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Water Wars

Author: Jane Hodges Young
December, 2008 Issue

The politics and environmental impacts of the North Bay’s water supply run deep.


With abundant rainfall and a landmass riddled with rivers, creeks and streams—not to mention surrounded by the ocean, a bay and a delta—the North Bay hardly looks like ground zero for water shortages. But looks can be deceiving. In truth, to take some liberties with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous line from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” it really is “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to spare.”

Water and access to it is already impacting the North Bay from a growth/no growth perspective. And it’s sure to play an even more dominant role in the future.

Lack of water will one day be a bigger issue than oil. In certain parts of the world, it already is, according to J. Dietrich “Diet” Stroeh, an engineer and partner in Novato-based CSW/Struber-Stroeh Engineering and former general manager of the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD). Stroeh should know. He’s been involved in the water industry, on various levels, for more than 48 years. He was at the helm of Marin’s water board in the mid-1970s, when the county experienced its worst drought in modern memory. Stroeh and author Michael McCarthy collaborated on a book, The Man Who Made It Rain, based on Stroeh’s experiences in 1976 and 1977, with a look forward at what might happen when the world starts running out of water.

The North Bay’s water system—indeed, that of our entire state—is extremely complicated and highly interdependent. Or as Peter Passell, currently the editor of The Milken Institute Review and a former economics columnist for The New York Times once wrote: “California’s water system might have been invented by a Soviet bureaucrat on an LSD trip.”

Water wars between neighbors, communities, Northern California and Southern California, and the haves and have-nots are legendary and were even fodder for Roman Polanski’s 1974 hit movie “Chinatown.” As Mark Twain succinctly put it, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting about.”

“In the end, the issue always comes down to politics,” explains Stroeh, who’s currently working as a consultant to the general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), which manages and maintains a transmission system that supplies water from the Russian River to nine cities and special water districts in portions of Sonoma and Marin counties. In this “ombudsman” role, Stroeh works with each of the agencies SCWA serves to suss out their wants and needs, with the end goal of reaching a mutual resolution. “At least now they’re all talking with each other, which is good,” he says. “That’s what it takes to reach a common goal.”

NorthBay biz talked with the major water providers in Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties to get an overview of issues currently on the table and a preview of what might be coming in the near future. Two topics soared to the top of all lists: a dwindling water supply due to climate change, and conflicts between the need to protect the habitats of endangered fish species versus the water needs (and demands) of humans.


History lessons

While there still are some nonbelievers, for most, climate change is now an accepted reality. But as Stroeh points out, the world has encountered such climate cycles before in its history.

“The Anasazi were ancient cliff dwellers in the American Southwest. They had irrigation systems and were very sophisticated with their water systems. But they disappeared and no one knows why,” Stroeh says. “One theory is that a 30- to 70-year drought made them move. The tree rings from that historical timeframe were very tight, which is an indication of drought.”

Fast-forward to modern times and the Marin drought of 1976 and 1977, when rainfall was marginal, streams and reservoirs were waterless and the wealthy county of Marin was literally hung out to dry. Lawns dried up and blew away, swimming pools sat empty and the philosophy of “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” became the mantra for deciding whether or not to flush the toilet.

Homes and businesses were under mandatory rationing, and water bills skyrocketed. The cost of water was so high that Sausalito’s most famous mayor, Sally Stanford (who once ran a brothel in San Francisco), closed the men’s room in her legendary Valhalla restaurant for six months and instructed her gentlemen guests to relieve themselves with a little target practice into the bay off the end of the restaurant’s spacious deck.

Marin found itself in such a pickle because it relied solely on rainfall for its water supply; it wasn’t connected directly to the state aqueduct system. Relief finally came in a hastily constructed water pipeline (Stroeh’s masterstroke) across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, with water supplied by—of all places—the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles.

“You can safely say the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California saved Marin,” says Paul Helliker, current general manager of MMWD. Since then, Marin has taken steps to increase its water supply by building more reservoirs and buying water from the SCWA. “We never again want to take showers standing in buckets,” he says.

Nonetheless, the specter of climate change and its impact weighs heavily on the minds of all water management agencies.

“We’ve had two dry winters in a row, and all indications are that we’re looking at another,” Stroeh says. His words are echoed by Felix Riesenberg, principal water resources engineer for the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

“We don’t know how the storms will track and hit the West Coast this year,” Riesenberg says. “Weather forecasters have been reporting that neither El Niño or La Niña conditions [which often indicate wetter or dryer weather for different portions of the West Coast] seem to be present. This situation, referred to as La Nada, makes it difficult to predict if the year will be wet or dry.”

According to Helliker, the most recent water year, defined as October 1 through September 30 by the California State Water Resources Control Board, was the 12th driest since 1877, when records started being kept. As a result, reservoirs are low and the ground is dry.

To complicate things further, it’s not just a matter of how much rain we get but also when the rain falls. Last winter, the vast majority of rain fell in December, January and February, while the spring months were very dry. That caused the SCWA to begin releasing water earlier than normal to maintain minimum flow in the Russian River watershed.

The Russian River watershed (a watershed is an area of land where all the water that’s under it or drains off of it goes to the same place) originates in central Mendocino County, about 15 miles north of Ukiah. It depends on three reservoirs for its water supply: Lake Mendocino on the east fork of the Russian River, Lake Sonoma on Dry Creek and Lake Pillsbury on the Eel River, which connects to the Russian River via an inter-watershed tunnel known as the Potter Valley Project. Obviously, the longer water has to be released, the more lake levels decline. The ideal situation is to have rain fall on a regular basis into the month of June to keep lake levels high and not disturb the natural habitat that surrounds the reservoirs.


Gotta have it

Water use varies by county in the North Bay. In Marin, the demand is mostly residential. In Napa, it’s split between residential and agricultural. In Sonoma, it’s divided roughly equally among residential, industrial and agricultural customers.

The client base of the MMWD, which serves 10 towns and cities, from San Rafael south to Sausalito, plus a section of unincorporated Marin, has a population of 190,000 people. Of its nearly 60,000 service connections, roughly 95 percent are residential. Its single biggest industrial customer is San Quentin Prison (which, one could argue, is also “residential”).

In Napa County, industrial use is likewise fairly small. The county is also unique in that most of its cities and towns use locally owned reservoirs and water imported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. “Surface water and imported supplies have traditionally been allocated for municipal and industrial uses,” Riesenberg explains. “Ground water [water beneath the soil surface] has pretty much been preserved for agriculture and for rural residential users, who have no choice but to sink a well.” The only community that doesn’t have a surface water reservoir is American Canyon, which gets its water from the delta and also contracts for supplies through the city of Vallejo.

Sonoma County has, by far, the most diverse group of players. Overall, the SCWA serves approximately 600,000 customers in Sonoma and Northern Marin counties and provides supplemental water to MMWD. What differentiates Sonoma County, in particular, is a recreational demand for water—boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing and so forth.

“The recreation issue is particularly critical in the lower Russian River, because water recreation is a major part of the business economy of West County,” explains Pamela Jeane, deputy chief engineer with the SCWA. “They also deal more with sanitation issues, because everything that goes down the river ends up where they live. They also think a lot about water quality issues, because it can impact them pretty directly.”

Sonoma County also has significantly higher demands from agricultural users, with 60,000 acres of vineyards alone (45,000 of which are located within the Russian River watershed). The wine industry doesn’t only use water for crop irrigation during the summer months, it’s also used heavily for frost protection in the spring.

“Last spring, an amazing amount of water was diverted for vineyard frost protection, which created a one-third reduction of water flow in the 10-mile segment of the Russian River from Ukiah to Hopland,” Jeane says.

Maintaining minimum flow is tricky, because, “sometimes we don’t have direct knowledge of—or control over—what people are doing, or how they might be diverting water upstream,” she explains. “It’s important to keep a flow that sends as little water as possible to the ocean,” because once freshwater hits the ocean, it’s gone.


Going with the flow

While climate change is a grave concern regarding current and future water supplies, another major issue is preserving habitat for threatened and endangered fish species, particularly in the Russian River watershed (and, to a lesser extent, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta).

The National Marine Fisheries Services just completed an 11-year consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the SCWA and the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation District, and issued its final Biological Opinion regarding the Russian River watershed in September of this year. The report’s potential impact on the future of our water supplies is far-reaching, both economically and as it relates to growth.

The fish in question are the Central California Coast coho salmon, which is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and both the Central California Coast steelhead trout and the California Coastal chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened species. The Russian River and its tributaries are critical habitats for all three, and the flow of the river directly impacts their viability.

The report found the current water velocity in the upper Russian River and in Dry Creek is too fast for juvenile fish. It further states that “urban, residential and agricultural developments; timber harvest; road construction; water supply; and flood control management activities have had a collective adverse effect on the quality and quantity of spawning, rearing and migratory habits” for the fish. It recommends various courses of action over the next 15 years to help correct the situation, including reduced in-stream flows from May until the middle of October.

“Reduced flows could impact recreation—this will be studied in an environmental impact report (EIR),” says Jeane, “but we’ll still be required to satisfy the demands of all water diverters along the river by maintaining a minimum flow. That minimum flow will just be lower than it is today.”

The report also calls for creation of a freshwater lagoon at Jenner by limiting breaches of the sandbar that naturally forms at the mouth of the Russian River; this could potentially cause flooding issues for nearby residences and businesses. It also promotes extensive restoration projects along Dry Creek, such as erosion control, habitat improvements and barrier modifications.

The SCWA is required to implement the federal order under the Endangered Species Act, but how it does so is subject to environmental review.

“Basically, the federal government is telling us what we have to do to stay in business,” says Jeane. “The reduced water flows will have a direct impact on recreational opportunities and water quality. It’s a fish-centric report, and it really only deals with current operations. The reduced water flows could impact recreational opportunities and water quality.”

And it’s going to be hugely expensive.

“It’s a $100 million tab just to start with,” says Helliker. “And that’s just to see if the first half of the river restoration even works.” The money will come from federal funds and increased local water rates.

With that price tag looming, Helliker says the MMWD will continue to buy Russian River water as a part of its overall plan, but it will also be looking at other sources.

“We have to look at alternatives. [Sonoma County’s] growth rate has a direct impact on the amount of water we can get,” he says. And with the added costs of the federally mandated changes, he adds, “bills will go up and up and up if you’re buying from SCWA.”

There’s also some concern in Napa regarding the delta smelt—small, slender fish that have been on the threatened species list since 1993 and are only found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary.

“Delta smelt haven’t been a major issue for us recently but they might affect our ability to pump water from the North Bay Aqueduct [part of the State Water Project] in the future,” says Riesenberg. “There are some smelt habitat restoration projects being proposed that are in the vicinity of the North Bay Aqueduct, which could affect our ability to withdraw water if Delta smelt populations are concentrated in that area of the Delta.”


A call for conservation

So what changes are we likely to see in the North Bay—and throughout California—as water supplies, or lack thereof, continue to play a more important role?

“You’ll definitely see a change in water habits,” predicts Stroeh. “Take a look at outdoor irrigation. I see tiny weather stations that will control the watering of lawns. You’ll see more plantings of drought-resistant plants; after all, lawns are an Eastern attitude brought west. They look nice, but who the heck plays on the front lawn anymore?”

As an example of conservation to come, Stroeh points to a large East Bay subdivision that was told by the local water district that there wasn’t enough water to serve them. “They had to retrofit the houses, change out shower heads, toilets and the like. And the subdivision itself then installed a controlled irrigation system on every house. In short, [water conservation] infringes on individual rights.”

He predicts new subdivisions will reduce the sizes of lawns and install “graywater” plumbing lines that use recycled water from showers, sinks and laundry for irrigation and to flush toilets. Graywater lines are kept separate from the plumbing that provides potable water. Hot water systems will be wrapped, so hot water is available instantly. And homes will systematically retain storm water for other uses. Recycled water will increasingly be used in irrigation for golf courses and greenbelts. Even office buildings will come on board with dual piping.

Stroeh is also a proponent of more efficient farming methods and the elimination of water-intensive, low-profit crops, like cotton, rice, alfalfa and irrigated pasture, which account for between 30 and 50 percent of all statewide agricultural water use while only accounting for about seven or eight percent of the state’s agricultural production. And there’s always the possibility of constructing desalination plants to make plentiful ocean water useable, though experts warn they’re expensive to operate, use a tremendous amount of energy and yield a super-concentrated brine by-product that’s toxic and requires careful disposal.

In his book, Stroeh warns that, as supplies dwindle and population increases, water will become dirtier, more difficult to treat and therefore more expensive. And he points to another “mindset” that needs to be changed, namely, water agencies and how they’ve historically operated.

“They’re public entities with a board of directors that’s trying to keep water cheap. This encourages consumption, which makes water more scarce and dirtier,” Stroeh says. “With all types of elected boards, you have politics.

“I think it will take an emergency, like Galveston [where earlier this year, Hurricane Ike caused severe damage to the city’s water system, including major leaks and sanitary problems] or an extended drought or dry period. Then people will start working together to make conservation and sharing of water supplies happen,” says Stroeh.

“Certainly, we’ll have to follow laws, but it comes down to compromise. We have to deal with the fact that an additional 15 million people are expected to be living in California within the next 20 years,” he continues. “We’ll need water to support them. We just can’t systematically shoot every fourth person to take care of the problem.”

Fortunately, as Stroeh points out in his book, California hasn’t experienced a truly serious drought since the 1800s, which started the stampede of settlers into the state. There have been several cycles of low rainfall since then, but none really qualified as an ongoing drought. All in all, the Golden State has been pretty lucky. But one must be careful, keep a watchful eye on the future—and always worship the rain and snow that truly is more valuable than oil.



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