The battle against desalination in the bay

Pub date September 14, 2010
WriterJoan Bennett

OPINION In July 2010, in one fell swoop, the Marin Municipal Water District’s board of directors ambushed an initiative that would force a public vote on an expensive an environmentally destructive desalination plant on the edge of the bay.

In August 2009, the board unanimously voted to approve an environmental study to pave the way for the desalination plant, which would suck up bay water, filter out the salt, and dump the briny extract back into the bay.

In response, a group of unpaid, grassroots volunteers gathered more than 18,000 signatures to qualify Measure T for the November ballot. The measure requires voter approval before up to $51 million in public money is spent on desalination planning.

On July 6, 2010, the board had a chance to avoid the ballot fight by adopting the proposed initiative as an ordinance. Instead, MMWD voted to “study” Measure T’s impact on desalination planning. And at a packed special four-hour meeting on July 26, the board announced that it decided to place its own rival initiative, Measure S, on the ballot, which allows the plant to move forward without delay.

Then, on Aug. 18, the board went a step further and enacted Measure S as law. Consequently, even if S loses in November, the path is cleared for the environmentally damaging project. And the only way it can be stopped is if Measure T wins.

MMWD argues that Measure T ties the agency’s hands and that the 18,000 signatories knew not what they signed. According to MMWD General Manager Paul Helliker (founding member of CalDesal, “a unified voice for water desalination in the Golden State,”) the actual cost of the plant could run as high as $400 million.

Measure T allows MMWD to study desalination, but the agency can’t start making concrete plans for the project — and start collecting permits and issuing multimillion dollar contracts — without a vote.

MMWD argues its desalination plant is a small capital expenditure for ratepayers. As one Measure T proponent, Bill Rothman, observed, MMWD’s profligate spending needs to be checked because its hands are “in our pockets.” In the past three years, for example, ratepayers have shelled out $252,176 in benefits to directors. It’s no wonder MMWD is drowning in $2.56 million in debt.

This November, the choice is clear: Measure T, the people’s initiative, endorsed by 18,000 Marin voters, would mandate a public vote before any further wasteful, costly, desalination proceeds for a plant that poses health risks from the toxic bay.

Yes on T, no on S.

Joan Bennett is a member of the Coalition for the Public’s Right to Vote About Desalination.