EBMUD moves towards greener water planning
Club wins key victories for long-term East Bay water supply - but serious concerns remain
The East Bay Municipal Utility District's (EBMUD) new Water Supply Management Plan 2040 (WSMP) includes some real victories for the Sierra Club, but also some major environmental disappointments. The Club's two-year campaign of expert testimony, comments, letter-writing, petitions, and turning people out to public hearings brought major improvements to the 30-year plan.
These efforts have focused on a "green portfolio" of water sources to promote comprehensive environmental sustainability throughout the system, from the Mokelumne River (EBMUD's primary water source) across the fragile Delta ecosystem all the way to San Francisco Bay:
- aggressive water conservation and recycling;
- strong mandatory water restrictions during extreme droughts;
- environmentally sound groundwater storage.
We opposed new or expanded dams or reservoirs and new water withdrawals or transfers across the Delta. Much of the green portfolio was incorporated into the final WSMP, but the continued inclusion of an option for expanding Pardee and Lower Bear Reservoirs in the Sierra stands as a real environmental loss, particularly considering the Mokelumne River's potential for federal wild-and-scenic-river designation. A broad coalition of environmental organizations, elected officials, municipalities, and more - Friends of the River, the Planning and Conservation League, California Oaks Foundation, Assemblymember Nancy Skinner and Sen. Loni Hancock, and the EBMUD-district cities of Richmond and Berkeley - have joined forces in continuing to oppose this dam expansion proposal.
How much water is enough, and how do we get it?
In preparing the WSMP 2040, EBMUD had to deal with several new considerations:
- a general water-supply crisis across California, where projected water demand far exceeds projected supply;
- additional uncertainty due to climate change - particularly the loss of snowpack in the Sierra (a natural storage reservoir), changes in overall precipitation, and rising temperatures.
A key driver in EBMUD's analysis was the stated "need for water" in the future, which the consultants projected as an additional 115 million gallons per day (MGD) over current demand. Portfolio options were mixed and matched to meet this target. Thus, lower levels of water conservation and recycling would mean greater reliance on new dams and reservoirs, and vice-versa.
Flaws and achievements
The Club argued that the 115-MGD target is overstated. Equally significantly, EBMUD failed to consider the demonstrated potential of aggressive water pricing - where water conservers are rewarded with lower prices, while high water users ("water wasters") are penalized with very high water rates - to lower demand.
The Club and numerous other environmental groups, elected officials, public agencies, and utilities, from the East Bay to the Sierra foothills, protested that stakeholders in the Sierra foothills near the Mokelumne were left out of the early planning and comment stages. These were among the strongest objectors to the Pardee Reservoir expansion due to its massive impacts on their local economy and environment. By the time EBMUD and the consultants acknowledged this important set of concerns, many of the portfolio options had been settled on, and the result was a failure to remove this option at the final vote.
In several cases, though, the Club's advocacy paid off tremendously:
- Water conservation. The final WSMP includes a water-conservation target of 39 MGD, the second-highest considered - a major victory compared to initial discussions of much lower levels.
- Recycled water. The Board adopted the highest-possible level of water recycling.
- Water rationing during drought. After an initial vote on the WSMP in October with 10% mandatory drought rationing, the Board amended the plan to increase rationing to 15%.
- Buckhorn Dam. The construction of a new dam and reservoir at Buckhorn Canyon in the East Bay hills was originally an option, but dropped early on due to extensive outcry from environmentalists and the public at large.
Despite the above positive elements, the consultants argued for "supplemental" water-supply options, and boardmembers approved a menu of such projects. Two environmentally questionable projects were left in the plan:
- building a desalination facility in Pittsburg, which the Sierra Club does not support at this time, due to high energy usage and unknown impacts on water quality;
- expanding Pardee and Lower Bear Reservoirs, flooding environmentally, culturally, and economically critical sections of the Mokelumne River.
The Foothill Conservancy, Friends of the River, and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance have already jointly filed suit to overturn the Program Environmental Impact Report for the WSMP, citing the failure of EBMUD to adequately consider the environmental and economic impacts of the Pardee Dam expansion.
There are still important opportunities to stop or influence these projects. The plan specifies that EBMUD will reassess water needs before implementing any supplemental-supply projects. In addition, California environmental law requires preparation of a project-specific Environmental Impact Report before EBMUD gives final approval to any individual project.
In addition, the implementing resolution for the Pardee Dam expansion directs EBMUD to seek agreement among a broad array of upcountry stakeholders - including environmentalists - before proceeding. EBMUD also committed itself to work with foothill community groups to obtain federal wild-and-scenic designation for the Mokelumne upstream of Pardee Reservoir, which would fully protect the Mokelumne from the disastrous flooding and expansion options of the WSMP. We are actively working with legislators to promote that designation.
Finally, the WSMP has highlighted the importance of the upcoming 2010 elections for the EBMUD Board. The Club applauds the consistent environmental leadership of Directors Andy Katz and Doug Linney, who supported and voted for strong environmental protections and aggressive water conservation, rationing, and recycling throughout the plan process. Director Lesa McIntosh offered key votes at several important stages, and has expressed concerns over the Pardee expansion. The Sierra Club will seek to support candidates who demonstrate the environmental leadership so critical for a secure and sustainable water future.
Write to your state and federal legislators and urge them to support wild-and-scenic designation for the Tuolumne River.
For more information, see the Foothill Conservancy web site.