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.