Sierra Water Grab 

East Bay MUD wants to build a new dam and ruin a scenic stretch of the Mokelumne River because it is not willing to make its suburban customers conserve water.

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But East Bay MUD has never studied whether increased water penalties would actually result in job losses or businesses leaving town. Moreover, Stuart Flashman, an Oakland attorney working with Sierra Club in opposition to the new Mokelumne River dam, said other water agencies that have adopted steep pricing plans have had huge success. Irvine Ranch Water District in Orange County, for example, adopted a steep pricing structure during the drought of the early 1990s, but, unlike East Bay MUD, kept it in place. Irvine Ranch employs a five-tier system in which the heaviest water users pay nearly ten times per gallon more than the lightest users. Since adopting the plan in 1991, average water use per residential customer has dropped about 13 percent in Irvine, according to a 2007 report from the agency.

A similar four-tier system exists in Tucson, Arizona, where the heaviest users pay nearly six times more per gallon than the lightest. In a 2001 report by Western Resource Advocates, an environmental nonprofit, Tucson had the steepest tiered system among ten Southwestern cities surveyed, and the lowest average customer usage. East Bay MUD, by contrast, has a three-tier system in which the biggest water users pay only about one-and-a-half times more per gallon as the smallest. Katz attempted to get a penalizing fourth tier approved last year, but failed.

Flashman argues that the success of other agencies proves that East Bay MUD should have seriously studied a steep pricing plan, also known as conservation pricing, in its EIR. And he indicated that if the agency approves the dam proposal without such a study, then he'll recommend that Sierra Club file a lawsuit. "They could significantly reduce their need for water by adopting a conservation rate structure," he said. "It's pretty simple. You change the pricing, you change the usage."

At this point, however, it looks like the East Bay MUD board plans to go ahead with the dam proposal and avoid conservation pricing. Even board member Doug Linney, who represents Alameda and San Lorenzo, along with parts of Oakland and San Leandro, and whom environmentalists hope will side with them, would not commit to opposing the dam during an interview last week. He would only say that he would "consider it." He did say, however, that he prefers a steep pricing structure. "I think pricing is the best way to manage your demand," he said. "I'm also troubled that we're asking people in the Sierra Foothills to give up their pristine river so that we can have swimming pools and lawns."

Katz, meanwhile, also questions the assumption by agency engineers that they'll need the extra 50 million gallons of water a day from the Mokelumne because water demand will increase by 2 percent a year over the next thirty years. Katz pointed out that the estimated 2 percent increase far outpaces the population increase estimates from the Association of Bay Area Governments. In 2005, at the height of the East Bay housing boom, the association estimated an annual population increase of just .79 percent, less than half of what East Bay MUD is projecting during the worst housing crisis in decades, Katz said. "There's got to be problems with how the math was calculated," he said of his own agency's estimate.

But even if Linney and Katz vote against the dam, environmentalists may still come up short. Board members Katy Foulkes, Lesa McIntosh, and Bill Patterson often end up voting with Coleman. It's particularly puzzling for Patterson and McIntosh, because he represents almost all of East Oakland and she represents almost all of Richmond. As a result, a steep pricing plan would least affect their constituents because, like Katz' and Linney's constituents, they live west of the hills, in cooler climates, and thus tend to use much less water. Patterson and McIntosh also represent a significant number of low-income residents who tend to live in houses with small lots or in apartments, and so use much less water than the average. Foulkes, meanwhile, represents Moraga, Orinda, Piedmont, and most of the Oakland hills. Foulkes, Patterson, and McIntosh did not return phone calls for this story.

As for seventh board member Frank Mellon, who represents Castro Valley and portions of Hayward, San Leandro, and San Ramon, he sometimes votes with Katz and Linney, but is a wild card. Last year, for example, he voted with Katz and Linney to increase mandatory water rationing from 10 to 15 percent in the 2040 water plan, but they were ultimately overruled by Coleman, Foulkes, McIntosh, and Patterson.

Consequently, some environmentalists believe the only way they'll be able to protect the Mokelumne is to convince the federal government to declare the section of the river above Pardee Reservoir "wild and scenic." If that were to happen, then East Bay MUD would be prohibited from turning it into a lake. Such a declaration requires an act of Congress. Wright, of the Foothill Conservancy, and Evatt and Bell, who sit on the conservancy's board, hope to convince Congressman George Miller of Contra Costa County of their cause. Miller has a strong record on environmental issues and represents part of East Bay MUD's service area. The Foothill contingent also is excited about the candidacy of Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, who is running to replace Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher of Contra Costa County. Garamendi is originally from Mokelumne Hill and is a big supporter of the river.

Late last week, Coleman also floated the idea of moving the new dam downstream, closer to Camanche Reservoir. That way the newly enlarged Pardee might not flood Middle Bar Reach or the section of the Mokelumne above Highway 49. Coleman made the informal proposal as part of his last-minute attempt to change the minds of public officials in the Sierra foothills. Evatt said such a plan, if adopted, would be persuasive. "If they don't inundate the river, it would eliminate local opposition," she said.

But she noted that there is no indication that this new proposal will go anywhere. East Bay MUD's official plans still have the new dam flooding the Mokelumne above the existing reservoir. Moreover, some environmentalists point out that wherever the new dam is built, it will take up to 50 million gallons of water a day from the Mokelumne, thereby further starving the Delta of much-needed water.

The Delta has been under assault for years, and is now near collapse. This year, California will not have a local salmon season for the second year in a row, in part because of water diversions from the Delta to agriculture and urban water uses. "The Delta is dying a death from a thousand cuts, and this would be another one," said John Beuttler, conservation director for the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance. "It's like we have a patient in triage, and they want to take away more oxygen."

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