Steady rains and refilled reservoirs are prompting the Marin Municipal Water District to consider rolling back water use restrictions and penalties adopted during the worst of the drought last year.
The district board signaled this week that it would prefer a gradual lifting of its drought rules rather than a complete repeal.
“I think repealing them or rolling them back uniformly is kind of sending a bit of a false message of confidence,” board director Larry Bragman said Tuesday. “Our district is unique. We run out before other districts and we fill up quicker than other districts do because of our supply, because of our surface reservoirs.”
“Our current water supply situation allows rolling back restrictions,” said board director Monty Schmitt on Tuesday, “but it does not take us out of that sense of urgency and need to address the situation we now understand better than ever that we are in.”
District staff plan to bring options to the board Jan. 18.
Newsha Ajami, an urban water policy specialist at Stanford University, agreed that the district should take a more cautious approach on how its water is used, considering the emergency it faced just months ago.
While the rains and snowpack have helped ease drought conditions, Ajami said there is no guarantee the rainfall will continue and the district will be able to weather other droughts.
“These uncertainties are definitely hanging over us and we should be very mindful that every drop of water we save is a drop of water that we can use later,” Ajami said. “I think some of these restrictions should become actually routine.”
Meanwhile, statewide conservation rules were tightened this week in response to poor conservation efforts and ongoing drought conditions. The restrictions, such as prohibiting hosing down sidewalks and watering lawns 48 hours after significant rainfall, have already been in place in Marin. Violations could result in fines as high as $500.
Last year, the district adopted increasingly stricter conservation rules over several months for the 191,000 residents it serves as the drought worsened and reservoir levels plunged to alarmingly low levels.
After initially asking ratepayers to voluntarily conserve in February, the district moved to a 40% conservation mandate in late April as water supply projections worsened. For most of the year, residents fell far short of the target but were conserving significantly more on average compared to the rest of the state. Ratepayers only reached the target during a few weeks at the end of the year after heavy storms.
Other rules were implemented throughout the year, including limiting landscape irrigation to certain days; a ban on planting most new landscaping; a ban on filling new swimming pools; household water use allotments and penalties; and, more recently, a ban on outdoor watering using sprinklers and drip irrigation from Dec. 1 through May 31. Violations can result in fines of up to $250.
The district also began offering incentives such as rebates to replace turf lawns and install devices at homes to monitor water use, among others.
These measures were meant to buy more time for the district to prepare for a potential third dry winter and to implement projects such as the proposed $100 million, 8-mile water pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
But a series of major storms from October through December boosted reservoir supplies from 32% of capacity in mid-October to more than 93% as of Thursday. The district has received more than 210% of its normal rainfall from the start of July through Thursday.
It remains unclear what rules the district plans to repeal. The board seemed to agree on Tuesday that it should repeal all penalties.
“I think those seem unwarranted,” Schmitt said.
The district faces a balancing act with above-average reservoir levels and a two-year water supply vulnerable to future droughts amid climate change.
Board member Jack Gibson said the district’s approach should be less about conservation and more about eliminating water waste.
“I’m also a little worried that if we don’t do it right we lose credibility with our ratepayers,” Gibson said on Tuesday.
Koehler said the most important message to send to the public is that water use will not return to the status quo prior to the drought.
“We’re not going back to the way it used to be because the climate is not the way it used to be,” Koehler said on Tuesday.
Some measures are already in the works. The district is considering implementing a permanent rule that would require all new developments to have a net-zero impact on its potable water supplies. Developers would either need to pay a fee for the district’s water conservation projects, use recycled water, implement water-saving upgrades or plant only drought-tolerant landscaping, for example.
Some residents have called for a moratorium on all new water connections to new developments, but such a proposal has not been brought before the board. District staff said water savings from such a move would be minimal compared to landscaping restrictions, and housing advocates say it could prevent development of much-needed affordable homes.
Members of the public who attended Tuesday’s meeting had varying opinions, with some favoring a gradual rollback of the rules and others calling for rescinding all drought measures.
Corte Madera resident James Krajeski said the board must be wary of its credibility with the public and not be “willy-nilly micromanaging things” that ultimately would not save much water.
“You want the public to buy in on this so each thing should be backed up with data or some reasoning that the public can accept,” Krajeski said.
Marin Conservation League board member Roger Roberts favored a case-by-case repeal of rules to provide more time to plan new water supply projects.
“That means that you should be very selective in terms of what you roll back and reinforce, if you will, at every step of the way that these things are still needed in terms of the long-term water supply issues that you face,” Roberts told the board.
The board is considering new sources of water, including connections to the larger Bay Area supply network and storing Russian River water in wells for droughts.
The district’s main strategy to prevent running out of water was the proposed cross-bay pipeline to pump in purchased water from the Sacramento Valley.
The board voted this week to delay the project by possibly more than a year in order to conduct a full review.
The North Marin Water District, which serves the greater Novato area and West Marin, has not scheduled a discussion yet on whether to repeal some of its own water use restrictions, according to district board member Mike Joly.