EBMUD Board Uses Lots of H2O 

As the agency moves ahead with a dam on the Mokelumne River, new documents show that three board members guzzle more than 400 gallons of water a day.

A majority of East Bay MUD board members indicated last week that they plan to plow ahead with a giant new dam on the Mokelumne River. As we reported earlier this year, the dam would nearly double the size of an existing reservoir in the Sierra Foothills and destroy a beautiful section of the Mokelumne that is popular for swimming, fishing, and kayaking. The board also indicated that it will not penalize water wasters with higher fees — even though such a plan would eliminate the need for the dam. And while the board's decision is already sparking outrage among foothills residents and environmentalists, newly released public records may hint at why certain board members are so intent on keeping the dam proposal alive.

According to records supplied by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the biggest proponent of the dam on the agency's board — John Coleman — is a heavy water user who has consumed about 663 gallons of water a day since 2000. That's nearly a quarter of a million gallons of water a year, far more than any other board member has consumed and far more than is used by the typical East Bay resident. Coleman also is the board's staunchest opponent of penalties for water guzzlers.

Contra Costa County public records show that Coleman resides in an upscale section of Walnut Creek in what Zillow.com describes as a five-bedroom, four-bath, 3,500-square-foot home on a large, 26,000-square-foot lot. According to Google satellite photos, he has a large vineyard in his backyard.

Before buying the house in 2004, county records reveal that Coleman lived in an exclusive neighborhood in Lafayette. According to Zillow, it was a four-bedroom, three-bath, 2,500-square-foot house on a 25,500-square-foot lot with a swimming pool. Coleman used even more water when he lived there, averaging about 817 gallons a day from 2000 to 2004. After moving to Walnut Creek, his consumption dropped to about 534 gallons a day from 2005 through 2008.

Technically, Coleman has no legal conflict of interest because his positions affect a wide range of people. But there's no doubt that higher water rates would personally cost him hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year. Clearly, he has a personal interest in making sure that the dam is built and that water rates for heavy users remain relatively low.

In an interview, Coleman said he was no different from other politicians who are personally affected by their votes. "Not any more than members of the Legislature voting on taxes or tax rebates," he said. Coleman said he uses most of his water on his vineyard, which he described as taking up about a third of his yard. It also should be noted that last year, when the drought began in full force and the district implemented a surcharge on water use, his consumption declined to 463 gallons a day, which is a significant cut from previous years, although it's still a lot of water.

Coleman also asserted that he believes he uses about the average amount of water, or maybe less than average, for residents of his district, which includes Alamo, Danville, Lafayette, and portions of San Ramon, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill. But where Coleman ranks compared to his neighbors is difficult to verify because East Bay MUD charges hundreds of dollars for that information. However, according to the agency, the typical homeowner uses less than 200 gallons of water a day.

By contrast, Coleman appears to be among the largest residential water users in the East Bay. Agency officials told this reporter last year that during the summertime, the top 20 percent of the district's residential customers consume in excess of 750 gallons a day and most of them live in Contra Costa County. If Coleman has been using an average of 663 gallons a day year round, then he probably exceeds 750 in summer. In fact, Coleman said that he consumes only about 110 gallons a day during the rainy winter months, so his summertime usage must be way more than 750.

When Eco Watch told some dam opponents about Coleman's heavy water consumption, they said foothills residents will be unhappy about it. "It really angers people up here, when the people who are adamantly pushing for a dam are also using a lot of water," explained Katherine Evatt, a foothills resident and president of the Foothill Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Mokelumne, "especially, if it's for a hobby vineyard."

Evatt argued that although Coleman may be no worse than his neighbors, he should be setting an example as the vice president of a public agency whose primary responsibility is to be a good steward of the environment. "Yes, he's like his constituents in that he's using a lot of water and has extensive landscaping," she said. "But directors of the water agency should be leading the way with efficient water use."

The second largest user on the board is president Doug Linney, who lives in Alameda, and consumed about 448 gallons of water a day from 2000 to 2008, or about 164,000 gallons a year. In contrast to Coleman, Linney said at the East Bay MUD board meeting last week that he is strongly leaning toward opposing the dam when it comes up for an official vote in October. He also questioned several of the assertions by East Bay MUD staff about why the agency needs the dam. In addition, he has expressed support in the past for steeper water rates for heavy water users.

But the third largest water consumer on the board is Katy Foulkes, who lives in Piedmont, and like Coleman, supports the dam and has opposed some efforts in the past to penalize water guzzlers. According to agency records, Foulkes consumed an average of 440 gallons of water a day from 2000 to 2008, which works out to about 161,000 gallons a year. According to county records, Foulkes, who represents Piedmont and Montclair, along with Moraga, Orinda, and El Sobrante and portions of Pinole and Richmond, lives not far from Piedmont Avenue in what Zillow.com describes as a three-bedroom, 1.5-bath, 2,500-square-foot home on an 11,200-square-foot lot. According to Google satellite mapping, her backyard has a large, green lawn, surrounded by shade trees.

She said she also uses most of her water in the summer. "I do have a large yard," she said. "The lot is over 10,000 square feet." Foulkes also said that although she and her husband live alone in the house, she often is visited by her grandchildren who bathe there. It should be noted that Foulkes also lowered her water consumption last year, using 369 gallons a day.

Foulkes doesn't support the dam proposal as strongly as Coleman. At last week's agency board meeting, she said she would be willing to go along with a smaller-sized dam that would destroy less of the river. And in an interview, she said she would back steeper rates for heavy water users, but only if residents east of the hills in hotter climates get a larger allotment of water before having to pay fines. "It's not fair if you let water wasters living on the cooler side of the hills get away with it," she argued. Coleman, by contrast, said he would oppose any plan that charges his constituents higher water rates.

It was impossible to determine the water usage of several of the other board members, including Andy Katz, who represents Berkeley and North Oakland, because they live in apartments or condos, so the agency doesn't track their individual consumption rates.

Last week's East Bay MUD board meeting was billed as a workshop to review alternatives to building the dam, including establishing a partnership with Contra Costa County Water District on its plans to expand Los Vaqueros reservoir. The board also was to analyze whether to impose steep rates for water guzzlers as other agencies have done throughout the West to lessen consumption. But in reality, the board meeting turned out to be a four-hour spin session, with agency staff and consultants doing their best to lay out arguments for why the Mokelumne should be dammed.

Dave Blau, an agency consultant who strongly supports the dam proposal, led the meeting and began by describing how population growth in the East Bay over the next three decades could make the dam necessary. Blau said that after talking to East Bay cities and hearing their growth estimates, his team determined that the agency's water demand would increase to 280 million gallons a day by 2040. But Linney immediately undercut that assertion by pointing out that it took nearly twenty years for water demand to recover after the last drought and recession in the early 1990s. In fact, a chart Blau prepared showed that water demand peaked in the late 1980s at about 215 million gallons a day and didn't recover to that figure until 2007. Blau also was forced to admit that their interviews with cities occurred before the recession and the housing collapse.

But that's not the only out-of-date information that the agency's staff and consultants were relying on. General Manager Dennis Diemer admitted during the meeting that water consumption this year had dropped dramatically and is on track to be about 190 million gallons a day — or about 24 million gallons a day less than expected — because of the recession and drought. Nonetheless, the agency's staff and consultants had failed to adjust their projections downward to account for this drop. As a result, the estimate that the agency will need 280 million gallons a day appears to be way off, and instead of justifying a need for the dam, Blau's presentation seriously undermined it.

Blau then critiqued higher water rates for heavy users, arguing that they won't work in the East Bay. He said his team had analyzed the steep rate structure in Irvine Ranch, California, a model that the Sierra Club had suggested the district examine more closely. Blau said his team determined that the district would lose money and fail to conserve water if it copied Irvine Ranch. However, he did not reveal that their analysis apparently only examined homeowners who don't use much water and didn't look at the effects of Irvine's model on water guzzlers.

Blau also criticized a proposal to team up on the Los Vaqueros reservoir expansion in eastern Contra Costa County, saying it would cost too much money. He said that because Los Vaqueros water is not as clean as the water that comes from the Mokelumne, it would force the district to spend tens of millions of dollars upgrading its water treatment plants. But Blau failed to disclose that a new 400-foot dam on the Mokelumne may cost $1 billion or more to build. And after a question from Katz, Diemer indicated that the district had not looked seriously at alternative water supplies it could receive from Contra Costa Water District that wouldn't require water treatment plant upgrades.

Judging from public comments, Blau's presentation failed to assuage any of the dam's opponents. Several dozen environmentalists and foothills residents showed up for the meeting, and argued forcefully against the dam. No one, other than agency staff and its consultants, spoke for it.

In fact, almost every public agency near the dam has come out against it, even though several of them are dominated by Republicans. Conservatives worry that the dam will destroy the area's growing tourist industry, while liberals and progressives also oppose it on environmental grounds. Indeed, key opponents include both the California Democratic Party and well-known GOP Congressman Dan Lungren, whose district includes the proposed dam. As Chris Wright, executive director of the Foothill Conservancy noted at the meeting: "Whenever you have Lungren and the Democrats on the very same page ... it's unusual."


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