October 7, 2015

Prioritizing water quality and biodiversity in the EBMUD Watershed Master Plan

Photo courtesy EBMUD.

Photo courtesy EBMUD.

Not everyone knows that the East Bay Muncipal Water District (EBMUD) manages watersheds — and the recreation that goes on there — as well as serving up drinking water and treating sewage. In addition to the District’s primary source of drinking water on the Mokelumne River, it maintains five terminal storage reservoirs in the East Bay, including Chabot, Upper San Leandro, San Pablo, Lafayette, and Briones.

EBMUD is currently reviewing and updating its Watershed Master Plan, a process it is required to undergo every 20 years. There are a number of critical issues the District will need to address in this review, including climate change, habitat conservation, water quality, and fire prevention. In terms of changes to recreational use, mountain biking advocates have called for opening up EBMUD watershed lands to their uses. EBMUD Director Marguerite Young — whom the Sierra Club endorsed when she ran for the office in 2014 — is leading the process to reconsider the long-standing policy against allowing mountain bikes on District watershed lands in the East Bay. Currently, EBMUD only allows hikers and equestrians on watershed lands with a trail permit.

EBMUD’s primary goals are to protect water quality and biodiversity and to keep the most protective status for watershed lands. The current policy on mountain biking has succeeded in fulfilling the District’s important public trust. So why mess with a system in balance? Mountain bikers can already bike on over 1,000 miles of trails in adjacent East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) lands. Certain wild places like watershed lands should be preserved in their most pristine state as sanctuaries for natural ecological processes and adaptations that protect significant plant and animal communities.

When the District last revised its Watershed Master Plan in 1995, a Citizens Advisory Committee studied the issue of whether to allow mountain bike access. The Committee concluded that in order to protect water quality and biodiversity it was wise to continue the ban on mountain bikes (a position the Sierra Club supported then as now), and in 1996 the EBMUD Board voted to accept the Committee’s recommendation.

In watershed lands, mountain bikes are only allowed on a set of trails around the Lafayette Reservoir — which has a paved trail to prevent erosion — and on certain paved areas of San Pablo Reservoir Recreation Area. This policy protects the pristine watershed lands while allowing some access to bikers in areas that are less sensitive and have already been developed.

On August 20th, the District held a well-attended public hearing at which Sierra Club spokesperson Norman LaForce expressed concern that fast-moving cyclists could increase erosion, disturb wildlife, collide with joggers and equestrians, and interfere with the serenity of these “natural jewels.” Larry Kolb, a member of the Chapter’s East Bay Public Lands committee, spoke as a hiker-biker and raised the problem of hikers feeling overrun by bikers coming downhill fast. He pointed out that mountain bikers already have lots of trails available in the neighboring EBRPD lands. Helen Burke, a former EBMUD Director, expressed concern about how bikers would be managed and how the watershed would be monitored for adverse impacts.

Enforcement and monitoring of mountain bikers would require additional resources from the District at a time when it is facing revenue reductions as a result of the drought and climate change. EBMUD currently only has one ranger for the entire watershed — certainly not sufficient to enforce regulations such as trail speed limits and staying on established trails. Even agencies with enforcement officers like the Park District find it hard to enforce rules and regulations concerning mountain bikes, because bikers move quickly. If EBMUD were to open up areas currently closed to mountain biking, it would have to create a large force to patrol thousands of acres of land, issue tickets, and take violators to court. In addition, EBMUD enforcement rangers might have to use motorized bikes, which would bring additional costs and environmental impacts.

There are also proponents of opening up the 13 miles of Ridge Trail that will go through EBMUD lands to bikers. Ensuring bikers stayed on that trail would be challenging, requiring a substantial ranger presence and checkpoints.

The Sierra Club opposes additional mountain bike access to watershed properties. The cost for accommodating this intense recreation would be too high, and would compromise the ability of the District to maintain biodiversity and water quality. It would also drastically change the experience for equestrian riders and hikers. In this time of persistent drought and climate disruption, EBMUD should be dedicating its time and resources to more pressing issues.

The issue of bike access on watershed lands will go to the Board Planning Committee and then to the full Board over the fall months with a decision likely after the first of the year.


You can write to the Board and tell them that the current policy, with some bike access in very developed areas, should not be changed. This policy has worked well for 20 years. Send your comments to watershedmasterplan@ebmud.com.
For more information go to www.ebmud.com/recreation/protecting-natural-habitat.

You can also participate with the Chapter’s East Bay Public Lands Committee on this issue. That group meets the second Wednesday of each month. Email Committee Chair Norman LaForce for details, at n.laforce@comcast.net.

—Helen Burke

The Governor’s Delta tunnels: an ecological disaster in the making

The Sacramento splittail is a hardy minnow native to the upper San Francisco Estuary and the Central Valley in California. It once swam in lakes and rivers throughout the Central Valley and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but massive water diversions and alteration of important spawning and rearing habitat have driven this formerly common species to near extinction. Remnant populations of splittail in the Delta require adequate freshwater outflow and periodic floodplain inundation. (USFWS).

From the US Fish and Wildlife Service: The Sacramento splittail is a hardy minnow native to the upper San Francisco Estuary and the Central Valley in California. It once swam in lakes and rivers throughout the Central Valley and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but massive water diversions and alteration of important spawning and rearing habitat have driven this formerly common species to near extinction. Remnant populations of splittail in the Delta require adequate freshwater outflow and periodic floodplain inundation.

Governor Brown’s administration has long touted a plan for a massive pair of tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento River above the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and deliver it to areas south.

The Sierra Club officially opposes the tunnels, in no small part because it would further degrade the Delta — the largest estuary along the west coast of North and South America and a key habitat for fish and wildlife including at least nine threatened or endangered species. Yet despite voluminous studies concerning the health of the Delta almost no attention has been devoted to the impact of water diversions on San Francisco Bay itself. In fact, the Bay-Delta watershed is one complex and interrelated ecosystem.

The tunnels project would have huge impacts on the watershed at the heart of the Bay Area, but most people in the region seem completely unaware of this fast-tracked project. Seven million Californians call the Bay Area home, with the iconic waters of San Francisco Bay making it one of the best places to live in the world. The tunnels, which could divert and deplete the Bay of fresh water, would place the Bay ecosystem at risk — and with it, the jobs, recreation, and wildlife that depend on a healthy Bay.

And for all its costs to the environment and taxpayers, there is too little certainty that the project would even solve the essential water-supply problems all Californians face as we grapple with climate change.

The Brown administration is clearly making little effort beyond scare tactics to educate the public about the immensity of the Tunnels scheme — a project that would be the most expensive water-diversion project in U.S. history. Here are the facts:

The tunnels would each be 40 feet in diameter and 30 to 35 miles long. They are being designed far larger than needed to maintain current water flow: large enough to intercept the entire normal flow of the Sacramento River. That capacity could open the door to even greater water exports to the southern Central Valley and Southern California than what is being proposed.

The Bay-Delta watershed is already in dire straits. It will not be able to recover if more water is exported. Native fish counts show that the Delta and Bay require significantly more fresh water — not less — in order to recover. Salinity intrusion is already a huge problem in the Delta and is expected to worsen due to climate change and sea-level rise. Water exports must be reduced, not increased, to comply with applicable laws, public trust principles, and reasonable use — and to avoid potential ecosystem collapse.

The tunnels’ extraordinary $67-billion price tag (including financing costs) will vacuum up available funding for smarter regional and local approaches to developing an intelligent water policy in a changing, drier world. Such measures include:

  • Continuing our state’s impressive conservation efforts;
  • Investing in storm-water catchment and water-recycling systems;
  • Sustainable groundwater management;
  • Improved agricultural water efficiency
  • Strictly enforcing Clean Water Act standards, without exceptions, to protect fish and wildlife.

The first step toward rational statewide water policy is to recognize a fundamental underlying problem: the Sacramento River has water-rights claims exceeding actual supplies by a factor of more than five. We can’t engineer ourselves out of that underlying stark reality of over-allocation.


Send a letter explaining your opposition to the tunnels to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who will have to sign off on the final environmental documents involving the tunnels.

US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell
Department of the Interior
1849 C St, NW
Washington, DC 20240

—John Hooper is a San Francisco resident representing Protect Our Water, a Bay Area group concerned about the potential impacts the twin tunnels on the San Francisco Bay. Email info@protectourwater.net for more information and to get involved.

Water price and water use: San Francisco and the East Bay

Usually, we expect supply and demand to be balanced by price. If there is plenty of something, the price will go down — and we may want to use more of it. If the price goes up we tend to use less — thus preserving a limited supply.

On the other hand, we think of water like air. It is essential to life — shouldn’t it be free?

There is a pricing method that has the potential to reasonably satisfy both these goals. Tiered pricing has proven useful in the Bay Area in reducing residential water use. The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) have reduced water use by raising the marginal price of water while keeping water costs lower for essential household needs.

In the year that ended June 30, 2014, SFPUC delivered 24.6 billion gallons to its own “retail” customers and twice as much to other water agencies outside San Francisco. We can look at the retail volume, and pricing, by user type.

Data from SFPUC Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports 2009 and 2014 at http://www.sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=346.

Data from SFPUC Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports 2009 and 2014 at http://www.sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=346.

Beginning in Fiscal Year 2008, SFPUC retail water rates were differentiated by user type and, in the case of some residential uses, by tiers of water use per household. Before 2008, all retail customers paid the same price for every gallon of potable water. In 2008, the price per gallon went up 25% for all non-residential water users and all multi-family accounts. For single-family residential users the Tier 1 rate (for the first 2,992 gallons per month) rose only 6% in 2008, but the Tier 2 rate (for unlimited additional use) was 27% higher. In 2010 a two-tiered rate structure was introduced for multi-family buildings as well (with Tier 1 only 2,244 gallons). SFPUC residential water use declined 5% by 2009, and 9% by 2011, compared to 2007. Non-residential water use, on the other hand, rose 18% in 2008, and remained 14% higher in 2009, compared to 2007.

SFPUC residential water use declined 5% by 2009, and 9% by 2011, compared to 2007. Non-residential water use, however, priced in a single tier, rose 18% in 2008, and remained 14% higher in 2009, compared to 2007.

Data from SFPUC Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports 2009 and 2014 at http://www.sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=346

Data from SFPUC Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports 2009 and 2014 at http://www.sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=346.

By 2014, SFPUC water rates for non-residential use were 174% higher than the 2007 rate; single-family, residential Tier 1 rates were 113% higher than the 2007 level with Tier 2 rates up 179% and multi-family, residential Tier 1 rates were 128% higher with Tier 2 rates up 199%. As a result, despite estimated population growth of over 6% since 2007 in San Francisco, residential water use was down 10% by 2014 while non-residential water use was up 3%.

Local rainfall, of course, can reduce water use for irrigation around homes and in parks. In 2007, the rainfall in the California Central Coast Region, stretching from Petaluma to Goleta, was less than 15 inches (about 62% of the 100 year average). In the four years since June, 2011, Central Coast rainfall ranged from 49% to 76% of the average. This makes the efforts of San Francisco residents to use less water all the more impressive.

Across the Bay, EBMUD delivers all its water “retail”: directly to customers in northern Alameda County and western Contra Costa County. EBMUD has been using three-tiered rates for single-family accounts since before 1975.

Data provided by EBMUD staff, July 7, 2015.

Data provided by EBMUD staff, July 7, 2015.

This three-tiered structure has brought residential water consumption down 26% since 2007. Higher non-residential rates have led public authorities to reduce their water use by 13%, including by using recycled water for irrigation purposes. Industrial water use is also down, by 12%, partially due to increased recycled-water use. However, commercial-sector water use is up by almost 40%. The overall result for EBMUD was a decline in water use of 11% from 2007 through 2014.

Data from EBMUD Annual Comprehensive Financial Reports FY 2005 through FY 2014 at https://www.ebmud.com/about-us/investors/financial-reports/.

Data from EBMUD Annual Comprehensive Financial Reports FY 2005 through FY 2014 at

Tiered water rates seem to be more effective in achieving water conservation than higher rates alone. More aggressive use of tiered volume pricing for all multi-family and single-family residential water users could push the water-saving mentality to the vast majority of households. Applying tiered pricing to commercial, industrial, and public-authority accounts would encourage more large-scale water users to connect to recycled-water resources while allowing small businesses, using water prudently, to remain successful.

Tier size based on human needs would better promote equity. Frugal water users in all sectors would have lower water bills. Large industrial water users would seek to use lower-cost recycled water wherever possible. Extravagant water users, consuming volumes in multiples of the first tier size, would bear the costs of finding and delivering that extra water.

— Kenneth Gibson for the Water Committee

What’s the logic behind your water rates?

Save WaterBay Area water agencies are facing the prospect of a fifth year of drought in California. The State has mandated reduced  potable water use by urban water agencies. Reports from the East Bay Municipal Utility District indicate that:

  1. As of April 1, 2015, the state-wide snow survey recorded water content at 5% of the 65-year average — the lowest level since record keeping began in 1950.
  2. Runoff from the Mokelumne River, EBMUD’s principal source of supply, is on track to be the lowest since 1977. This will be the fourth “dry” or “critically dry” year in succession. June 30, 2015, will mark the driest three-year period and the driest four-year period in the basin since record keeping began in 1905.
  3. Total water available in EBMUD storage as of June 30 has dropped each water year since 2010 and this year is expected to be at the lowest level seen since 1977, when the population served by EBMUD was smaller.

Bay Area water agencies have different water sources, ranging from local aquifers and streams, state and federal reservoirs and canals, and distant mountain watersheds; but all are being required by the state to reduce customers’ water use.

For the Bay Area’s urban water agencies, single-family residences demand most of the water and pay most of the revenue. These revenues include fixed periodic charges based on meter capacity as well as charges based on the volume of water actually used. The volumetric charges are widely viewed as an important tool for water conservation.

To reduce potable water use, most California urban water agencies have adopted some form of tiered rate structure. This means that a household pays a low rate for “minimal” water use and a higher rate for water use beyond that, effectively incentivizing conservation. However, as a result of California’s Proposition 218, water rates must be consistent with the cost of providing water service to a customer. Trying to comply with this rule may have made some water agencies reluctant to use aggressively tiered water rate structures. The Bay Area demonstrates substantial diversity in this regard.

EBMUD plans to raise its three-tiered, single-family residential water rates July 1, 2015.To cover higher costs and revenue loss incurred by the drought, there will also be an additional drought surcharge on all tiers as well as penalties for “excessive use.” Maximum drought condition rates would be $0.50 per hundred gallons for the first 172 gallons per day per household; $0.69 per hundred for the next 221 gallons per day; and $0.90 per hundred for the next 590 gallons per day. “Excessive use,” meaning more than 983 gallons per day at Drought Stage 4, would cost a household $1.17 per hundred gallons. Note that the maximum water rate charged is 134% higher than the lowest usage charge for potable, single-family household water.

Beginning July 1, 2015, single-family household water rates in San Francisco will be $0.65 per hundred for the first 98 gallons per day and $0.87 per hundred gallons for additional water. While San Francisco water will cost more for most residential users than for similar EBMUD water users, the maximum water rate is only 34% higher than the lowest potable water rate.

In Marin County, the Marin Municipal Water District is more generous in the volume of water offered in its four tiers with an initial water rate of $0.50 per hundred gallons rising to a top-tier rate, after 971 gallons per day, of $3.00 per hundred gallons — 500% higher than the lowest rate.

Most striking, and progressive, is the residential water rate structure of the Stinson Beach County Water District. SBCWD uses seven pricing tiers. The first tier offers 147 gallons per day priced at $0.26 per hundred. Above an average consumption of 983 gallons per day, the rate reaches a peak of $3.68 per hundred — an increase of 1,312%. This steeply-tiered rate structure provides low-cost access to water for basic human needs while discouraging wasteful use.

It’s easy to lose perspective when comparing water rates across a region. Remember that even at Marin’s exorbitant-sounding highest tier rate, customers are paying less than 4 cents per gallon. Compare this to the cost of gasoline, a can of Coca-Cola or bottled water! On the one hand it is appropriate that this most essential of life’s necessities be affordable. Many water-policy experts, however, are in agreement that the overall low cost of water creates serious disincentives to conservation.

In addition to volume-driven usage charges, water agencies collect capacity charges with each billing, typically based on the size of the water meter. Some water agencies also include volume-driven elevation charges, wastewater-collection charges, and sewage-treatment charges. The overall mix of revenues is necessary to meet all the costs of the services provided. Balancing largely fixed costs with largely variable, volume-based revenues is a challenge for water providers made harder by drought and Proposition 218.

This is the first of a series of articles on California water being developed for the Yodeler. What do you want to know about water supply, use and cost? Send your questions to yodedit@sfbaysc.org.

To save native Delta fish species, fight for freshwater flows


Photo courtesy http://thebayinstitute.org.

The drought may be harming both humans and wildlife, but extinction is forever. Several fish species — including a major run of salmon — in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary are at imminent risk of extinction, even as state and federal agencies have petitioned for more water to be sent from the Delta to agricultural and municipal water users.

Delta outflow standards exist to ensure that all of the fresh water doesn’t get pumped out of the Bay-Delta Estuary for human use alone, thereby protecting fish and wildlife that depend on the Bay and Delta.  Yet, according to many Central Valley residents and legislators, these environmental standards create an onerous and unnecessary impact to their water supply. As California’s water supply dwindles with the ongoing drought, the demand grows louder to divert every last drop of fresh water that reaches our Bay.

At a recent State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) meeting, Central Valley residents arrived wearing t-shirts that read, “Water for People, NOT for Fish!” They were petitioning the State Board to permit a relaxation of Delta outflow standards and simultaneous higher Delta pumping levels than dry-year regulations usually allow. Yet winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon, Delta smelt, steelhead trout, and potentially longfin smelt—all endangered species—are all at the critical juncture in their life cycles that puts them at increased risk of getting killed by the Delta pumps.

The State Board responded to the water users’ petition with a revised order that attempts to balance the need to preserve critical reservoir storage with the need to provide water supply and protect endangered fish species and the health of the Bay-Delta Estuary. It remains to be seen whether this attempt will be successful: last year’s similar attempts at a balanced allocation of water led to lethally warm in-stream temperatures that resulted in a 95% loss of the brood year of winter-run Chinook salmon.

As the San Jose Mercury News recently stated in an editorial (“Delta’s health should take priority over pumping”), “California needs to get serious about protecting the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable water sources. The short-term needs of Central Valley farmers are significant. But they pale in comparison with preserving the long-term water quality of the estuary that provides water for two-thirds of the state’s residents.”

The State Board will determine soon how much water should be pumped from the Delta in the coming months. They need to hear that extinction is not an acceptable outcome of water allocation decisions during the drought!

Darcie Luce is a Water Policy Specialist for Friends of the San Francisco Estuary’s Freshwater Flows Program.


Write to the State Water Board today requesting that they:

  1. Reverse their decision to suspend the D-1641 March requirements for inflows to San Francisco Bay and ensure that these flows critical to the continued existence of Delta smelt, winter-run Chinook salmon, and other species are actually provided for through the ecologically important spring period.
  2. Reverse their decision to partly suspend the D-1641 limits on export pumping, in order to prevent devastating impacts on the last remaining Delta smelt and winter-run salmon.
  3. Reject any new petitions to suspend the flow requirements and export limits for April and May 2015, and give the endangered species of the Bay-Delta estuary their last, best chance for survival.

Your email does not need to be very long, but feel free to personalize it to let the Board members know why you care about protecting the fish and wildlife of the San Francisco Estuary.

Send your email to:

Streamside development pushes Marin salmon to edge of extinction

Coho salmon. Photo courtesy of SPAWNUSA.ORG.

Coho salmon. Photo courtesy of SPAWNUSA.ORG.

As reported in recent issues of the Yodeler, the critically endangered California coastal coho salmon have all but gone extinct in Muir Woods, a jewel of the Bay Area named after environmentalist John Muir. In San Geronimo Valley in Marin County, the last large surviving coho salmon run south of Fort Bragg is dwindling. Shockingly, the Marin County Board of Supervisors steadfastly refuses to act to prevent the extinction of the California coho salmon. We are out of time. Action must be taken now to save this native species.

All along the coast, the genetically-distinct California coastal coho salmon have faced a host of environmental impacts over the last 150 years, including logging, agriculture, development, and dams. After plunging by 90 percent or more from historic numbers, the species was added to the U.S. Endangered Species list in 1996. This means the species is in imminent danger of extinction, possibly in the next few years.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the biggest threat to the California coho salmon today is development. Salmon need clean, cool water in which to hatch their young, while the young need complex, natural streams to provide food and shelter from big winter storms.

Development within 100 feet of streams eliminates vegetation that shades streams and provides wood to protect young salmon. Building decks, patios, driveways, and houses near streams removes shade and trees from streams and prevents rain from soaking into the soil — instead sending stormwater shooting into streams like water cannons. Right now, San Geronimo Valley is at a tipping point, where more development will increase these impacts and doom the species to extinction.

Over 150 salmon scientists have written to the Marin County Supervisors asking them to limit development near salmon habitat. The Board’s own consultants recommended that setbacks and vegetation protections be put in place to protect the species. Yet, for years, the Board has refused to put science-based, common-sense regulations in place to prevent further development on stream banks and to protect critical streamside vegetation. Marin County has now lost two lawsuits over its failure to comply with environmental laws to protect coho salmon, yet it continues to approve more development projects near streams.

The Sierra Club, the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), and partner organizations are demanding that the Marin County Board of Supervisors follow scientific recommendations and enact a comprehensive, common-sense ordinance that will preserve critical coho habitat by protecting vegetation and limiting development on stream banks.


Here are four steps you can take to help save coho salmon:

  1. Make a call for coho! Call the EACH of the Marin County Supervisors to tell them it is time to take action to protect our coho salmon: Kate Sears: (415)473-7331, Katie Rice: (415)473-6159, Judy Arnold: (415)473-7371, Damon Connolly: (415)473-7354, and Steve Kinsey: (415)473-7331.
  2. Sign our online petition to the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
  3. Come to one of our free “State of the Marin Coho Salmon 2015” presentations by SPAWN Legal Program Director (and long-time Sierra Club member) Doug Karpa to hear an update on the health of the endangered coho salmon population in the Lagunitas Creek Watershed. Karpa will take questions and comments and share actions citizens can take to help ensure these iconic native fish remain a part of our landscape for generations to come. Find details at https://seaturtles.org/take-action/events.
    1. Thu, March 26, 7 pm: San Anselmo Council Chambers, 525 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo
    2. Mon., April 6, 7 pm: Corte Madera Town Center Community Room, 770 Tamalpais Drive, Suite 201, Corte Madera
    3. Wed., April 15, 7 pm: U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Bay Model, 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito
  4. Join the California Coho Task Force to help make this campaign a success. For more information or to join the campaign, contact Doug Karpa at dmkarpa@gmail.com.

— Doug Karpa, Legal Program Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network

Banking on California’s groundwater: strategies for a precious and imperiled resource

An Unregulated Past

Hydrologic Cycle. Image courtesy www.water.ca.gov.

Hydrologic Cycle. Image courtesy www.water.ca.gov.

Water pumped from underground aquifers has long been a major source of California’s water supply. In normal rainfall years, groundwater provides about 40% of water for urban and agricultural uses. In dry years, groundwater supplies closer to 60% of our water. But unlike the surface water from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, whose use has been regulated by the State since 1928, groundwater has been largely unmonitored and unregulated. Anyone owning property over an aquifer has been free to drill as big and deep a well as they could afford, and pump out as much water as they wanted.

Under this model, property owners were in theory limited to using the pumped water on the land overlying the basin only if there was no surplus water in the basin, but since most of California’s large basins remain at least partially unmonitored, the question of whether or not pumped groundwater was “surplus” has been largely ignored.

The lack of groundwater regulation and periodic droughts led to a tragedy of the commons. Well owners hurried to pump as much water as possible before their basins went to court or went dry. NASA satellite observations show that between 2003 and 2010, the Sacramento and San Joaquin basins lost enough groundwater to nearly fill Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S. In 2012 and 2013, these basins further declined at the steepest rate observed since NASA began monitoring groundwater.

A Regulated Future

Governor Brown and the California State Legislature addressed California’s groundwater problems by passing the state’s first-ever groundwater legislation in 2014. The legislation identifies groundwater basins of high and medium priority, most of them in the Central Valley, and requires a local groundwater-sustainability agency to be established for each of these basins by 2017. These agencies will have the power to require well monitoring and regulate groundwater extraction. Agencies managing basins subject to critical overdraft will be required to have a plan in place to sustainably manage their basins by 2020. All medium- and high-priority basins must achieve sustainability by 2040 or be subject to State Water Resources Board control.

These new laws are being met with mixed and sometimes hostile reactions in Central Valley farming communities, where groundwater rights are considered private property rights, and water scarcity is perceived as a lack of surface storage and an excess of environmental regulation.

Groundwater banking as an alternative to surface storage

The Sierra Club opposes building new dams, and for good reasons. Above-ground storage projects damage local ecosystems and are bad investments, providing little additional water at enormous cost. Potential groundwater storage has more than ten times the storage capacity of all of California’s reservoirs combined. Many environmental organizations and the State see groundwater banking as a solution for providing water reliability in the future.

Successes in Groundwater Banking

In the area around Fremont, water shortages developed as early as 1910 as water was pumped out of the local basin by San Francisco and Oakland. The local water table was falling by as much as an inch a day. Area residents responded by voting in 1913 to form the Alameda County Water District (ACWD), the first water district in California, to manage the local water supply, including the groundwater basin. Using water purchased from the State Water Project, ACWD managed by 1972 to bring its water table back above sea level and halt saltwater intrusion. By percolating excess wet-year water into the groundwater basin and pumping it out in dry years, ACWD conjunctively manages its groundwater basin and surface water to supply between thirty and sixty percent of the water for the Fremont area.

Semitropic Water Bank Fails Bay Area Agencies

Canal and tank of the Semitropic Water Bank. Photo courtesy Chris Austin on Flickr, via www.flickr.com/photos/mavensnotebook.

Canal and tank of the Semitropic Water Bank. Photo courtesy Chris Austin on Flickr, via www.flickr.com/photos/mavensnotebook.

Although groundwater banking is a concept with great promise, in practice it can be unreliable, particularly when storage sites are located at a great distance from their depositors. A recent example of the failure of water banking just when it’s needed most is the 2014 failure of the Semitropic Water Bank near Bakersfield to deliver stored water back to Bay Area water agencies.

Semitropic’s banking system relies on an exchange program in which the Northern California agencies withdraw water flowing from north to south through the State Water Project aqueduct in exchange for depositing water in the Semitropic bank next to the SWP aqueduct in Bakersfield. ACWD, SCVWD, and the Zone 7 water district have, over the years, stored enough water in the Semitropic bank to supply all their customers for one year. Their ability to recover the equivalent amount of water was unexpectedly curtailed when the State Water Project (SWP) cancelled its north-south water deliveries in 2014. With no water flowing through the aqueduct to the Bay Area, Northern California agencies were not able to recover any of their banked water.

Another danger to the water stored in the Semitropic bank is the fracking wastewater injected into the aquifers in Kern County. In July of 2014, California ordered an emergency shutdown of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites in Kern County, fearing they may have been contaminating the groundwater basin that Silicon Valley depends on for its drought-year water.

For Reliability, Bank Locally

The new State groundwater regulations will help stabilize California’s groundwater situation, making groundwater banking and recovery more reliable. However, since the local agencies charged with regulating groundwater have in most cases yet to be established, and have until 2040 to bring their basins into a sustainable condition, current groundwater-banking projects should be undertaken with caution. The most reliable groundwater banking is local banking, and the most readily-available source for banked water is treated waste water, as demonstrated by the OCWD.

— Charlotte Allen

On the brink: is it too late to save the salmon of Redwood Creek in Muir Woods?


Photo of Redwood Creek via Flickr Creative Commons, www.flickr.com/giofusco.

The federal government is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to save the endangered coho salmon, but the Sierra Club is concerned that these efforts are ignoring the real source of contamination—and meanwhile, our salmon are inching closer to extinction.

In Marin, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) collected comprehensive scientific research on our two most significant spawning grounds, Lagunitas Creek in the San Geronimo Valley and Redwood Creek, which traverses Muir Woods to reach Muir Beach and the Pacific Ocean (you can find the full text of NOAA’s “Recovery Plan for the Evolutionarily Significant Unit of Central Coast Coho Salmon” online here). As part of the habitat restoration effort, 15 million dollars was spent to restore Big Lagoon and Muir Beach. Yet these efforts did not save the latest generation of coho.

Thirteen adult spawners were counted this year but apparently none of the hatched fry from five observed nests survived. Scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirm that for the first time in Redwood Creek’s recorded history, the local extinction of this year’s coho has occurred.

Earlier generations, now 18 months and three years old, are in deep trouble too. In August, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service “rescued” the remaining coho in Redwood Creek and Mount Tamalpais State Park. They found no babies, instead transporting the 105 smolt-sized fish that failed to migrate out to sea to the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery in Sonoma. Although some of the smolt found this year may survive to spawn, the trajectory is not looking good.  Scientists warn of an “extinction vortex” for coho. A recovery threshold of 272 fish is the minimum indicated for Redwood Creek in the NOAA Fisheries Coho Recovery Plan.

All this begs the question: What happened to the coho young this year?

Though the National Park Service and other agencies have spent over 15 million dollars on habitat restoration, they have failed to test the water in Redwood Creek for contaminants. Every year, an estimated one million visitors and several-hundred thousand vehicles use the road that runs alongside Redwood Creek, leading to Muir Woods. Along a four-mile stretch of that road, 15 of 43 culverts deliver contaminated storm water directly into the creek. Road runoff is a well-documented source of toxins in creeks, and water contamination could be a significant factor in the coho’s plight.

Car brake pads emit copper, a known neurotoxin. Government scientists have concluded that low levels of copper found in waterways harm sense of smell in young coho salmon, reducing their ability to avoid predators and confusing migration and spawning ability. Copper tests cost only 10 dollars.

Moreover, a 2013 study from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Washington linked unidentified compounds in highway runoff to coho salmon death. In that study, toxic chemicals that washed into creeks in the rush of stormwater after a rainfall were found to be killing adult salmon before they could spawn.

coho salmon graph

Chart compiled by Laura Chariton.

According to a regional water board spokesperson, parking alongside Redwood Creek should not be allowed because of the known vehicle contaminants. Yet on any given day a mile-long queue of parked cars lines the county-owned road along the creek. The National Park Service has suggested adding a valet service and online registration system, which would only exacerbate the problem.

Many believe our government and agencies have failed in their responsibility to protect our salmon, favoring visitors over natural resources. This is an occasion for the County of Marin to step forward and do what the federal and state agencies are apparently incapable of doing; the county must follow up on the billions of dollars spent on plans and research and take active steps to save these fish. Marin County owns the roads and must manage them. If we want Muir Woods to continue in harmony with the legacy upon which it was founded, then we need to save its native wildlife from extinction.

The solution: give Muir Woods a break from individual cars. Clean the water and restrict use until we can begin to recover the two remaining coho populations that are on the brink.

—Laura Chariton

Read more about coho salmon in Marin in “Marin Supervisors pass toothless streamside ordinance–will our salmon survive politics?“.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that 1.4 million visitors and 350,000 vehicles use the road that runs alongside Redwood Creek leading to Muir Woods. These figures are actually one million and several hundred thousand, respectively.

Water bond virtues and vices lead Sierra Club California to a neutral position on Prop. 1

Sacramento Delta.

Photo via Daniel Parks on Flickr Creative Commons.

The $7.5 billion Water Bond (Prop. 1 on the November ballot) passed the legislature with near-unanimous votes and has been signed by the Governor. This is a very complicated bond with billions of taxpayer dollars at stake. The Club’s “no position” stance acknowledges the benefits of the bond, while also taking into account major concerns.

The Good:

There are some very substantial environmental benefits outlined in the bonds. These include about $1.3 billion for non-controversial watershed restoration; $810 million for regional water management, storm water management, and efficiency; and $900 million for groundwater treatment, planning, and management. We strongly support these conservation and restoration programs. The bond will allocate more than $500 million to ensure safe drinking water for low-income disadvantaged communities in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and provide funding to clean up groundwater pollution in the Los Angeles basin. Real dollars will be available to ensure that communities around the state that are literally without water because of severe drought and serious groundwater pollution will get clean drinking water.

The proposition also explicitly prohibits spending any of the funds on the construction, design, maintenance, operation, or mitigation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, Governor Brown’s proposal to build twin tunnels around the Bay Delta in order to ensure the continued export of unsustainable quantities of Delta water to Southern California.

The Bad:

So what’s not to like? Unfortunately the water bond also authorizes $2.7 billion (more than one third of the total bond package) for development of three environmentally damaging water storage projects. Because the water bond required a 2/3 vote in both houses of the legislature, Republicans were able to drive a hard bargain and obtain the $2.7 billion for surface storage in the Central Valley, including three projects Sierra Club has opposed because they are over-priced, inefficient and unneeded. These are the proposals to raise the Shasta Dam, and to build two new dams, one off-stream using Sacramento River water at Sites (Colusa County) and one upstream of Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River (Temperance Flat).

New above-ground storage projects would not only damage their local ecosystems, but would be bad investments, providing little additional water at enormous cost. According to an analysis done by the Fresno Bee, the five major reservoir projects being studied by the State (Temperance Flat, Sites, and raising the Shasta, Los Vaqueros, and San Luis Reservoir dams) would provide only an additional 520,000 acre feet of water in a dry year at a combined cost of $8.86 billion dollars. That’s a cost of $17,000 per acre-foot, or 8 times the record prices being paid for water in this critically dry year! The reason new and raised dams won’t deliver much additional water is because most of the water they are capable of storing is already spoken for.

The world is much different today than during the dam-building heyday in the 20th century. Climate disruption has begun and precipitation patterns are already changing. New dams won’t respond to that. The sooner the special interests that drive dam development in this state recognize this 21st-century reality and focus instead on moving aggressively to enable regional resiliency through conservation, efficiency, recycling, storm water capture, groundwater management and the like, the better off we will all be.

Lobby EBMUD for Mokelumne Wild and Scenic protection

Photo by Katherine Evatt.

Photo by Katherine Evatt.

Your support for SB 1199—state Wild and Scenic designation for the Mokelumne River—is needed on Tuesday, August 12. SB 1199 has traveled a long road, but last week it was put in “suspense” at the Appropriations Committee. That means it is alive, but side-tracked.

The backing of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) Board is absolutely critical now to show needed strength and help the bill to advance. The EBMUD Board meets this Tuesday, August 12, at 1:15 pm, at 375 11th Street in Oakland. If you are available, please attend this meeting and urge the Board to adopt a position of active support for SB 1199. Briefly state one or more of the following points:
  • It is in the best interest of EBMUD customers’ drinking water supply and future salmon restoration efforts to protect the 37-mile stretch in question from the construction of upstream dams or diversion facilities.
  • EBMUD should not defer to Tea Party-dominated Amador County, where a small group of politicians continues to try to impose language on the bill that would set a terrible precedent, weakening the California Wild and Scenic Act itself and endangering future bids to protect other rivers.
  • Major constituencies in the EBMUD service area have passed resolutions of support for Mokelumne Wild and Scenic protection, including the Richmond City Council (in 2009), the Berkeley City Council (in 2009), and the Oakland City Council (this month). The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors  recently reaffirmed its support.
  • Sierra Club California—representing the views of nearly 150,000 Californians—and the San Francisco Bay Chapter strongly advocate state Wild and Scenic protection for the Mokelumne River.
  •  Passage of SB 1199 will allow all Californians, including communities in the watershed, to benefit in perpetuity from the environmental, recreational, scenic, touristic, cultural, and historic values the Mokelumne River offers.
If you can’t attend the EBMUD Board meeting in person, please send a short email incorporating the above talking points to the following EBMUB Boardmembers:
Your local advocacy can make a real difference in our struggle to help preserve a unique natural resource in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Save the “Moke,” a river for all! Read more about this issue in “Wild and Scenic protection for the Mokelumne River is not out of the woods.”