Swap this year and the period of Marin County’s worst-ever drought in 1976-77 and it might be hard to tell the difference.
Water suppliers restricting use to conserve reservoirs. Ranchers preparing to truck in water as creeks and wells dry up. Talks of a potential water pipeline. And questions about the resiliency of the county’s water supply.
During the 1976-77 drought, the Marin Municipal Water District was within 120 days of running out of water. The county’s savior was a 6-mile pipeline over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to pump in water from the East Bay.
Jack Gibson, who has been on the district’s board of directors since 1994, was in his early 30s in 1977, living in Sleepy Hollow and commuting to a law firm in San Francisco. The crisis was a wake-up call to the county, he said, and one that prompted his interest in Marin’s water system and a greater collective focus on conservation.
“The water district, at that time a generation ago, simply had not done much preparation for a drought — in fact, quite the reverse,” Gibson said. “The attitude was more water means more growth. So for years before the drought, there had been a reluctance to tap into any other sources.”
Much has changed since then, including the addition of new and expanded reservoirs, connections to the larger Russian River watershed and technological improvements on water efficiency and reuse. Yet district staff are now preparing for a worst-case scenario should next winter continue to be dry, including the potential of another pipeline across the bridge.
The county has had two dismal rainy seasons in a row, with only 20 inches of rain falling this past winter. While this drought might surpass the 1976-77 crisis, district leaders say continued water conservation should be the primary focus rather than finding new sources such as through desalination.
“We can make ourselves more resilient and find other sources of supply other than simply going out and finding new drops of water to add to the system,” said Cynthia Koehler, president of the district board.
Before the drought of 1976 began, the district relied solely on rainfall to refill its six reservoirs — compared to seven now. The district served about 170,000 customers at the time, compared to 191,000 currently.
There were attempts to boost supply, but they were highly unpopular as the county resisted growth, especially after developers tried to convert open space in the Marin Headlands and parts of West Marin into new cities and resorts.
In 1971, a measure to build an aqueduct from the Russian River to the district was rejected by 89% of voters. Two years later, 65% of voters rejected Measure E, a $7.6 million bond measure to connect the district to the Russian River. In 1973, the district approved a moratorium on new meter connections.
But after the winter of 1975-1976 brought in about 24 inches of rain and the district began banning sprinkler use and increasing rates, the…