are deemed nonessential from Jul. 1 to Nov. 1, after the board voted on Tuesday to enter a second stage of restrictions with stricter rules. Those who use more than 200 gallons per day, mostly businesses, will see a $2.50 surcharge for every 1,000 gallons they use.

As the season wears on, the service area is likely to again experience an unprecedented intrusion of salt from Tomales Bay into the drinking water. The lower the creekflows, the saltier the water becomes in two wells on the former Coast Guard property. The district is looking to add another well dug outside of tidal influence, but the project was appealed by Inverness resident Gordon Bennett, who is arguing that the district’s environmental analysis was not comprehensive enough. 

The Marin County Planning Commission will hear the appeal on Monday; staff recommended denying the appeal. Still, it is unlikely that the well will come online this year, general manager Drew McIntyre said. 

For the first time, the district will truck in water for customers to bring home in jugs if the sodium content in the water becomes excessive. 

Dillon Beach sees its water use fluctuate with visitation. Demand was high enough last summer after the Fourth of July that the California Water Service had to bring in trucks because the company’s eight wells, small and shallow, were not pumping enough water.

“Our customers are very aware. They’re good about conserving,” general manager Evan Markey said. “With the vacationers, they’re not as cautious with their water use.”

Marin’s drought impacts reach far beyond the delivery of potable water. 

About a dozen dairies are trucking in water to keep their cows alive, and ranchers are reducing the size of their herds. The McClure dairy shut down this month primarily because its spring wasn’t recharging, and others risk going out of business.

Half of the 3,000 acres in Marin used to grow produce have been fallowed. That will mean fewer vegetables are available for farmers markets and restaurants, agricultural commissioner Stefan Parnay said. 

The size of the fenced-in tule elk herd on Tomales Point fell by one-third this year because its forage was dry and lacked nutrients. Endangered coho salmon couldn’t access tributaries because flows were low, so they competed for spawning habitat along the main channel of Lagunitas Creek. The fish built their nests on top of earlier ones, potentially digging up incubating eggs, watershed biologist Ayano Hayes wrote for SPAWN.

Dry and breezy conditions prompted the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning last week for high fire danger, an alert usually not seen until later in the summer. 

The hills have turned brown, and the stage is set for another major wildfire season.