Marin’s Dire Dry Years: The ’70s Drought

Okay, Marin’s reservoirs are now at capacity. Yet 47 years ago things countywide were dire: really dry.

“For a while, I thought we’d be bringing water to Marin in tanker trucks,” stated the late Dietrich “Diet” Stroeh, “and people would be lining up with buckets in their hands.” And Stroeh, 39 at the time, was savvy about water in Marin; he was the manager of the Marin Municipal Water District (now, simply, Marin Water). And despite’s Stroeh’s tanker truck prediction, it never got that bad.

But for almost three years, from March of 1975 through November of 1977, hardly any rain fell in Marin. So what did “Diet” do as Marin was going dry? “First, we encouraged water conservation,” he recalled in 2010 interview. “We felt that would save 300 gallons of water a day.”

By the middle of 1976 it still hadn’t rained. So MMWD declared that those using more than their previous year’s averages would pay as much as a 125 percent premium. And water usage dropped; only slightly. By year’s end Marin’s reservoirs were half empty with rain not in the forecast. Suggestions included using the desalinization capabilities of Navy ships; having tankers shuttle in water, even towing icebergs up from Chile. The county’s credo was: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”

“Finally,” remembered Stroeh, “I located 250,000 acre-feet of surplus water somewhere in the East Bay — but getting it to Marin was a huge expense.” So the relatively young manager flew to Washington to get money and, after stressing that highly Democratic-voting Marin was going dry, was promised millions. “We laid six miles of pipe across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, even though the dough hadn’t arrived,” he recalled. “Finally, with water flowing over the bridge into Marin, I got the government’s check at a fancy ceremony. But when I looked at it I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was made out to me personally.”

The rains of the winter of ‘77 were among Marin’s highest on record.