Marin’s Desalination – a Story of Stakeholder Involvement

This post is part of a series on Stakeholder Engagement sponsored by Jurat Software.

By Susan Hopp

Water is the basis for all life – we drink it, we clean with it, we grow our food with it, we manufacture most things with it.  Yet it has been taken for granted in our modern western society.  Even today, as we become more conscious of dwindling supplies in the face of growing, usually mindless demand, the problem’s solution is typically framed in increasing supply – at all costs.  This was certainly the case in Marin County, CA in 2009 when the Marin Municipal Water Board voted to back the Water District’s (MMWD) proposal to go forward with funding for the construction of a desalination plant on San Francisco Bay.  Necessary, they said, in case of a future drought.

Similar to Water Boards across the State, the Marin Water Board governs the Water District’s management and operations and is composed of five people elected to serve four-year overlapping terms.  Marin County, one of the naturally wettest parts of California, home to one of the last standing strands of old growth Redwoods, and long a bastion of innovative political thought, with a history of counter-culture beginnings, seemed an unlikely place to spearhead desalination into Northern California’s mix of water sources.  To many Marin County residents, the idea was unacceptable.  Moreover, it seemed inconceivable that these five elected Board members would make a decision with such widespread environmental implications for Marin County’s 250,000 citizens without asking the citizens to weigh in.

What were the concerns?

  • Drinking water quality and the ability to monitor toxins accumulated over decades in SF Bay Water sediment.
  • Introducing a costly energy-guzzling solution as energy prices and concern for GHG emissions increases.
  • Damage to SF Bay ecology.
  • Construction price tag of >$100 million.
  • Lack of regard for the demand-offsetting impact of aggressive conservation measures.

Yes, there were a few opportunities for stakeholder engagement.  At a June 2009 meeting, the Board heard a presentation of a commissioned study by the Food&Water Watch organization, that with great quantitative detail asserted the marginal cost of conservation measures to be less than half the least cost estimate of an acre-foot of water through desalination.  In the opinion of many attendees, it was not taken seriously.  The Water Board seemed to take an attitude of “Desalination or Bust!”  In an August 2009 meeting, approximately eighty citizens publicly spoke on the Board’s pending decision to go forward with the Desalination Plant.  Except for three, citizens were united and gave impassioned pleas to stop the desalination expenditures.  Nevertheless, the Board promptly voted to fund desalination…

Out of this perceived disregard, a more organized and powerful stakeholder group emerged, the Marin Water Coalition.  MWC members mounted a ballot initiative for the November 2010 election to force a public vote before a desalination plant could be constructed.  Additionally, a group of citizens funded a lawsuit to challenge the Desalination plant’s EIR (Environmental Impact Report).  While the lawsuit is still pending, MWC was successful in gathering 18,000 signatures; the ballot initiative passed, and no desalination plant will be built in Marin County without the approval of the voters.

What does all this say about stakeholder management?

The duality of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ stakeholder management did not really figure into this story – at best, MMWD and the Water Board gave lip service to engaging with stakeholders.  They showed little interest in any voice that would take them away from the runway to desalination.  The real lesson, then, belongs to the responsibility of the stakeholder.  That responsibility is to insure the voice of the stakeholder is heard.

In Marin County, desalination touched on values of health, environmental attitudes, and economic pragmatism. Enough citizens – stakeholders – felt an urgency that what was at stake could not be silenced.

For more information:

Pacific Water Institute, Desalination with a Grain of Salt, A California Perspective:


Susan Hopp, a Presidio Graduate School MBA, is a Marin County resident and Co-Chair of the Marin Water Coalition.

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4 responses

  1. The Economic Hitman has come home to roost, if you don’t understand then read up on the subject. We have exported centralized highly leveraged projects for decades and of course reaped the benefits of them for two centuries. The only question remains is what happens when the benefits are over inflated and the economy is weak. I predict that more than one California City will default on infrastructures bonds in the coming decade.

    1. Ms. Hopp merely spouts the discredited rhetoric of the Food and Water Watch crowd here in her misguided column. Had she bothered to actually read any of the information about desalination and the Marin project, she would know that there is no potential impact of desalination on San Francisco Bay, nor is there any threat to the quality of the water that people in Marin would drink. If anything, the water supplied to them would be better than what they get now. They certainly thought it was tastier than their current supplies – read the blind taste test conducted by the Marin Independent-Journal in 2006. And the results of the studies in Marin are similar to the studies up and down the coast in California and in Spain and Australia – desalination does not affect the local environment, and if it is coupled with renewable power, it has no negative effects at all.

      And she gets the election results wrong, as well. The measure that the Marin Water Coalition crowd put on the ballot – Measure T – was trounced by the measure that actually won the day, Measure S. The winning measure allows the Marin Municipal Water District to do responsible planning for desalination, and then seek approval from the voters to finance the construction of a desalination facility. Measure T would have shut down any work on desalination, which was not what the voters wanted. In fact, multiple polls of people in Marin show that they are concerned about reliable water supply, and they support desalination.

      Finally, if Ms. Hopp had actually attended any of the numerous public meetings and hearings that the Marin Water District held from 2003-2010, she would have known that a maximum of 30 people spoke against desalination at any meeting, and it was usually the same 5-10 people who showed up at various meetings to complain about desalination. Hardly overwhelming opposition in a service area of 200,000 people.

  2. For the record, I attended each meeting referenced in the article, and stand by the facts. Regarding the Food& commissioned study, it is available for scrutiny and includes a detailed, reasoned, and transparent quantitative analysis that shows just how costly a desalination plant is especially when compared to the impact on water supply through aggressive conservation measures as a strategy. Lastly, Measure S was MMWD’s response to Measure T – while the two measures created some confusion, they both passed easily, and the end result – which was the ultimate goal – is that the Public must vote and approve before a desalination plant can be built. Without the initiation of Measure T, the public would not have had this voice…

    Susan Hopp

    1. It appears that you think the meeting in 2009 at which James Fryer made his presentation about ripping out all of the landscaping in Marin County was the beginning of public input. You apparently missed the 20+ public meetings, the five public hearings on the EIR, the six seminars on desalination technology and environmental issues, and the dozens of discussions that MMWD Boiard members and staff had with various groups and interested parties in Marin County, all about desalination. That hardly qualifies as “few” opportunities for public input.

      You also apparently missed the multiple polls that MMWD conducted of public sentiment toward desalination, the most recent being in 2009. They all showed that desalination was supported by a vast majority of MMWD customers – over 70% in the 2009 poll. So, when MMWD moved forward with the decision to approve the project in August, 2009, it was doing so on solid footing. This was confirmed in 2010 when Measure S easily defeated Measure T, and a responsible approach was assured.

      While it is true that there is a small group of people in Marin County who are opposed to desalination, that is not unusual – either for desalination or for any other issue. The same holds true in Santa Cruz, where desalination is moving forward faster than in Marin (and where it rains more than Marin and more redwoods grow). The fact is, Santa Cruz and Marin have highly variable hydrology, limited water storage and steadily growing populations and concomitant demand for water.

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