Water Issues at Town Hall

TOWN HALL WRESTLES WITH WATER ISSUES  Jan. 19, 2014  By Madge Strong  

     The hot topic of water drew a crowd of over 80 people to a Town Hall meeting on January 19th. There were brief presentations by Scott Herman of City of Willits water and Robert Melluish of Brooktrails utilities, additional information from Willits City Manager Adrienne Moore, followed by lively discussion from many participants.   

    The initial presentations, and answers to later questions, helped clarify the existing situation in the City, Brooktrails, and Pine Mountain.   

    City of Willits: The City of Willits has an estimated 192 acre-feet, or about 100 days worth of water still in its reservoirs, thanks to significant reductions in use and limited recharge from springs. The City has imposed a Stage V emergency that limits use to 150 gallons per day (gpd) per residence of up to 4 occupants, and requires commercial & industrial users to reduce by 35% from last year’s levels. (Let the City know if you have more than 4 residents or other special circumstances.) In the next bills, usage will be noted in gallons as well as “units.” (A unit equals 748 gallons.)  

     The City is now developing an emergency water supply system that involves using two existing city-owned wells (Elias and Park), piping that water to a temporary water treatment facility near the Park well, and blending that water with reservoir water. It’s estimated that system can extend existing supplies by about 3 months, with continued water conservation measures. Council member Bruce Burton said using the Boy Scouts’ Wente Lake seemed more challenging (in cost, timing, and legal questions) than this approach; also Wente Lake is already low.   

    There were questions about the level of arsenic and other toxic elements, especially in the Park well. The wells have recently been tested, and the results will be posted on the City’s website, available at City Hall, and reported at next Council meeting. The treatment facility will need to assure that the “blended” water at least meets State drinking water standards. Some were concerned that the State standard (10 parts per billion) is too weak to reduce the health hazard of arsenic. No level is safe. Ms. Moore said the decision on treatment cost & effectiveness would likely be made by City Council.   

    During the current water emergency, no new hook-ups are allowed. If that eases off with rain, any new hook-ups over 4 residential units (or equivalent) may apply, but permit approvals would have to come to the City Council.   

    Brooktrails: Brooktrails is at the highest risk of totally losing water supply of any development in the county. It has an estimated 75 acre-feet, or about 80 days of water supply in its reservoirs, assuming the now-imposed conservation measures limiting use to 110gpd per residence.   

     Brooktrails is working diligently on correcting leaks throughout the system. (Sometimes it is better to hold off on a small leak, as repair then requires flushing the system, using more water than is saved.) A significant leak at Lake Emily was repaired a few years ago.   

     Pine Mountain: Robert Melluish reports that Pine Mountain is not in really bad shape, though conservation is also urged there, with a limit of 110 gpd per residence.   

     Both the City and Brooktrails are monitoring, warning and working with any customers using excessive water. In most cases people will voluntarily fix leaks or take other corrective actions. If necessary, however, Brooktrails can put water restrictors on the line, and the City can issue fines and even impose jail time.   

     In addition to the information noted above, comments from the public raised issues of concern and lots of ideas on how to conserve water.   

     Freeway Bypass Water Use: This was a concern raised by a number of speakers. Caltrans has stated the project used 4 million gallons of water last year for dust control and compaction (though that estimate may be low). Most of that was from several valley wells, with a smaller amount coming from the City’s treated waste water. This coming season, water usage for the project could be higher, as the season will be longer and cement requires much larger amounts of water. This information should be subject to public review. It’s “our water, our survival.”   

    Some questioned the wisdom of using City “waste water” – if sprayed on fields it recharges the underground aquifer, whereas used on the freeway, it mostly evaporates. And over-use of well water may impact other valley wells (including the City’s). Another issue with draw-down of wells is subsidence. In the San Joaquin Valley, some places have collapsed by 30 feet or more.   

    A related concern was the impact of the 55,000 wick-drains installed in the wetlands on recharge to the valley’s underground aquifer as well their effect on nearby wells. A question was also raised about whether toxics may be leaching from fill dirt into the aquifer and streams.   

    A final issue regarding the bypass project was whether the extensive use of Main St. for heavy trucks carrying fill through town may have caused damage to underground water mains. Mr. Melluish said mains are about 4 feet deep and are designed to withstand that kind of heavy traffic. The City has recently upgraded most of the old mains and has plans to replace the section north of Commercial to Casteel in the coming year. With an aging water system, however, underground leaks are a challenge – both in the City and Brooktrails.   

    Fire Danger: Several noted that the drought is simultaneously creating severe fire dangers, as the forests are so dry. Will we have enough water to fight fires? Mr. Melluish noted there are some emergency water sources, and also the Brooktrails fire department is taking the initiative to impose a burn moratorium, to reduce the risks and also not waste precious water on even controlled fires. The whole county should follow suit.  “Big Picture”: A number of people spoke in more philosophical terms about our human relationship to water. Water isn’t the problem; we, our lifestyle, and corporate users are. Water isn’t just a “resource” – it’s our lifeblood. There’s no such thing as “waste” water; all water recycles. Water belongs to all: plants, fish, trees as well as human beings.   

    On-Going Measures: Education for children about water use was suggested. Ms. Moore said the City has already sent some good information for use in school curricula. Adults also need more education on simple, effective conservation measures: put announcements on radio 24/7 about how to save; frequent news articles; write letters-to-the-editor; notices with the water bills.   

    One person noted it’s hard to expect the water providers (e.g. the City and Brooktrails) to promote long-term conservation, since their operating revenue depends on water use. She also said we need to address the water use of pot growers, including illegal stream diversions. She supports Supervisor Pinches’ effort to renegotiate how much water Sonoma County is taking.  Councilmember Madge Strong said we need to be prepared for long term weather changes and seek long-term community-wide solutions; conservation must become a way of life. City could be pro-active, for example try for a grant to install low-flow toilets and showers. The County may be adopting the PACE program, which would enable financing for property owners; the City could join this program.   

    Other suggestions for significant measures that could be implemented over the mid- or long-term included: * Installing water catchment systems with cisterns for storage. (If cisterns aren’t legal, they should be, with safeguards against back-flows into the domestic water lines.) * Installing greywater systems: These are legal in the City, which has a list of certified installers. * There are water recirculation and filtration systems in use in Sweden where shower water can be recycled. Many places in the U.S. have installed reuse systems, which are more than paid back from water savings. Why not such systems for the new hospital and the college campus?   

    Immediate Water Conservation Measures: One critical recommendation was, “Do not run water as a way to avoid pipes freezing!” People should instead insulate their pipes. Insulation material is available at local building supply stores, and it’s worth getting the better quality stuff. In fact, consider wrapping pipes with heat tape, which uses very little electricity.   

    Seemingly small leaks can also cause major water loss. About ¼ of toilets are leaky, often unnoticed. Put some blue food coloring in the tank and see if any shows up in the bowl. Also check your meter: it probably has a leak detector in the blue area you can read, or if the meter is spinning when you’re not using water, you have a leak. Put new washers on any dripping faucets.   

    The major domestic water users are: toilets, showers, and laundry. Sprinkled throughout the evening were many other excellent ideas for quick ways to cut back water use. Here is a brief summary: * For private wells: Install a $30 gauge that shows how much pressure is being pumped and what the water level is in the well. * For toilets: Low flush attachment can be bought ($20) and easily installed. Easiest is “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Flush the toilet with water collected from the shower or rinse water. (Pour the bucket directly into the toilet bowl, not in the tank.) Another is pee in a bottle, sprinkle that on your compost pile. * For showers: a $10 plumbing part can allow shutting off flow while you’re soaping up, similar to a hose wand. * Bathroom sink: turn off water while brushing teeth or shaving. * Wait for full loads for either dish or laundry washing.   

    Moderator of the Town Hall Carlin Diamond urged people to send their great ideas to the newspapers to be published for all to see. She announced that the next Town Hall will be March 16th. For information contact Carlin at 459-4850.