The Coastal Post - July 2000

$20 Million Russian River Pipeline Debacle

By Elena Belsky

Amid much controversy, the Board of the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) will soon decide whether now is the time to spend $20 million of taxpayer money to build a pipeline to bring Russian River water to their customers. MMWD's own Citizen's Advisory Committee has recommended against pipeline construction at this time, maintaining that the need has not been demonstrated. Reservoirs are full and we should rely on increased efforts involving conservation and recycling/reclamation-the cheapest source of new supply. The MMWD Board members have reportedly been subject to heavy lobbying and political pressure by pro-growth interests: developers, real estate agents, and some business owners, none of whom seem to be aware that they are the highest volume users, therefore will be the ones paying the most, through significant rate increases and bond fees.


In 1992, Measure V was created to import Russian River water through a pipeline to accommodate more population growth, their water needs, and ensure an adequate delivery system, on an "as needed" basis. It was clever in that it appeased conservationists by including money and promises for conservation measures, but also reassured pro-growth interests with the promise that a new Russian River pipeline could be constructed quickly. Measure V mandated that every two years the Citizen's Advisory Committee would make a recommendation to the water board as to whether the demand and reliability of the water system warrants commencement of construction of a pipeline, based on ongoing monitoring and review. "As needed" was never defined in the measure, which is problematic at best. The Marin Conservation League and other environmental groups feel betrayed and are deeply disturbed that the promise of an emphasis on conservation has not occurred. MCL and twenty-two other environmental groups are actively opposing building a pipeline at this time. (Contrary to expensive ads bought by real estate and development interests, MMWD Staff and the Citizen's Advisory Committee both agree: the pipeline will NOT eliminate the need for rationing during a drought.)


The pipeline will be paid for with taxpayer dollars. It will also bring increased rates. Cost analysis by MMWD Citizen's Advisory Committee has shown that it would be more cost effective to spend money on conservation measures. According to recent calculations, every year we don't build the pipeline, we save 1.5 million dollars. We can also expect the Sonoma County Water Agency to pass the costs of its current and future infrastructure work (as much as $1 billion) on to its customers, as well as increased "bidding" competition from the other large water buyers (assuming they have water to sell). Sonoma is already unable to meet the existing demand of its water contractors and residents. It begs the question: What will happen as development in Sonoma continues?


Why, as a community, should we allow ourselves to become dependent on a water supply that may not be available in the future? Currently, there is a private lawsuit against Sonoma's taking of the Eel River water. And, at the same time, Federal and State agencies are re-assessing the impacts on the endangered species, re-evaluating the merits of re-permtting the Potter Dam Hydroelectric Project, and deciding whether to allow Sonoma County to continue it's diversions. Considering these serious factors, it becomes apparent that building a pipeline and, assuming there will be Russian River water available to buy, is highly questionable and an unacceptable risk.

Water Quality, Health Concerns

While Marin residents are struggling to isolate environmental causes of cancer and other conditions, the Russian River water proposed to be used in Marin homes comes from a source known to be highly contaminated. Raw sewage discharges, partially treated effluent, pesticide runoff, fertilizer (nitrates), and toxic urban runoff plague the Russian River. It is important to realize that water treatment facilities are not perfect. Essentially, a sequence of chemicals, intended to neutralize undesired contents, are introduced. Many toxins are missed; others may be created; not all are tested for. Beginning with water as polluted as the Russian River, water quality and healthfulness becomes suspect.


If the new pipeline is approved now, dramatic increases in growth will be made possible. During the revision of Countywide Master Plan, the State says the County must demonstrate either the ability of the water delivery system to handle the proposed growth, or reduce the long range development planned for the County. It seems that the County can't sustain their desired rate of development with local water sources, and needs imported Russian River water to accommodate increased growth. Although the MMWD Board is not charged to make land-use decisions, per se, its decisions directly influence increased growth potential and the Countywide Plan.


The Russian River been identified as one of the most impaired waterways in the country. Sonoma County diverts 90% of the water flow from Mendocino County's Eel River, into the Russian River to fuel Sonoma County development. It also sells the water to other agencies throughout the North Bay. Both the Eel and Russian Rivers are home to numerous threatened and endangered species, and both rivers are suffering the effects of this excessive water diversion. The MMWD Board's mission statement demands protection of the environment. Yet pro-pipeline arguments have been made that Russian River water can be used to reduce MMWD's diversion impact on the Lagunitas Creek. This is untrue-they are trying to throw "red herrings" in with our trout and salmon. Reservoir releases beneficial to local endangered species already occur, as mandated by the State. Environmentalists from Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin Counties wisely argue that we do not have the right to damage the environment somewhere else to mitigate the damage we are doing locally. Growing responsibly and sustainability means relying on local resources. Reliance on distant water sources, with questionable availability, to support increased local development is precisely the prescription for the type of sprawl that characterizes Los Angeles.

Pollutants in the Russian River Growth and land use dramatically affects water quality, as recent research reveals.

Neither the State Regional Water Quality Board, Water District, nor any waste treatment plant monitors overall River water quality.

Five towns discharge treated sewage above Sonoma Water Agency's pumps.

Spills of partially treated, and raw sewage are frequent.

Santa Rosa alone, discharges 21.3 million gallons per day of treated sewage from 15 identified sources.

Herbicide and pesticide use in the watershed is enormous. Thirty-three different pesticides are used in Sonoma County.

Nitrates from fertilizer and sewage effluent do not break down in water.

On February 7th, 1999-unknown amount of raw sewage discharged from Healdsburg plant (estimated between 140, 000 and 1.3 million gallons).

In 1995, 483,825 pounds of Methyl Bromide (acute nerve toxin and causes ozone

depletion) were used in the watershed by vineyards.

More than 9647 pounds of Simazine, a carcinogen and endocrine disrupter, that is highly toxic to fish, was identified in 1995 study.

41 pounds of strychnine were used near the river-a main drinking water source.

March 10th, 2000-Photographs were taken of an unidentified "iridescent green slime" in a RR tributary, flowing

from the Healdsburg wastewater treatment plant.

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