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October 2000

MMWD Plans Gigantic Water Tank For Valley
"We are not subject to county codes or community plans!"


By Elena Belsky

Local communities, especially in West Marin, have worked very diligently to protect their rural character, open space, agriculture, and viewshed. Community Plans have been carefully crafted by far seeing and experienced community planners to enhance and maintain these valued goals.

On Monday, September 11, the San Geronimo Valley community was informed in a presentation given by representatives of the Marin Municipal Water District, that an 8 to 10 million-gallon storage tank was to be situated at an elevated position somewhere in the San Geronimo Valley. Many more important questions were raised by this presentation than could possibly be addressed in one session. The "choices" offered by MMWD district engineer Dana Roxon with some participation by local MMWD Board representative Jared Huffman, were either two above ground storage tanks, or one enormous, mostly underground tank. In order to achieve the necessary elevation for gravity flow instead of pumping, ALL options would cut into a ridgeline. When the question was asked from the astounded audience, "What gives you the right to disregard our Community Plan, which has strict ridgeline protection?" The answer from the district engineer was "We are not subject to the County's codes or Community Plans."

Although several locations on the north side of the valley have received at least cursory investigation, Blueberry Hill, a highly visible location, both entering and leaving the Valley over White's Hill, near Sir Francis Drake Blvd. at the east end of Woodacre, was put forward by MMWD as the favored location. Although it was admitted that no geological studies have actually been done to determine the stability or suitability of this site for an 8 to 10 million-gallon water tank. Residents of houses below the proposed site were understandably very concerned, as were the six property owners that would face condemnation and subsequent taking of property under eminent domain. The community also questioned the seemingly "cursory" investigation of other potential sites, above Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Baywood Canyon area on the other side of White's Hill and even the re-use of an existing MMWD site on Pine Mountain. .

The proposed tank would be of concrete and measure 40x100x300 in feet. However, it would theoretically be sunk into a 60-foot hole and covered with 20 feet of dirt, which MMWD promises to re-vegetate; some of the tank apparatus must remain exposed. The tank, the pipe and the construction road to it would mandate forcible purchase of private property or easements. MMWD staff claims that no sites on their property were suitable for construction.

MMWD's rationale for the tank is threefold. First, during normal use, the tank would be filled and store water during off-peak hours, then would deliver the water during peak hours, allowing the San Geronimo Valley Water Treatment Plant to operate at more constant production levels, which MMWD says leads to more reliable water quality. Second, and the reason for its elevated location, in the event of a power outage during which the valley treatment plant is unable to pump, water could be gravity-fed from the tank to their customers in the eastern corridor Finally, Pine Mountain Tunnel, a two-mile three million gallon underground storage facility built in 1917, should soon be retired, according to MMWD geologist and engineers. Although no study, document, or written report from a State agency was cited, or even known to exist, it is MMWD's assertion that the Pine Mountain facility is not feasibly reparable.

According to Roxon, during normal use, the proposed Blueberry Hill tank would serve only those MMWD customers East of White's Hill, in Ross Valley and San Rafael. It would purportedly serve the San Geronimo Valley SOLELY in the event of a power outage lasting more than two days. During previous power outages, six days is the longest of recent years, water supply has continued through use of other storage locations in Northwest Marin and the Russian River supply.

In response to a question about the project's inherent conflict with the San Geronimo Community Plan's moratorium on ridgeline building, the MMWD representatives acknowledged that the prominence and ridgeline location of the proposed tank project may pit the desires of the MMWD and its other customers against the preservation-minded, self-determined efforts of the San Geronimo Valley community as represented in its Community Plan, and added that MMWD would have the power of imposition, as projects of this type are exempt from local zoning ordinances. MMWD representatives insisted, several times, that the new tank could not reasonably be seen as an inducement for growth in the San Geronimo Valley. However, the increase in emergency supply above existing standards raised questions as to whether the additional emergency supply could be deemed sufficient for more additional customers than without it. It was not said whether the tank would accommodate increased development elsewhere, or whether an increase in the San Geronimo Valley Water Treatment Plant's average production is planned.

Reason for applause was scarce, but came when community activist Jean Berensmeier praised George Flanders and Grace Dickson for their unflagging devotion to preservation of the Valley's character and their resistance to development. It erupted again, soon after, when Mr. Flanders, with his adult children present around him, vigorously objected to the project due to the disruption, permanent and transitory, it would cause both his own property and the Valley at large.

In addition to mandating use of the Flanders property, which has been plundered by 'takings' for many other public projects over the years, construction would be highly visible and would last an estimated 1-1/2 years. The excavation required would also be significant. One estimate holds that it would require the equivalent of 3-1/2 months of truck trips taken every five minutes to remove amount of material necessary for the 8 to 10 million-gallon tank. Members of the audience expressed concern over potential damage to public roadways, safety, if evacuation was necessary, and whether these trips would lead to problems if tank construction coincided with the County's major improvements to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. on the East side of White's Hill. The destination of the volumes of removed material was not specified; staff indicated it would be a problem. With regard to California Environmental Quality Act guidelines, Roxon ventured that MMWD would probably proceed under a "negative declaration" of environmental impacts (with construction beginning in the Spring of 2001), rather than go through the process of a full Environmental Impact Report. Whether this would be an acceptable situation for the San Geronimo Valley residents, or local environmental advocates and groups was not discussed.

Outside, after the meeting, more than one conversation touched on hopes that the children of George Flanders would do as much as that same nobly stalwart gentleman to preserve their property, when its fate-and, through it, a substantial part of the Valley's character-falls to their discretion.

To make your thoughts known on this issue, or to request more information, contact Jared Huffman (460-0100) at MMWD.

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