The Coastal Post - April 2000

Want To Rely On Your Neighbor For Water That May Not Be Safe?

By Carol Sterritt

As most Marinites dig out from winter mud, Marin Municipal Water District members are making their final decisions regarding a big water project.

This project, approved in 1992 by voters here, will cost $ 15.0 million. It will involve construction of a 42-inch pipeline across Sonoma County to the southernmost reaches of Marin. But questions abound. Will this pipeline bring us water essential for our needs during our next drought? Will it encourage development? Will the pipeline water be of a drinkable quality, or will it be too polluted from vineyard pesticides?

To address these concerns, the Citizens Advisory Committee held a meeting on March 14, 2000. One feeling shared among committee members was that perhaps too little has been done in terms of conservation to justify the pipeline emergency measure. Since close to 45,000 acres in Sonoma are in wine and table grape production, concern is high that various pesticides from this crop will impact the pipeline water. Realizing that, wouldn't a policy of all-out conservation be preferable to that of pipeline construction?

A list provided to me by an observer who attended the March 14th meeting has scary implications. The heavily cultivated areas, straddling the Russian River of Sonoma County, comprise more than 8,200 acres. Pesticides favored by wine grape growers there include sulfur, methyl bromide, mancozeb, dimethoate, myclobutanil, glyphosate, simazine, metam sodium, copper hydroxide and diphacinone. Methyl bromide has been banned in Holland. Simazine is one of the top water polluters nationwide. Glyphosate (sold as RoundUp), mancozeb, and metam sodium are poisonous to aquatic life including fish.

The chemicals mentioned above can also cause harm to humans. Some are known carcinogens and others are probable carcinogens. Methyl bromide and benomyl are known developmental toxins and there are nerve toxins as well: methyl bromide (again) and dimethoate fall into this last category. Californians For Alternatives to Toxics (CAT) report that 41 pounds of strychnine were used near the Russian River back in 1995. Although almost all the figures I have examined are from reports generated during 1995, one fact niggles my gray matter: it is provable that pesticide use has increased over time and will continue to do so.

Land use policies in Sonoma dictate this increase. By 1997, 40,001 acres were taken up by vineyard production. By 1998, the number had jumped to 44,681. With the booming economy, 1999 showed a substantial increase as well. As rigid standards regarding approval of moratoriums on hillside vineyards became law, 175 applicants beat the deadline. These applicants will not have to face the heavy regulations regarding drainage and erosion control.

The wine industry is nearing the one third of a billion dollar mark in earnings. Despite increasing regulations, many people have converted farmland to grapes. The incentive created by looking at a figure like $333,333,333 helped many landowners to make the switch. This has turned the lush fields of Sonoma into a monoculture. Whither the olives, the apples, the pears or peaches? And when will the superbug, often lured to an area that has only one plant offering to tender, when will that nasty pest arise?

In fact, Southern California is already harboring Pierce's Disease, a dreaded bacterial affliction that fatally damages grapes. This bacteria is spread by an insect known as the "glassy-winged sharpshooter." This bug is able to cover a great deal of ground in its travels. Sonoma County Department of Agriculture officials are now worrying over the need to halt the spread of Pierce's Disease to Sonoma grapes. In all probability, their solution will involve heavy applications of more pesticides.

Realizing there may be problems, some members of the Citizens Advisory Committee to Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) are concerned about basic health and safety issues. Will pipeline water brought to Marin carry so much pesticide and herbicide effluvia that our local sewer treatment plants will be overloaded? If so, the treatment plants may not be able to reduce the load of toxics but instead pass it on to the aquatic life in the Bay. Will a similar situation arise with drinking water problems handled by MMWD? The Citizens Advisory Committee has two main objectives in their charter. One is to review the relationship between supply and demand and decide whether a pipeline should be built. The second is to set up a master plan to determine goals of efficiency and conservation.

Currently, some committee members do not agree with MMWD that all conservation efforts have been implemented and goals met. They argue that until this is done, the pipeline should not be constructed. There are also questions regarding exactly who will benefit from the new water allocations. A group known as "Grape Growers of Marin" has given Steve Kinsey fiscal support. One may ask, is the claimed need for more water (which justifies building the pipeline), actually a ruse to allow vineyards to gain a foothold here in the hills of Marin?

Certain conservation issues have lagged behind expectations. The real estate industry was able to quash attempts to have restrictions placed on home sales. A conservation effort requiring a new homeowner to post a $500 bond that would be returnable only after the conversion of all toilets in the dwelling to low flow never become law. So some 33% of all toilets in Marin remain old-fashioned water-wasters.

However, the other side of the pipeline issue is haunting as well. One reason for building the pipeline is to allow full delivery of Russian River water that Marin County has contracted for but never been able to receive. In the case of the next serious drought, the pipeline could be the difference between extreme hardship and crisis, or simple minor discomfort. A county severely impacted by drought can face out-of-control fires, negative resources for animals, plant life, aquatic and avian life, as well as unshowered humans and unwatered lawns.

As most Californians realize, the next drought is inevitable. New offices have been built along our freeways. New homes stand on top of exclusive hillside vistas. In the best of rainfall years, these additions require water. In a time of drought, the new offices and homes indicate that the coming drought can only be more severe than droughts of the past.

The pipeline adds some additional water to the equation. Right now, residents in Northern Marin receive 8,900 acre-feet through a different water pipeline, one operated by North Marin Water District. Marin County has contracted for an additional 5,400 acre-feet from Sonoma County. Right now it has no way to convey this extra water. The new pipeline will add this water to the mix. It would also serve as a backup system should this other conveyance no longer be available.

Throughout discussions of the pipeline, MMWD officials have stated that it is not the purview of MMWD to look at water quality, but only at the volume. This attitude does not sit well with some committee members, and it receives criticism from members of the public as well. But MMWD officials counter those criticisms with the statement that since Marin is already receiving and using a large portion of the contracted water from Sonoma, it makes little sense to quibble over the purity of the next batch of water. And like many other Bay area projects, officials worry that if the project is inevitable, then building it sooner has a certain financial wisdom over the policy of waiting.

The final decision is expected by the end of April. In any event, whatever the decision, there will be repercussions years for generations to come.

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