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Drought: Transbay Pipeline, Desalination Plant Could Boost Marin's Dwindling Water Supply

CORTE MADERA (KPIX) -- Communities across the state are desperately searching for ways to make their dwindling water supplies last. In Marin County, one water district is considering sources that they've looked to in the past.

The Marin Municipal Water District gets almost all of its water from the Mt. Tamalpais watershed. But one look at Nicasio Reservoir, now at less than 30 percent capacity, shows how dire the supply situation is becoming.

At Friday's board meeting, general manager Ben Horenstein said they weren't prepared for how quickly it got this way.

"We, and so many agencies, were caught a little flat-footed in terms of the really historic nature of how quick this occurred," he told board members.

In the historic drought in the 70s, they saw it coming and built a pipeline from the East Bay, across the Richmond San Rafael Bridge, to supply Marin with water. Now, 45 years later, the district is once again making plans for a bridge pipeline, but board President Cynthia Koehler says it doesn't do much good to create a pipe if there's nothing to put in it.

"Remember, it's not magic," she said. "The drought is happening everywhere. A pipeline across the bridge means we have to find water somewhere. Where's that going to be? As far as I can tell, it's not coming from any East Bay water agencies. They're all in severe drought limitations."

Koehler says she doesn't mind staff planning for contingencies, but feels water conservation measures are a more efficient use of time and money. At the meeting, she took issue with another staff proposal – the creation of a desalination plant to capture water from the bay.

"This what you guys are choosing to message, right now?" she asked district staff. "We're going to, in a month, develop plant layout, go to PG&E with an application…and do a legal review of the need for a ballot measure, without one word about cost, about alternatives?"

The district investigated the idea of desalination back in 2007 but scrapped the plan in 2016 when increased conservation made it unnecessary. Koehler thinks it still is.

"I think it's a difficult thing to say we're going to invest tens of millions, or in the case of 'de-sal,' more than a hundred million with very large operating costs. We're going to do that so people can be using 1,000 gallons of water per day on their lawns," she said.

But Steven Greenhut disagrees. The author of the book, "Winning the Water Wars" says conservation can only go so far and California should be looking for ways to create a larger water supply rather than just managing scarcity.

"It's a little more costly right now," he said. "But I think when we're out of water and districts are talking about rationing, I think we'd be happy to pay a little more to get a consistent, reliable source of water."

Even if the desalination plant was approved it wouldn't help this year. The district's timeline proposed completion at the end of 2022 at the earliest.

So, will the future water supply for Marin County come from the bay? It seems unlikely right now. However, if a crisis gets bad enough, people will begin to consider things they never would have before.

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