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EBMUD: Drought measures working

on October 15, 2015

While the East Bay Municipal Utility District is suffering the worst drought since its founding in 1923, its 1.3 million users face no danger of going dry anytime soon. That was the message from EBMUD board members and operations staff at their Tuesday public meeting. Infrastructure investments, conservation, and transfers–buying water from the Sacramento River–together mean the East Bay is weathering this Stage 4 drought better than most of California.

According to the state’s own data, the EBMUD staff are right. So far in 2015, the EBMUD district has consumed about 31 percent less water than its 2013 average, roughly double the reduction ordered by the state and better than over 60 percent of other districts.

In most years, over 90 percent of EBMUD’s water originates in the Sierra Nevada, then flows down the Mokelumne River into the Pardee and Camanche Reservoirs northeast of Lodi. The 85-mile Mokelumne Aqueduct then transports the water from Pardee to the East Bay’s 35 communities. Because of EBMUD’s complex piping, residents west of the Berkeley and Oakland hills usually drink Sierra snowmelt during the wettest six or seven months of the year, with the balance coming from the Sacramento River. Residents east of the hills normally enjoy Sierra water year-round.

2015, however, is the fourth year of California’s worst drought in at least 500 years. Right now, about 80 percent of EBMUD’s water supply comes from Sacramento transfers, with that river also historically low–and full of algae blooms that make the water sometimes smell and taste musty. “For the first time, those [eastern] customers are not drinking the pristine Mokelumne snowmelt,” said operations manager Eileen White in her report to the board. “And they have let us know it.”

Musty water, staffers and board members seem to agree, is better than no water. If the predicted heavy El Nino, a periodic climate change that occurs over the Pacific Ocean and often brings heavy precipitation to North America, doesn’t come through this winter, the water levels at Pardee Reservoir might drop below the intake valve next summer. Then EBMUD would need portable pumps to get the water up to the valve. “Not to think the unthinkable, but we’re there,” said District 1 Director Andy Katz, whose territory includes North Oakland.

“We’re not going to be there this year” because of conservation efforts, White replied.

A big El Nino, however, would create its own problems, as Water and Resources Director Richard Sykes told the board. September’s Butte Fire torched the Pardee watershed, scorching over 70,000 acres and destroying almost 500 homes. With the embers still smoldering, EBMUD is now racing to lay down wood chips and straw over the burnt landscape before heavy rains cause mass erosion of slopes that no longer have plants holding the soil in place. Runoff from the eroded banks could foul the critical reservoir.

In other business, EBMUD celebrated Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of AB 142 last week, which protects 37 miles of the upper Mokelumne River as a potential addition to the state’s Wild and Scenic River system. The bill confers interim protections on the Mokelumne while scientists study the river for climate change effects and possible permanent protection.

The agency also unanimously approved an options contract to sell any excess renewable energy it generates to Shell Oil Company. That contract is an option, EBMUD board members explained–not an obligation–in case the district’s dam’s generate more power in future, wetter years than Marin Clean Energy, its current client, wants to buy.

Special Assistant to the General Manager Cheryl Farr’s legislative update, her final one for EBMUD before retiring, added mirth to the proceedings. “At the federal level,” Farr said, there is “lots of drama.” In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have a “clear path forward” for a drought relief bill that would fund desalination, water treatment, recycling and conservation, and expand reservoirs. Not so in the House of Representatives. “We don’t know who the Speaker is,” Farr said. “Nobody who we think can get the votes even wants the job.”

EBMUD President Frank Mellon and others playfully interrupted Farr with Vatican jokes about “white smoke” and “black smoke.”

“Almost anyone would be better for the district than [Kevin] McCarthy,” Farr replied, referring to the Bakersfield representative who dropped his bid for speaker.

“It would help if you brought puppets or something,” Ward 5 Director Doug Linney quipped.

Farr got the last word, reading aloud a faux Craigslist ad for Speaker penned by Riverside Democratic Representative Mark Takano. “Babysitting experience strongly preferred,” she read, “No Congressional experience necessary.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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