Marin County’s water grab

Pub date April 13, 2010

By Joan Bennett

OPINION In August 2009, the Marin Municipal Water District’s elected board of directors conducted a public hearing to hear and discuss comments on a proposed $432.8 million desalination plant that would be built near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Despite overwhelming public opposition, the board unanimously approved the proposal. The stated reason: the dire need for a reliable water supply.

There is no truth to MMWD’s rationale.

This is not just a Marin County issue. The plant would have major impacts on the bay.

The Pacific Institute’s yearlong study, "Desalination, With a Grain of Salt," concluded that "most of the state’s seawater desalination proposals are premature … [such plants] fail to adequately address economic realities, environmental concerns, or potential social impacts."

James Fryer, the former head of MMWD’s water conservation from 1992 to 1999 and a water management and conservationist expert with 20 years of experience in the field, concluded in a separate report that desalination should be pursued only as a last resort.

In response, MMWD paraded before the public the inevitable hackneyed specter of a drought. But MMWD’s arguments are contradicted by the facts:

MMWD operates seven reservoirs with more than 79,000 acre feet of water. Annual ratepayer consumption is roughly 28,000 acre feet or less. Last year, consumers used 26,000 acre feet.

Two of those the reservoirs, Phoenix Lake and Soulajoule, have remained untapped for 17 to 20 years.

Since the 1976-77 drought, MMWD’s reservoirs were expanded by 26,000 acre feet, nearly a 50 percent increase.

Marin tree-ring studies demonstrate that a severe drought occurs once every 400 years.

As Paul Helliker, MMWD general manager, recently noted: "This year we won’t have any rationing because we are above our thresholds … there is no reason to because there is no problem with water supply."

If these facts alone are insufficient to convince even the most dubious, there are more.

The water source for desalination is the polluted San Francisco Bay. MMWD insists that expensive filters and reverse osmosis membranes will block dangerous contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, chemicals, heavy metals, and Central Marin Sanitary Agency’s 11 million gallons of treated sewage (not to mention untreated spills) dumped daily into the bay near the intended desalination intake pipe.

A desalination plant is an energy glutton. MMWD is already the largest energy user in Marin. The plant would increase MMWD’s energy use from 40 percent to as high as 300 percent depending on the facility’s size and operation.

For decades the water district has urged its customers to conserve, and its customers have complied. As a reward, in February, to erase revenue shortfalls from conservation efforts, MMWD ordered a 10 percent rate hike and simultaneously halved its conservation budget on the disingenuous grounds that "conservation doesn’t work." This raises a conundrum: if rates were raised because of shrinking water use, then does MMWD even need a desalination plant? *

Joan Bennett is a lawyer in Marin. The Coalition for the Public’s Right to Vote About Desalination (CPR-VAD) is circulating an initiative for the November ballot to compel MMWD to obtain voter approval for the plant. For more information, see and