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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone.                      EFM Notebook Index

When in Drought….Mid-Summer Update

27 Aug 2021 5:54 PM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)
  Nicasio Reservoir at the end of June
Let’s start with a quick status report on the drought, beginning with the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD), which serves residents of central and southern Marin.
  • MMWD has mandated that residents cut water use by 40%. So far reductions are at 28%. 
  • The seven reservoirs that supply water to the MMWD are 40% full.
  • If residents fail to conserve the targeted amount soon, reservoirs will drop to 25% by December, making it unlikely that there will be any water left in them next summer.
  • MMWD views residential irrigation, particularly of lawns, as a particular problem. Incentives to encourage homeowners to replace conventional turf with organic mulch have fallen short of envisioned goals. 
  • MMWD is considering banning all lawn watering, as happened in Healdsburg this summer, which also limited each resident to 74 gallons a day.
  Lady Mary’s reaction to a ban on lawn watering?
In the North Marin Water District (NMWD), serving Novato and West Marin, the restrictions are different but achieved reductions are similar.
  • Novato’s water comes primarily from a groundwater aquifer adjacent to the Russian River in Sonoma County. An additional 20% comes from Stafford Lake. West Marin’s water comes from groundwater wells adjacent to Lagunitas Creek.
  • Sonoma County has reduced allocations to NMWD by 20% through October. Until that time the district will rely more on Stafford Lake, which received supplementary water from the Russian River during the spring to bolster summer supply. 
  • NMWD residents have been asked to cut water use by 20%. To date, the reductions are at 28%.
  • NMWD residents are allowed to water their lawns three times a week and are not required to cover their swimming pools. 
  • As is also the case in the MMWD, the North Marin District is offering incentives to encourage water conservation, including rebates on water-saving devices and systems for using graywater and rainwater.

Effects of the Drought on Housing for Low-Income Residents

As one of the least affordable and least diverse counties, Marin has been asked by the State to build around 15,000 new affordable residences over the next ten years. 

In the MMWD, a controversial proposal to suspend all new water service hookups is on the table. A ban on new water hookups would create major delays for proposed housing developments targeting lower income residents.

Proposed affordable senior housing and services facility in San Rafael  
The ban would create a severe problem for Vivalon, a nonprofit in Marin County, which is working on its final permits to build a healthy aging center in San Rafael with support services for older county residents on two floors and 66 affordable apartments on four higher floors. 

Similarly, a 74-unit multifamily complex proposed for Marin City already approved for low- and extremely low-income residents is now in limbo. 

Critics of the suspension argue that, while restricting new service connections does reduce water demand, other options may be more effective, including wastewater recycling, stormwater capture and groundwater storage. 

Citing the county’s history of exclusionary zoning, some observers have expressed concern that the suspensions are simply a handy excuse to limit unwanted new housing for low-income residents. 

The North Marin WD has already enacted a ban on new water hookups in its Novato service area, although it allows for development to move forward if the project does not install landscapes that use drinking water supply. 

Housing and Conservation Tensions in Siskiyou County

This tension between housing advocates and water conservation officials in Marin echoes even more serious strife in Siskiyou County between county officials and Hmong American farmers. 

During the Vietnam war the US recruited tens of thousands of Hmong to fight against the North Vietnamese in Laos. At the war’s end, many of these fighters and their families moved to the US, including a considerable number who came to California.

  Water transport is banned on certain county roads in Siskiyou County. Photo source: Tracy Barbutes/The Guardian
In 2015, a number of Hmong Americans bought inexpensive, undeveloped plots of land strewn with volcanic rocks in Siskiyou County and began growing a variety of crops, including marijuana. The group experienced substantial discrimination from local residents, but their farms flourished. Until last year, that is, when county officials, citing concerns about water use during the drought, banned the use of groundwater for marijuana cultivation. They also prohibited well owners from selling water to marijuana growers. Months later, they barred all transportation of water into the area populated by the Hmong Americans, leaving the community with insufficient water for daily life. 

Marijuana cultivation in other communities in the county was not similarly targeted, according to the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus, which have filed a brief alleging that county officials have violated the Hmong American residents’ constitutional rights. 

What about Effects on Wildlife?

This is not a photo of a shared water source in San Rafael, but you get the idea  
On a less intense level, controversy and conflict have also arisen over the best way of responding to wildlife suffering from hunger and thirst due to the drought. If you read Nextdoor, you have undoubtedly seen many posts about deer, coyote, foxes, and other wildlife wandering around in the open, looking for water and food. Not surprisingly, this sight pulls at the heartstrings of many residents. 

So what is the effect of severe drought on wildlife? The sources I have consulted make three essential points.

First, during a drought, most animals travel farther than usual for food and water. They may venture into backyards to sample the plants, drink from birdbaths, and rummage for insects. To do so, they must often cross roadways, where they are at risk of being hit by cars. 

Second, predators tend to do much better than prey animals during a drought. Deer and rodents are quite vulnerable, particularly when they are young, whereas coyotes and raptors benefit from the abundance of weakened prey.

Third, the animals share water sources, which concentrates their populations and increases the risk of competition, conflict, and the spread of illnesses. The concentration of prey at a watering spot also offers a quick meal for predators like coyotes, owls, raptors, and mountain lions. 

The drought also has specific effects on particular species. Coho salmon require streams that are cool, oxygenated and flowing. As the streams shrink, young salmon can get trapped in puddles, where they are picked off by predators, and adults may not have enough water to swim to spawning grounds.

For insects, it can be a difficult time, particularly for those that feed on moist plants. Not surprisingly, birds that eat insects are therefore more vulnerable than birds that rely on seeds, such as quail.

Coho Salmon (source: SPAWN) Gophers are also relatively happy in a drought because they can survive on bulbs
Coyotes enjoying the sun in Larkspur

What I would call the mud-loving animals usually do OK in a drought. Frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and other amphibians can bury themselves in mud and remain there semi-hibernating for months and, in some cases, even years.

Overall, the diverse reactions of wildlife to extreme changes in their environment reminds us about the power of adaptation.

Should You Set out Water for Wildlife?

Although it is hard to ignore a thirsty or hungry animal, wildlife biologists do not recommend trying to provide them with food and water. For one thing, the food you offer may not be healthy for that animal, and, as noted above, when animals crowd around a source of food or water they are more likely to transmit diseases to each other. 

Additionally, some of the animals we help may become dependent on humans and lose the ability to fend for themselves. They may also lose their fear of people and become aggressive. If you are familiar with the Tennessee Valley trail in Mill Valley, you will have seen the signs warning people not to feed the coyotes because they have become aggressive in their demands for food from hikers. 

  Baby opossums and mother at Wildcare Water guzzler?

So What Can You Do?

You can donate to Wildcare, a wildlife hospital and educational center in San Rafael. WildCare offers medical care to over 3,500 animals a year. They also offer environmental education for adults and children, as well as community engagement, and effective advocacy for the protection of wildlife. It’s also possible to volunteer for Wildcare, which can be a very rewarding experience.

It’s easy to see how much water you are using

Learning about a long-undetected
water leak is a shock

Another thing you can do is get a Flume Water Monitor. It can be hard to conserve when you don’t know how much water you are using for any given activity. For example, if you read my Notebook post on turtles, you may recall that I have an aquatic turtle who lives in a bathtub. How much water does it take when I clean his tub habitat and give him fresh water? I had no idea. 

To find out, I took advantage of MMWD’s 75% discount on the Flume Smart Home Water Monitor. The system includes an app, a “bridge” that sits in your home and connects to the WiFi, and a second device that attaches to your existing water meter and reads its mind as it sends water to your home. The result is that you get minute-by-minute information about your water use.  

I got one recently and can confirm that it really is easy in install. After two weeks of procrastination, I had it up and running in half an hour. 

Among other things, I learned that providing my turtle with clean water consumed 11 gallons of water.

The Flume app has some other fun bells and whistles. Based on a description of your household, they will propose a water budget, and notify you when you are about to exceed it. You can also set your own budget and then harangue family members when you detect that someone took an overly long shower.

Best of all, you can see immediately when you have a leak. This is far better than learning about a leak when your water bill comes and you owe three times the normal amount, as happened to me this spring. 

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! One more thing…The gubernatorial recall election is exceedingly close. Be sure to vote on or before September 14

Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.

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