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Marin's Desalination – a Story of Stakeholder Involvement

By 3p Contributor

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: http://www.pacinst.org/reports/desalination/index.htm


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

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