Marin water supplier limits new landscaping for development

New development projects in most areas of Marin are not providing new landscaping using potable water under the drought restrictions imposed by the Marin urban water district this week.

The board of directors voted Tuesday to approve the ban, which aims to preserve the district’s dwindling reservoir supplies in the Mount Tamalpais watershed amid severe drought conditions. The district estimates that reservoir supplies could be depleted by next summer if the region experiences a similar historic dry winter to last year and conservation efforts do not improve.

Based on the developers’ pending requests for water supply, the district estimates that the new development would increase 42 acres of new drinking water needs over the next year, or approximately 0.1% of the district’s 2020 annual needs of 28,199 acre-feet. It is estimated that the new landscaping restrictions will reduce this new demand by 14 acre-feet, or about 0.05% of the district’s demand in 2020.

Based on a two-year forecast, the district estimates that the new development would add 62 acres of new demand to the system, or about 0.2% of the district’s annual needs in 2020. The ban on potable water-dependent landscaping would save about 15 acres of that amount, or again about 0.05% of the district’s annual requirement.

The regulation that came into force on Wednesday provides for a few exceptions. New landscaping that is irrigated with recycled water is still allowed. Even if a settlement does not have access to recycled water, the builder can still install the landscaping as long as he agrees not to irrigate it with drinking water until the Drought Emergency Ordinance is repealed. However, that second exemption is likely to be removed in August after CEO Cynthia Koehler raised concerns.

“I think I’m not comfortable with a new landscaping that is supposed to be irrigated with drinking water,” said Köhler during the meeting.

Board member Larry Bragman supported Koehler’s proposal, calling it a “bold move” that would encourage greater use of recycled water and rainwater collection basins.

Board members Larry Russell, Jack Gibson, and Monty Schmitt also supported the change, but said such a move would likely require more public notice under the Brown Act. The board plans to revise the ordinance in August to remove this exemption. Köhler abstained and declared that the board could and should adopt the rules immediately.

The landscaping restrictions may be the precursor to more stringent restrictions on new developments. The district staff is currently drafting an ordinance that could suspend most new water connections for developments including housing.

The district estimates that such a suspension would save only 0.1% of the district’s annual drinking water needs over the next year, given the list of projects that may be approved. Critics like Frank Egger, a Fairfax resident and the president of the North Coast Rivers Alliance, deny these numbers and have advocated a complete shutdown of all new plumbing. The current strategies are “not sufficient to deal with the current water scarcity”.

Larkspur resident James Holmes called the landscaping restrictions a “good start,” but said the board will ultimately have to approve a suspension for new water connections.

The landscaping rules are almost identical to those approved by the district’s northern neighbor, the North Marin Water District, for its more than 60,000 Novato customers. Novato developments are allowed to continue as long as the projects do not use drinking water supplies to irrigate their landscape.

Marin Municipal Water District will consider certain exemptions for ongoing projects. One example cited at the board meeting was the ongoing landscaping changes at The Village in the Corte Madera shopping center.

The project includes removing old, diseased trees and replacing them with drought tolerant plants, as well as replacing the overhead sprinkler system with a more efficient drip irrigation system, said the center’s general manager Stan Hoffman. The roots of the trees had also broken irrigation pipes.

All of these changes are designed to reduce irrigation to the center’s landscaping by up to 50%, Hoffman said. The project is about three weeks before completion.

“We will significantly reduce our water usage and use very efficient irrigation that has been reviewed and approved by the water district, including all plant materials,” said Hoffman.

Hoffman said the center will continue to adhere to the district’s water restrictions. Meanwhile, he said he was checking with local recycled water transport companies about irrigation of the mall’s landscape.

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