Fire and Water

A few weeks ago, on a wet and stormy night (at last!) Carpe Diem West was back at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, this time focusing on wildfire and water.

That evening I was joined by two colleagues – Jennifer Montgomery, the forest-health lead for California, and Marguerite Young, East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) Board President.

With the help of great questions from the audience, we talked about what California is doing to protect communities and watersheds, how EBMUD is protecting the source of its water supply, and we touched on stories of what other western states and utilities are doing.

For this issue of Confluence, we’re presenting some of the highlights from that evening. As always, your comments and other smart fire/water supply protection stories are most welcomed – please email us!

Finally, a thanks to Ann Clark, the Chair of the Environment Program at the Commonwealth Club for inviting us again to present and for her always warm and gracious hosting. 

December, 2019


Jennifer Montgomery
Director, California’s Forest Management Task Force



Kimery Wiltshire
President and CEO, Carpe Diem West



Marguerite Young
Board President, East Bay Municpial Utility District



Fire & Water

We’ve all inhaled a lot of wildfire smoke over the past few years in West. Fueled by a rapidly warming climate, these catastrophic wildfires are burning down our communities, are hard on our physical and mental health and can play havoc with our water supply.

What are drinking water utilities and the State of California doing to address these wicked problems? We’ll look at the actions a large Bay Area water utility is taking to protect the “green” and built infrastructure that delivers your water. We’ll hear from the State’s forest health lead on the focus of their work. And, we’ll talk about a few examples of steps other communities around the West are taking.

What’s the State of California doing to protect forest health?

Jennifer:  I live on Donner Summit, so I’m a resident of the WUI or the Wildland-Urban Interface. So, the questions around forest management and how do we manage for fire and watershed health are very close to me.

There’s a number of the things that California is doing in conjunction with a lot of partners. We have a project that I worked on when I was a county supervisor in Placer County, working with the Placer County Water Agency, Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, a number of other nonprofit and environmental partners, and with the County of Placer called the French Meadows Project.

All of us around that partnership table recognized that if we do good science-based forestry work in this 28,000 acre watershed before we have a fire, that watershed will be much more resilient to fire. And it will be much more productive as a water source.

On the state level, we’ve developed something called the Watershed Improvement Program. It’s one of the first science-based watershed programs that the state put together. And the really good news about it is while it’s focused on the Sierra Nevada, the information here can be used to extrapolate to any other watershed in California.

The state is now using this program, which is a model for how we best manage forests for community resilience, for water supply, for recreation and tourism, for land conservation, our economy and for the plants and animals in our forests.

Some of the ways that we are doing that is through a program funded through the state, which is our Watershed Coordinator Program. We started the Watershed Coordinator Program a few years ago, and it is my hope that as we move forward into the next year’s budget cycle, we’re going to see more dollars associated with that to keep the Watershed Coordinator Program up and running, but also to enhance it. Right now, it’s in about eight different watersheds in California. I would love to see that expanded to every watershed in California.

What we’re doing is providing grant money to local people on the ground, people who have existing knowledge of their watersheds, who can help us plan and implement projects for better watershed health.

The other project that we’re working on is called the Regional Fire and Forest Capacity Program which, in turn, also works very closely with the Watershed Coordinators.

The idea is that we identify people locally, regionally in their own communities who have experience, who have capacity to help build and lead science-based restoration programs, we give them grant money and they work with other people in their communities. We ask them to work with other people in their communities to help build larger regional capacity. The RFFCP is focused on fire and also on watershed protection.

Who does East Bay Municipal Water District serve, and where does the water come from?

Marguerite: We serve about 1.5 million people in Alameda and Contra Costa County, as well as industries like Chevron and the growing marijuana cannabis cultivation industry in the state. East Bay MUD is the second-largest retail water utility in California just behind Los Angeles.

About 90% of the East Bay’s water comes from the Mokelumne River. So, if you ski at Kirkwood, you’ve ridden our river, you’ve ridden your drinking water. We go all the way from the top of Alpine Summit and Alpine County, down to Pardee Reservoir, and then 90 miles by gravity to the communities we serve in the East Bay.

We only own and manage about 3% of the watershed land directly. So, we rely on partnerships and good relationships with counties, and water agencies, and the Forest Service, and BLM to protect our watershed.

The Mokelumne River works really hard as most rivers in California do. In addition to supplying folks with drinking water both in the foothills as well as in our service area, it irrigates fields in the San Joaquin Valley and vineyards in the foothills. We generate 185,000 megawatts of electricity each year, and PG&E operates seven of its most profitable hydroelectric facilities on the Mokelumne above our reservoir.

One thing that most people don’t know is that our river and the management that we do on it is responsible for 43% of the commercial salmon fishery in the state of California. And 35% of the recreational salmon fishery in California. Given that flows from our river are just 2% of the flows coming out of the Sierra, that’s a fairly remarkable statistic.

And lastly, the river is an incredible scenic and recreational resource and has just been designated again as a Wild and Scenic river. So, it’s a resource that we are dedicated to protecting both because we want to maintain our water quality, but also because it’s an incredible natural resource that we feel compelled to protect as part of our heritage.

What about wildfire in the Mokelumne watershed?

Marguerite: The changing wildfire fire landscape is something we’re spending a lot of time thinking about both locally because our watershed is right in the wildland interface and in the upper watershed.

Obviously, increased runoff and erosion from charred landscapes increase sediments and organic matter that end up flowing downriver into our treatment plants and cause taste and odor problems as well as other treatment challenges. They can impact our water quality and can obviously also be detrimental to fish habitat and health.

We’ve been pretty fortunate up until now. We had a big fire in 2015, the Butte Fire, which burned about 10% of our watershed only a few miles upstream from our Pardee Reservoir. The impacts could have been quite damaging but a couple of things mitigated that.

Some of the forest treatment that we had done prevented the wildfire from expanding beyond where it did. And our staff and others in the community and our partners throughout the watershed were quick to do post-remediation efforts. And we lucked out – it didn’t rain for six weeks after the fire was over, and so we were able to get initial growth back and that really helped reduce the amount of sediments going down into the river. But we know that we were lucky and that we might not be as lucky next time.

Other ways wildfire impacts your watershed?

Marguerite: Wildfire impairs the ability of our watershed to act like a sponge. There is data to support that forest treatment and meadow restoration, etc., can improve the water holding capacity of soils and act like a bank for us. And since we’re already losing snowpack anything we can do to make our upper watershed lands work harder to provide water supply is going to help us in the future.

Then there’s the new impact –  power shutoffs. PG&Es precautionary power shutoffs to prevent fires because they happen in the most fire-prone areas. For us, locally, it meant that our upper watershed communities were impacted by the power shut-offs, but our service area was impacted in ways that people may not realize because our water service never got interrupted. Forty-percent of our pumping plants and two-thirds of our water treatment facilities were impacted. That’s more than 200 actual sites in our watershed.

It cost us $1.1 million, just for the first event, just for the October event to keep the water flowing in our district, and that doesn’t include our fuel costs for running diesel generators. And it doesn’t include the greenhouse gas emissions from running diesel generators to keep the water running, not just for our customers but also for firefighting. The power was being shut off in facilities where the water is needed to fight fires because it’s in the wildland interface.

And finally, wildfire has impacted our employees in several ways. We’ve all inhaled wildfire smoke, but imagine being out digging trenches or having to cover several miles of terrain reading meters in the midst of 300 parts-per-million particulate PM 2.5 air quality. So, we’ve had to adjust our work rules. We had employees in Butte Fire lose homes. And we’ve dispatched staff to respond to fire recovery efforts like the campfire.

Other steps is EBMUD taking?

Marguerite: We’re doing long-term planning for more power shut-off events we’ve been told are coming, as you all know, for at least another 10 years of it. We started working on our plans for the power shutoffs a year ago and that’s why we were so well prepared.

We’re also over the long-term upgrading our treatment plants. You know, the results of climate change are we’re not sure we’ll be able to get what we need all the way from the . So, we have agreements in place or contracts in place to take water from other sources. We’ve made agreements with Placer County Water Agency, and Yuba and others and rice farmers, in the Sacramento Valley to supplement our supplies during drought. We’re also upgrading our treatment facility so that we could treat water that in the really unfortunate event of our Mokelumne supplies being degraded, either temporarily or more permanently. Finally, we’re looking at our workforce and what kind of demands we need to put protections in, and changes we need to put in place to make sure they’re in a good place on fire.

Re-thinking Wildfire – it’s not just about trees

Jennifer: It’s always important to point out that when we talk about wildfire and watersheds we have a perception that somehow our watersheds are these pristine environments without any other things than we would expect in nature. Because we’ve had so much conversion of forested lands and other natural lands to subdivisions like where I live on Donner Summit we’re seeing wildfire where we’ve never thought we’d see it. When we have what we characterize as wildfires, these are also house fires – on a massive scale. And it’s cars burning up. And it’s toxins getting into those watersheds.

So, it’s more than just an issue of post-wildfire sedimentation, and figuring out how to make things not taste bad. It’s a question of recognizing that we need to start thinking very differently about what we mean when we say wildfire and what we picture. I think the Paradise fire [Camp Fire 2018] is probably a perfect example of that.

What they discovered in Paradise was a lot of the pipes in that community were plastic, because plastic is less expensive than metal. When the fire came through last year, they found places where the plastic piping melted into the ground. So, in addition to having to pull all that piping out and replace it, they now have had some issues with soil contamination because that all leached into the soil. Every time the rains come through, you’re going to get this microscopic but impactful leaching of those plastic chemicals into the water, into the ground, and then out into our drinking supply.

So, one of the things that communities are thinking about is how do you harden the infrastructure of the existing infrastructure? It is not cheap. And a lot of the communities that are grappling with this are rural communities that don’t have a lot of money. You know, they may have put their water systems in 20, 30, 100 years ago. And they have people generally in many of these areas on fixed incomes, people with disabilities, people who can’t figure out how to fund the necessary work that needs to be done to replace entire water systems to prepare for that next fire.

How are we going to pay for this restoration work?

Jennifer: I think that moving forward we’re going to see more dollars. We have about $2 million leftover in our program’s budget, but as yet unallocated, for these community programs.

The other thing that I’m pushing very strongly for is some additional dollars for upper watershed restoration. We have a lot of dollars focused on fire and forest management per se, work that Cal Fire does. What we haven’t focused a lot on in the past here in California is upper watershed management, meadow restoration, and stream restoration as well. And you know, those are the water arteries, those are the lifeblood of California.

I know that the state of California and the feds have some opportunities for grant dollars. I always encourage cities, counties, special districts like East Bay MUD, to really be on the lookout for that and figure out how to be ready for it. One thing that I always encourage people to do around trying to protect their communities, whether it’s from fire, or the after impacts of fire, is identify somebody in your community who’s a good grant writer, and get them lined up and ready to go. So that if you see something that makes sense for your community, you’re ready to jump on it.

Marguerite: In 2000, we thought that PG&E was going to put their  hydro system on the chopping block during their last bankruptcy. So, this group organized in order to make a bid to take over those PG&E assets. It didn’t turn out that way, but in the process, we found reason to work together to develop, and protect, and steward the assets of the region together. And that’s now resulted in this watershed conservation partnership and work that we’re doing.

So, around that time, we helped establish the Upper Mokelumne River Watershed Authority as a joint powers authority with the counties of Amador, Calaveras, and Alpine as well as all of the water agencies that are on the Mokelumne. That includes upcountry water agencies, but also some of the ones down below as well. We work cooperatively to do water resource planning for the region, facilitate forest fuels reduction, and restoration projects. And to raise money and leverage state and federal funds.

It’s been quite successful. To date, we’ve treated 4,000 acres out of the 14,000 acres that we’ve identified as being impaired and there are more plans in the works. Most of that takes place in the publicly-owned Forest Service and BLM lands. On our own watershed, we allocate about $650,000 each year to improving our wildlands and forest health. It’s about equally split between our upper and lower watershed.

A path forward?

Kimery: What we’ve been seeing over the past decade across the West are downstream water utilities investing in restoring watersheds upstream – the primary sources of their  source of their drinking water supply. And this is a huge shift as historically water utilities have said, “Taking care of those forests is the Forest Service’s job!”

Of course, the two things have happened with the Forest Service.

The first, is that they do not have the budget that they used to have, which is a huge problem. But the other thing is that these fires are just getting bigger, hotter, faster, larger, and they don’t have the funding to do the kind of restoration work that needs to happen at the same time they’re putting these fires out.

It costs on average $800 to restore an acre of forest land – and there are hundreds of thousands of acres across the American West that need to be brought back to health.

To go to scale we need a science-based public works program in this country – an employment program, a technology program – a massive forest health effort. Something similar to Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration back in the Depression, in terms of really addressing the health of these forests and the health of our water, and the health of our lungs, and the health of our communities on the scale that has to happen.

We need to do this together – in partnership with all the players helping to make decisions – because in the time of climate change there aren’t any solo acts.

Marguerite Young was elected to the East Bay Municipal Utility District Board of Directors in 2014 to represent Ward 3, which includes the Alameda County city of Piedmont and a substantial portion of Oakland. Ward 3 also includes the Contra Costa County city of Orinda, town of Moraga, community of El Sobrante and portions of Pinole and Richmond. Young is Corporate Responsibility Director and Senior Policy Analyst for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Capital Stewardship Program.Young has been active in water quality and water policy issues for decades. Young was co-chair of the CALFED Bay-Delta Program’s Water Quality Committee which instigated regional cooperation among water agencies to address drinking water quality issues related to delta water supplies. As California Director of Clean Water Action her work also included service as an appointed member of California’s Source Water Assessment Advisory Committee, the EPA Federal Advisory Committee on the Multiple Disinfection By-product Rule, and California’s Recycled Water Task Force. She serves on the Board of Directors of Clean Water Action and Carpe Diem West.

Jennifer Montgomery – Montgomery has served as the 5th District Supervisor on the Placer County Board of Supervisors since 2009. From 2000 to 2008, she owned her own business, “Three Sheets to the Wind”, which provided property management services to people in the Donner Summit area. From 1999 to 2000, she worked at the Sierra Business Council. 


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