Above Water

WITH THREE SEASONS of below-average rainfall and four winters of far less than normal snowpack, California is undergoing its worst drought in history. How is Marin doing? “For a water district our size,” says Krishna Kumar, general manager of Marin Municipal Water District, “we are uniquely blessed.”

The Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) was chartered in 1912 as California’s first municipal water district. It serves 186,000 residents in central and southern Marin. The county’s other water provider, North Marin Water District (NMWD), was formed in 1948 and serves approximately 60,000 residents in Novato and West Marin. In an intriguing twist, MMWD gets 75 percent of its water from seven rain-fed reservoirs — Alpine, Bon Tempe, Kent, Phoenix, Lagunitas, Nicasio and Soulajule — and 25 percent of its water from Sonoma’s Russian River, whereas NMWD’s water sources are the opposite: 75 percent from the Russian River and 25 percent from Stafford Lake, its sole reservoir. From here on let’s just talk about MMWD, as operation-wise the two districts are quite similar.

Is MMWD’s Kumar out of line claiming his district is “uniquely blessed”? The district’s storage capacity is nearly 80,000 acre-feet (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water that would cover a football field a foot deep). By the first week of April, MMWD’s reservoirs were 94 percent of capacity. At this time last year, MMWD’s reservoirs were 82 percent full. Moreover, MMWD contracts to use up to 14,300 acre-feet of Russian River water — although in most years it uses no more than 8,000 acre-feet of river water due to constraints in the piping system that carries the water.

Since first measuring rainfall in 1879, the county has averaged an annual 52 inches, based on a fiscal calendar. By April 7, 2015, the county had welcomed 38.6 inches of rain; the average rainfall-to-date for this time of year is 47.7 inches, so we’re about 82 percent of average. Not too shabby.

Who uses MMWD’s water? Residential flushing and faucet use, including yard-watering, accounts for 74 percent of the 20 million gallons of water the county consumes in a single day. Businesses account for 12 percent, and institutional and irrigation uses each consume 7 percent of Marin’s water (the county’s largest user of water is San Quentin State Prison). Interestingly, MMWD has a grasp on how much water each of us uses every day. During the first week in April, each of us went through an average of 106 gallons of water daily to shower, soak, sprinkle, etc. In 2014, that figure was 85 gallons; it fluctuates considerably due to a variety of factors. During the last two fourth quarters, the average Marinite consumed, on average, 83 gallons of water a day. In a few California water districts (there are 400 of them) that figure reaches as high as 250 gallons per person per day.

So why does Marin have to conserve water? Good question. Two reasons: No. 1, because Governor Brown says so. Everyone has to do his part to help the state reach a 25 percent cut in water consumption; new regulations mean you won’t receive a glass of water in a restaurant without asking for it, you can water the yard only three days a week, and you can’t water after a rainstorm and only before 9 a.m. and after 7 p.m. That sounds reasonable. Reason No. 2: on average, Marin consumes 7 billion gallons of water a year, and our reservoir capacity is but 26 billion gallons. Which means we have only a two and- a-half-year supply of water before hitting the panic button. Thus, if an extended drought hits Marin as it did in 1976–1977, when water had to be pumped into Marin via the San Rafael–Richmond Bridge, the county would be in desperate straits. Some climatologists claim this current drought could last a decade. Bottom line: during this devastating statewide drought, Marin County, thanks to years of sound administration and being blessed by Mother Nature, is indeed fortunate. At the same time, we must think long term. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

Email [email protected].

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Marin Magazine and its staff.