Big dam vote today at East Bay MUD

The East Bay Municipal Utility District supplies water to 1.3 million people in 20 cities and two counties over 325 square miles, yet most people barely give the agency a thought. This is unfortunate.

This afternoon, the East Bay MUD Board of Directors will vote to adopt a new Water Supply Management Plan, which will be referred to hereafter as WSMP 2040. This document has had a two-plus year planning process and has generated a staggering amount of opposition from environmental groups. The East Bay Express has run a couple of stories on the subject, but I’ve been trying to talk to people about this over the last week, and I’ve been shocked to discover how many people I encounter who don’t know the first thing about it.

Our water comes from a couple of sources, but mostly it comes from the Mokelumne River watershed in the Sierra foothills. This water is collected north of Stockton at the Pardee Reservoir, and then sent through a series of aqueducts to a group of smaller reservoirs, where the it then stays and waits for us to use it.

Over the next 30 years, the East Bay’s population is going to grow, and our demand for water is going to grow along with it (PDF). This won’t be a problem in normal or wet years, but it will be in dry ones. And sadly, it has been a dry year more often than not over the last twenty years. The WSMP 2040 reflects our plan (PDF) for dealing with those needs.

The short explanation of the plan, repeated over and over again in the dozens of associated documents, is this:

The WSMP 2040 seeks to provide a diverse and robust water supply portfolio that ensures water reliability in an uncertain future while also protecting the environment.

Except, well…the last part, not so much. But we’ll get to that in a second. Let’s look at the non-controversial aspects of the plan first.

There are a number of possible ways to deal with our water demands, and over the past two years, the Board has been exploring a dozen different combinations of steps (PDF) we can take to help meet the projected need. They’ve decided to increase their investment in water recycling technology (PDF), which they expect can yield 11 MGD. Additionally, they believe they can reduce the anticipated demand by 39 million gallons a day by taking more stringent measures to increase conservation (PDF) – mostly changes to plumbing codes and requiring special toilets and offering rebates for high efficiency washing machines, stuff like that.

So those are both good things, but combined, still leave us with a water shortage in dry years. Which brings us to the remaining portion of the portfolio – rationing and supplemental supply.

The East Bay MUD Board has settled on a drought rationing level of 10% for the new plan. Rationing is where you are expected to reduce your water use when there is a shortage. This is significantly lower than the current rationing level of 25%, which was considered too burdensome for water users. Many people, particularly those opposed to some of the supplemental supply options included in the plan, think that the rationing level should be higher. East Bay MUD says that as conservation measures are implemented and people start using less water all the time, rationing will become much harder and it won’t be feasible for most people to reduce their use at such a high level. That’s not an unreasonable argument, but there’s a big difference between 10 percent and 25 percent, and one would think that surely the agency could find something in between. Say, 15 percent.

And finally, we get to the messy part. Even after doing everything listed above, we will just flat-out need more water to get us through dry years, and handily, the WSMP 2040 includes seven different options for providing the necessary supplemental supplies (PDF). Most of these options, on their own, will not provide enough water to meet our needs, and we don’t know which, if any, of them are going to work out. The idea is that we will end up with some combination of the proposed measures, which include water transfers, groundwater banking and exchange, desalination, and expanded surface water reservoir capacity.

The full preferred portfolio in the WSMP 2040 looks like this:

The groundwater banking and some of the exchange are relatively uncontroversial, and environmentalists tend not to like desalination, but it’s really one part of this that has spurred serious uproar, and that’s the expansion of the Pardee Reservoir. You may have also heard this referred to as simply “the dam.”

There are actually five options in the plan for different levels of expansion, some of which aren’t terrible, and some of which really are. You can read about it here, here, and here but basically, the biggest of the proposals would practically double the size of the reservoir, and in addition to storing way more water than we actually need and creating a disincentive for conservation, and also in addition to obviously being tremendously expensive, the expansion of the Pardee Reservoir would flood about 1200 acres of the Sierra foothills, including a two mile stretch of the river extremely popular for rafting and fishing. Or, as East Bay MUD puts it, the expansion does raise “concerns with regard to inundation and the use of the Mokelumne River above the Reservoir, cultural and historic resources, road access and bridges, and biological resources.”

The reservoir expansion is opposed by the cities of Berkeley and Richmond, the California Democratic Party, the Sierra Club, Foothill Conservancy, Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, and a slew of other organizations, and the voluminous comments and responses sections of the Final PEIR for the WSMP 2040 include nearly 1,000 letters from individuals declaring their opposition to the idea. Yet it remains in the plan.

My favorite comment came from the Sierra Club San Francisco (PDF):

We cannot build or engineer our way out of water waste and over-use. And over-use is already impacting our ecosystem as a whole – the Sierra foothills, the Delta, all the way to the San Francisco Bay – as noted in the comments about the WSMP 2040, submitted by countless individuals, as well as a number of environmental organizations. This is neither sustainable from an environmental perspective, nor does it provide a secure water supply for EBMUD’s consumers. Water conservation and recycling do. We urge EBMUD to be bold and visionary in focusing on these elements as the core for setting and adopting the preferred portfolio for the WSMP 2040.

The East Bay MUD Board will meet this afternoon at 1:15 at their downtown Oakland headquarters (375 11th St., 2nd floor) to vote on the WSMP 2040. I will be there, along with many others, to ask the Board to remove the Pardee Reservoir expansion from the plan. And if you’d like to do so as well, but can’t on such short notice, well, I gotta tell you, you’re probably going to have plenty of opportunities.

After all, inclusion in the WSMP 2040 is no guarantee the expansion will be built, or even which of the expansion options East Bay MUD might end up with in the event they do later decide to expand. All the supplemental supply options in the plan will require further study and evaluation, and if, at some point in the future, the Board decides to move forward on this, then it will need its own project-level EIR and there will be meetings and comments and protests and probably a lawsuit of two, and honestly, if I were the East Bay MUD Board I would just scrap the damn idea right now so I could avoid the headache and the public scrutiny and go back to making all my decisions in the dark. Alas, it seems that the Board would rather destroy a scenic river than ask their suburban customers to give up their verdant lawns.

24 thoughts on “Big dam vote today at East Bay MUD

  1. Jennifer

    I live in an apartment building where I pay a flat fee each month for water, garbage and gas. They have never, ever, distributed information about the need to conserve water. EBMUD could do a much better job in educating people and getting them to conserve — we should give this more effort before we build more storage.

  2. Brian

    Jennifer has a great point. I am in a similar situation. When I was in Romania in Peace Corps the apartment buildings had been retrofitted with meters. Each faucet/room had an individual meter. Every month of two someone would come by at an appointed time and read the meters, then add them up and that was your bill. The World Bank or someone had probably loaned money to install the meters.

    Maybe EBMUD could do the same? I’m sure the meters would cost less than a dam. If they are really short cash they could always ask the the World Bank for a loan. :) It would not solve the whole shortfall but I’m sure more solutions like that are out there. How about building out a grey water network so drinking water isn’t used to flush the toilets and water lawns? Even building out to only 10% – 20% of their users would cut consumption greatly.

  3. Aquaman

    @brian, gray water has a lot of promise … why on earth are we using scarce drinking water, imported all the way from the sierra, to water our lawns? for some reason, local codes usually prohibit or greatly restrict use of gray water, so this needs to be tackled both at the water utilities and at each city.

    @jennifer, since you live in an apartment, you’re probably already doing your part to conserve water. that is, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to install low flow toilets and shower heads. After doing those things, you’d really have to work hard to use 10% as much water as a typical suburban homeowner (large lot; lush landscaping; washing car in driveway; etc)

  4. Jennifer

    Yes, that’s true. Our building is new, so it is very efficient. But how many older multi-unit buildings are there that don’t get a conservation message?

  5. Ken O

    @Jen: which apartment complex do you live in? I’m at the LEED Silver place around here.

    @everyone: as you know, the main symptom of our water crisis is that water is too cheap. everyone thinks it should be a “right” which is great, except that there’s always a “tragedy of the commons” when a VIP resource is given out too freely. and this is all a symptom of our growing population, and our modern handling of water. before fossil fuels there probably weren’t many flush toilets, carwashes and the like.

    One interesting related fact that I read in EBX is that there’ve been lawsuits and FOIA requests to EBMUD to reveal who the bay’s 100 biggest commercial/industrial users are. the first attempt in the 80s won in court, and guess who the biggest bay area user was?

    It was Chevron, at 12MGPD. 12 ma-hillion gallons per DAY to process oil into gasoline for all our speeding police cruisers, hov lane priuses, ghost rides and starbucks delivery trucks. Of course, I’m positive Chev has upgraded their water recycling systems since the late 80s. No really, not being sarcastic here. They would save a modicum of money and gain much-needed eco-PR for it.

    In the most recent investigatory journalism round, a court sided with EBMUD not to reveal large business users to the journo for “fear” of retribution. C’mon, all that would happen is some shame and a protest. what’s wrong with shining some light into the dark?? we can’t fix problems if we don’t know what or where they are. knowing the bay area’s largest water users would keep with Obama’s stated campaign goals of political transparency.

    I’m against the dam. I’m for curbing our wasteful water ways. In the building where I work in downtown SF, they are finally implementing paper recycling For Real this year, 2009. That’s the reply I got to my email asking the office management to install waterless urinals in the men’s rooms – similar to what you’d find in the MLK student union bathroom at Cal campus. (Only place I know that has them.)

    I’m sure we all see plenty of water waste every week. Sure, more storage of rainwater is good but this should be done on a more distributed, and thus disaster-resilient basis. I”ve got a rainbarrel even though I’m renting a flat. It can be done.

    Increasing dam size sets us all up for a bigger fall down the line… the bigger they are, the harder they fall (break)… aanyone remember Folsom dam? We have a lot of dam problems in this country.. you can follow these at

    Anti-greywater ordinances were probably put in place for health and sanitation reasons. Secondarily, maybe large centralized institutions benefit from central water systems. has a good “water” section. website is also good to keep an eye on.

  6. David

    I find the population projections amusing, considering the likelihood of people leaving the area (as they have been), as well as the state (as they have been), resulting in a stagnant or even shrinking population.

    That likelihood will increase as they make it ever harder for normal people to live here. Normal people, as in those people who don’t have $750++ to pay for a “water efficient” washing machine or $300 for a dual flush toilet (when a regular toilet retails for about $75) etc etc.

    You want to talk waste? Why the hell are California farmers growing cotton, rice and melons in the desert? Dairy farms? That’s what Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Wisconsin/Oregon are for, in that order. Farms use 48% of the water in the state, non-farmers 11%.

  7. Art

    David, that’s a pretty short-sighted view on water efficiency. We bought one of those $750++ washing machines two years ago (at the time, the cost was about twice a “normal” machine), and it cut our water bill by about $50 a month. Since we hope that machine will last at least 7-10 years (and hopefully many more!), that’s a pretty good return on our money, especially since the local and federal rebate programs reimbursed us for a good chunk of the cost. So even if all you care about is the money, rather than the conservation, it’s already more than paid for itself. Ditto for efficient toilets (which, by the way, can be had for around $150, which is also the current rebate amount, making them *cheaper* than a standard toilet since most of the cost is just the labor for installation, if you don’t do it yourself).

    While I agree that agricultural water use is also a key issue, anyone who’s opting out of water efficient appliances (small impact, but also small cost) isn’t thinking very rationally given the current rebates and cost of water (and electricity—that bill dropped too!)

  8. Ralph

    Ken, you will be pleased to know that there are workplaces in the FiDi/SoMa with waterless urinals.

    I am a big fan of the HE front loaders. Yes, it was slightly more expensive than your traditional machine but I believe the 2 rebates knocked off close to $200. So all in I spent maybe $200 more than I did on a w/d purchased 10 years earlier. Since, I don’t see my water bill, it is hard for me to know what I am saving, but I do know that I am doing my part to conserve.

    Now, as to seeing the bill, I think that owners and renters not seeing their water bill is a big mistake. Some people are completely unaware of the amount of water they are using and only notice when they receive a bill. I hope that when new bldgs come online each unit receives its own water bill. It is 2010, people need to know that water ain’t free.

  9. Patrick

    Agreed – my LG HE front loader (and dryer) are amazing. And the washer only uses 9 gallons for a full load. Thanks EBMUD and PGE for the $200 rebate, and Home Depot for the 20% off coupon – bringing my total cost for the pair to $936. My water usage is fairly constant at about 680 gallons per month for all uses. Not bad for a guy who gets about 50% of his fruit and vegetables out of his yard. Incidentally, this is why people do not want 25% forced conservatin during a drought. For those of us who conserve as a matter of course, a 25% cut would be impossible. Now, for someone watering a one acre lawn…

    I also find David’s assertion that importing food from Texas is somehow better. Much of our water comes from snowfall in Sierra. Snowfall that occurs every year. Farmers in the High Plains of Texas rely on the Ogalalla – an ancient underground aquifer that, at current usage rates, is expected to run dry within 25 years. Alabama is in an epic battle with the states of Florida and Georgia over water rights to the Chattahoochee River (Atlanta’s primary water supply). Wisconsin? Ground water is always a problem as it is primarily seepage from Lake Superior. Draws from Lake Michigan are restricted as the lake is also a water resource for Illinois, Indiana and Michagan. Lake Superior is also a tappable source, but of course Canada has rights as well. Arkansas relies primarily on surface water – not good when in the midst of a drought, such as now. Wouldn’t want any part of my food supply dependent on that. Oregon, possibly. But why should we put our water usage burdens off onto another state?

    California has 1/8 of the country’s population. Even if people start leaving in droves, natural population growth (which was 1.1% last year) added 400,000 new Californians. Even if that many people – or more – move out yearly, they take their water needs elsewhere. Their new state of residence would thus have diminished capacity to subsidize our water needs.

    California needs to provide for its own water needs. But adding another dam on the Mokelumne is NOT part of the answer. Especially when EBMUD resolutely refuses to raise rates on our district’s most profligate users because profits will fall.

  10. David

    Patrick, no matter how you slice it, Wisconsin and Oregon, just as an example (although Alabama works too), receive far more rainfall than California (over 30-40 inches/year on average). Ergo, water intensive farming, like dairy, cotton, melon farming, and rice makes much more sense there.

    It’s silly to rely entirely on your own state for food production. Since the beginning of time, people have traded things they make for things they cannot make. Self-sufficiency in anything is a delusion.

  11. Patrick

    David, no matter how you slice it, the production of crude oil/coal to move products from Wisconsin/Oregon/Alabama to California not only requires massive amounts of fossil fuel energy, but also millions of gallons of water besides. When an oil well begins to wane, they inject water…because the oil will rise to the top. That water is tainted forever.

    It’s silly to think that importing food from 500 to 3000 miles away could ever be more eco-friendly than producing it (relatively) locally. For aborigines to make a once a year trek on foot to trade their bunya-bunya seeds for dried fish with the coastal tribes is quite different from exporting rice in return for trucking in, over vast distances via polluting trains/trucks, Velveeta and Spam.

    As others have mentioned before, and much more eloquently, oil represents hundreds of slaves per person. I believe that if we can produce a product locally, we should. I will, however, also stipulate that the production of water-intensive crops like rice (etc.) in California for export is an extremeley questionable practice. Perhaps an export tariff would take care of that.

  12. David

    1) I don’t feel like replicating aboriginal life, thank you very much. Therefore, I prefer trade. I’m sorry you don’t like oil, but I don’t care. It’s what allows the planet to have the population it does.
    2) I’m sure you know that, according to the Constitution, states cannot levy tariffs.
    3) If you want to limit food to what can ‘sustainably’ be grown in California, we’d need to export about 36M people, leaving about 500,000-1M ‘natives’ who would subsist on acorns and maybe some cattle and fish.

  13. freddy

    Speaking of water: yesterday a big rubber tube got dumped in Snow Park. It has the most magical acoustic effect. Kid tested, too.

    If you were aboriginal, and very, very large, it would make a perfect didgeridoo. If you are average size, it’s like being inside a didgeridoo.

    It’s either water or sewage or something, 18″x 300 yards or so. If you go to one end and your buddy goes to the other, you can hear each other perfectly, like you were 5 feet away. Cool echoes – clap.

    The sign says the street is closed Oct 15-25 so get there fast; but this is Oakland so you might have until Christmas or so. I hope nobody crawls in and gets stuck. Especially if we’re gonna be drinking the stuff.

  14. len raphael

    While there were many many bad dams built during by FDR subsequent Democrat and Republican administrations, which should be demolished now, I’m not as sure as the well paid professional execs at the Sierra Club and most of you that this is another bad dam. I’m not impressed by recreational and related tourist demands for a stretch of the river that from what i understand wasn’t even open to the public until several years ago. If the main ecological damage is risk to relatively small numbers of wildlife, I’d have to chose people before endangered species. If the people want to protect more endangered species, population control is needed.

    For sure, the water contracts and pricing agreements in California are crazy, wildly giving away water to some farmers and denying to others. Does anyone know if that was part of what the Schwartz is trying to overhaul or are those water allocations perpetual? If perpetual, then we have to work with the fact that farming will get huge amounts of cheap water and urban areas will suffer.

    It would be very costly to retrofit high density buildings with greywater systems. I would think you’d have to install new water and sewer lines to utilize that greywater. We’re not even maintaining the 80 year old lines we have now.

    It is expensive to retrofit single family homes with greywater systems plus the users have to be very careful what they throw down the drain. Besides the plumbing costs, you have to tear into interior walls and ceilings, penetrate outer walls, dig trenches and underground storage tanks and/ord irrigation systems.

    Of course EBMUD has to push private users to phase out lawns, etc. but we still need more storage capacity to get thru several consecutive dry years.

    -len raphael

  15. len raphael

    Patrick, are you getting 680gal per month without using greywater for all your gardening/landscapinig? w/o getting to nosy, i’m assuming 2 occupants?

  16. Patrick

    I apologize, I was mistaken. I used 680 gallons over TWO months. I live alone (well, the cat doesn’t use much water). And I don’t use a lot of greywater. I do capture the cool water that would otherwise be wasted when waiting for hot water before dishwashing or taking a shower. All of that water is stored in a rain barrel outside of my kitchen window and half wine barrel outside of my bathroom window, both used for the garden. The birds seem to like it as well. I am also at a water-use advantage because the house in which I live was purchased after foreclosure – and it was stripped to the studs. So, I installed dual-flush Toto commodes (that use 1 gal per “light” flush, which is all I have ever needed), Grohe showerheads (.8 gal per minute), LG W/D (9 gal per load) and a Bosch dishwasher (4 gal per load). I turn off the shower head while soaping up, only need to do dishes twice a week, and I do laundry about every ten days. When it’s not raining, I use my old Maytag wringer washer outside with Oasis bio-compatible detergent; wash and rinse waters go directly in the garden. I also re-use cooking water (generally to make “cold” compost in my Vita-Mix). But that’s the only greywater I use. My car is pretty much cleaned by Mother Nature, although I splurge on a couple of gallons after a pigeon attack.

  17. len raphael

    P, you might win the oakland frugwater award. i will take the fifth about my water usage but lets just say that it ain’t the appliances that make the big difference.

    in the dry season, how are you watering the fruit trees?


  18. Patrick

    Trees are planted strictly in late fall. Root growth during the rainy months support much dry season, above-ground growth. In our clay soils, one solid winter growing season can produce a root system that will provide for all summer water needs (except for brief periods during exceptionally hot or windy weather). Contrary to popular belief, we have a relatively shallow water table.

    I also must admit that my plants are the glad recipients of occasional liquid gold. Diluted! OK, so maybe I use more “greywater” than I thought.

    len, may I assume you shepherd a large, resource-intensive and bio-incompatible monoculture (otherwise known as a lawn)? While I’m on my soapbox, let me just mention that in just 60 square feet, you can easily provide the entire produce needs of a family of four (including neighborhood giveaways and canning). Especially in this climate, where chard can grow to attack size and cherry tomatoes spread to the dimensions of former City Administrators. I’m currently rolling in mint, chives, zucchini, cucumbers, romas, potatoes, leeks and kale. Plums, apples and blueberries are over – navel oranges won’t be ready until at least February (late).

  19. Mike d'Ocla

    I’m not nearly as frugal as Patrick, but I know very well from personal experience as well as from reading that the amount of additional water available from conservation is enormous. As with electricity and gasoline, very simple changes in behavior and a little mindfulness, along with some technology improvements, could bring about a great reduction in our consumption of resources.

    And Patrick is so right about the amazing water-holding power of our clay soils. I have several plants in my garden which grew faster the less water I gave them. My citrus trees do very well without water almost all summer long.

    By simply paying some attention to how I was using water: in my garden, taking showers, washing dishes by hand, etc., I was able recently to reduce my consumption by 40%. And this is without the use of energy-efficient applicances or toilet or shower or doing any sort of careful planning about watering my plants.

    My guess is that water use in the state as a whole quite feasibly could be reduced by 50%. Including agriculture. That means without economic or quality-of-life sacrifice. Unfortunately because Californians generally are so averse to lifestyle changes, or heaven-forbid, the notion of being denied anything, our planning agencies set very limited resource conservation goals, like 15% for water (I think this was EBMUD’s conservation goal for this year before conservation plans were dropped in light of the late rains last spring).

  20. Patrick

    If water were priced at what it is actually worth, we’d use a heck of a lot less of it. Of course, the same could be said of gasoline.

  21. len raphael

    P, my lawin is approx 3×6 feet of dwarf fescue that is kept fairly high.

    no, my high usage is a combo of attempting to encourage high growth and deep roots for 9 trees that are about 2 years old, but also many more laundry runs for work uniforms and office uniforms and workout uniforms.

    by “relatively shallow water table” do you mean the water table is close to the surface or that the aquafier only extends down a short distance. in my section, when i drilled three weeks ago, the first 6 feet (and this was close to the over watered trees) was dry dirt, the next 9 feet was damp clay. then hit hard yellow sandstone.

    wouldn’t tree roots have difficulty getting thru clay, no matter how damp?