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Marin water officials scrutinize costs for bigger reservoirs, new pipelines

Marin water officials scrutinize costs for bigger reservoirs, new pipelines
Traffic flows across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in a view from Marin County on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. The Marin Municipal Water District has considered building a water pipeline across the bridge to increase its supply. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
Traffic flows across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in a view from Marin County on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. The Marin Municipal Water District has considered building a water pipeline across the bridge to increase its supply. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

Marin Municipal Water District officials, continuing their quest to boost supply, met this week for a detailed cost assessment on expanding reservoirs and connecting to new sources.

District staff stressed to the board that — unlike other options under review such as desalination and recycled water expansion that can produce a continual flow of water — enlarging reservoirs or building pipelines to outside suppliers does not guarantee water will be available when needed.

“We’re seeing conditions and have seen conditions the last two years that could make that prospect very challenging,” district official Paul Sellier told the board.

The district, which serves 191,000 central and southern Marin residents, launched the water supply study after facing the possibility the drought might deplete its reservoirs. Rains in late 2021 nearly refilled the reservoirs, giving the utility time to study ways it can augment its supply.

The study projects that the district will need 3,000 to 11,700 acre-feet of additional water each year to weather prolonged droughts, extreme short-term droughts, natural disasters and increased water demand.

A recent Marin County Civil Grand Jury report stated the district failed to adequately prepare for severe droughts and recommended it create 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet of new supply.

The district can hold up to 80,000 acre-feet of water in its seven reservoirs, which make up 75% of its supply. Only about 55,000 acre-feet in the reservoirs are considered reliable, according to district staff. That is because about 15,000 acre-feet are considered emergency reserves and the last 10,000 acre-feet would likely be unusable because of pumping and siltation issues at those low of water levels.

The remaining 25% of the district’s supply comes from Russian River water from the Sonoma County Water Agency. The district is allowed to draw 14,300 acre-feet per year, but pumping limitations only allow the district to bring in about 11,000 acre-feet.

Expanding reservoirs

The district has not expanded or built a new reservoir since the early 1980s, when it built its third-largest reservoir, Soulajule, and doubled the capacity of its largest reservoir, Kent Lake.

The district’s seven reservoirs hold about a two-year supply of water compared to the four-year supplies of most major Bay Area water suppliers.

Jacobs Engineering consultant Marcelo Reginato said hydrology records from 1910 to 2021 show that about half the time the watershed has had an inflow of water exceeding 80,000 acre-feet.

“We see that there are opportunities maybe to capture more of this inflow to the reservoirs and also to Soulajule,” Reginato said.

On Tuesday, the board reviewed early cost estimates and water yields of three options to expand local reservoirs: dredging Nicasio Reservoir to add 1,000 acre-feet of capacity; raising the Soulajule Reservoir dam to triple its capacity; and adding adjustable spillways that could allow reservoirs to hold more water.

However, Reginato said adding more space in the reservoirs does not mean the district will get that amount of new supply every year. Factors such as rainfall, runoff, state-required water releases to the environment and evaporation all affect the expected water yield, he said.

“A reservoir project is not like a desalination project that has a fixed amount of flow coming to your system,” Reginato said.

For the study, the district based its cost estimates on the amount of water each project is expected to produce during a severe four-year drought that would combine the conditions of the district’s two worst droughts on record, those of 2020-2021 and 1976-77.

Under this scenario, dredging the Nicasio Reservoir to add another 1,000 acre-feet of storage would provide an estimated 100 acre-feet of extra water per year at a whopping price of $194,000 per acre-foot.

By comparison, the district paid $312 to $457 per acre-foot to treat local reservoir water and about $1,614 per acre-foot to purchase and transport Russian River water to its distribution system in 2021, the latest year of data available.

The high cost for Nicasio is based on the need to dig, truck out and store the dredged sediment. Reginato said there are also risks.

“You’re going to start digging, dredging, moving large amounts of sediments and that could mobilize contaminants that have been settled for a while,” he told the board.

Raising the dam at Soulajule Reservoir by 36 feet to triple the total storage from 10,000 acre-feet to 30,000 acre-feet would yield an estimated 2,800 acre-feet of water per year at a price of $5,900 per acre-foot. The price estimate also includes a $6 million project to link the reservoir pumping equipment to the electrical grid. The Soulajule Reservoir is mainly used as a reserve and therefore is only pumped using generators when needed.

Larry Bragman, a member of the water district board, asked whether the enlarged reservoir would inundate mercury mines that operated in the area before Soulajule was built.

“I don’t think we would face any additional risk at this point,” Sellier replied, but added that the question would need to be examined further.

Adding adjustable gates on dam spillways to allow certain reservoirs to increase water storage elevations by 3 feet would yield an extra 700 acre-feet per year at a cost of $9,100 per acre-foot, according to the study.

Bragman pushed back against some of the cost estimates, stating that they were based on a worst-case scenario yield. He said the district would likely get more water during normal rainfall years, which would reduce the need for it to buy and import more expensive Russian River water and thereby reduce the costs.

“So I think there are some advantages that need to be brought to bear, and need to be studied and considered,” Bragman said.

Some members of the public voiced concern about raising the dam at Soulajule given that the reservoir doesn’t fill to capacity much at all.

Central Valley links

The study is also exploring options to import water from the Sacramento Valley either by building a pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge or connecting to the North Bay Aqueduct in Napa County to link to the State Water Project.

Last year, the district planned to build a $100 million emergency pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to pump in Yuba County water to avoid running out of water. The project was under an expedited timeline because the district might have run out of water by mid-2022.

With the emergency now gone, building such a project would require more extensive review and “enormous constraints,” Makarand Pendse, a Jacobs Engineering consultant, told the board on Tuesday.

“So these are going to take a long time to build these options,” Pendse told the board. “Could be around eight years by the time we can actually implement these in reality.”

Early estimates show a pipeline across the bridge to connect to the East Bay Municipal Utility District or Contra Costa Water District could produce up to 9,000 acre-feet of additional water per year. The agencies would act as an intermediary to help pump in water from the Sacramento Valley. The cost per acre-foot was estimated at $2,200 per acre-foot for the East Bay district and $2,900 per acre-foot for the Contra Costa district.

The study looked at two options to connect to the North Bay Aqueduct in Napa. One option to build a pipeline connecting directly to the water district’s distribution systems was estimated to produce 5,000 acre-feet of water per year at a cost of $3,600 per acre-foot. The second option to build a connection from the aqueduct to the Sonoma County Water Agency system, where it would then be pumped south is estimated to produce 5,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of $4,200 per acre-foot.

District staff again emphasized that the expected water yield would be contingent upon water supplies in the Central Valley.

“Particularly in a multi-year drought, the number of cutbacks and curtailments by the state, if we had the pipeline, it’s certainly not a given that we would be able to get water,” Ben Horenstein, the district general manager, told the board.

A sign stand on Mount Tamalpais in MMWD's Mt. Tamalpais Watershed in Mill Valley on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
The Marin Municipal Water District can hold up to 80,000 acre-feet of water in its seven reservoirs in the Mount Tamalpais watershed. The reservoirs account for about 75% of the district’s supply. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

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