After facing the threat of depleting its reservoirs last year, the Marin Municipal Water District has allocated nearly $1.4 million for two studies to look into new sources of water.
One study will assess the potential environmental impacts of a proposed 8-mile emergency pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge that would be able to pump in purchased Sacramento Valley water. The study is estimated to cost $998,000 and will take 12 to 14 months to complete.
The second study will review the costs and benefits of a variety of new water sources the district could pursue. Some of the options include desalination, raising dams, the pipeline, groundwater banking and expanding the recycled water system. This $400,000 study will include at least three public workshops and is expected to be completed in late June or early July.
“We’ve got to get people out of their silos and really take a look at the whole spectrum of supply options that the district has,” board member Larry Bragman said during a board meeting on Tuesday.
The district envisions the water supply study will serve as a roadmap on bolstering its two-year reservoir supply. For each of the options, the study will lay out the projected costs, effects on water rates and how much water would be added, and review how effective these new supplies would be for the district to weather droughts.
On Tuesday, there was a debate among the board members as to whether it should proceed with the environmental review of the emergency pipeline before or after the separate water supply study is complete.
Board members Monty Schmitt, Cynthia Koehler and Larry Bragman said the water supply study could ultimately show that the pipeline is not the most cost-effective option or the option most preferred by ratepayers. They also were concerned that approving the pipeline study on Tuesday could send the message to the public that the district is prioritizing that project over others.
“There are a lot of opinions about what is the most sensible project,” Schmitt said, “and I think that an important part of that water supply assessment we are now moving forward with is to really remain objective, that we are not predetermining the direction we are going to go.”
Board members Jack Gibson and Larry Russell said the environmental review does not mean the pipeline project will ultimately go forward.
The district previously completed an environmental study for a proposed desalination plant in the 2000s, but opted in 2010 not to proceed with the project. This environmental review of the desalination plant will now be included as part of the water supply study.
District staff said the environmental review of the pipeline could be used in a similar manner.
“If anything, it prepares us to have the tools in the toolbox so that if we did find ourselves in a similar drought situation in the future, the (environmental impact report) would be done and we could move to construction sooner than later,” district engineering director Crystal Yezman told the board.
Russell and Gibson also expressed concern about delaying the pipeline study given the vulnerability of the district’s water supply should the drought continue. Delaying the pipeline study another five months could result in it being finished in late 2023, when the district could be facing another significant drought.
“People are getting complacent about the drought being over,” Russell said. “Well, it’s not over and we need to be careful here that we don’t get behind the eight ball any worse than we already are.”
District staff said the pipeline study is required to review other alternative options. If the district decides the pipeline should not be prioritized, it can focus the environmental review on another supply option.
The board voted 4-1, with Bragman dissenting, to approve the environmental review of the pipeline.
Last year, the district was scrambling to plan and design the estimated $100 million pipeline on an emergency schedule. At the time, the district was facing the possibility of its reservoirs going dry by mid-2022.
But after rains in late 2021 nearly refilled its reservoirs, the district opted to conduct a full environmental review of the pipeline to consider alternative options and obtain more input from the public.
Some residents had mixed views of the pipeline study on Tuesday. Rick Adler said he does not support the pipeline and urged the district to spend the money on other projects.
“I’d rather see the million bucks being spent on these other alternatives,” Adler told the board.
Marin Conservation League board member Larry Minikes supported the study, saying the district has already spent significant effort and money when it was preparing to the build the project last year.
“Moving forward does seem to be the right direction to take,” Minikes told the board.