.Dam Fine

East Bay MUD’s 100 years of a whole lotta water

Turn on the tap and water gushes out, for washing hands, doing dishes or watering plants. But it wasn’t always that easy for East Bay residents. On May 8, 1923, they voted to form the East Bay Municipal Utility District, aka East Bay MUD, which marks its centennial this year.

Today. EBMUD’s water system serves around 1.4 million people in a 332-square-mile area, extending north from Crockett, south to San Lorenzo (encompassing Oakland and Berkeley), east from San Francisco to Walnut Creek, and south through the San Ramon Valley.

But in 1923, the East Bay had been unreliably served by a network of 18 private water companies for decades. The region’s population was growing fast, and people were fed up. Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, San Leandro, Albany, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Richmond and Piedmont all faced a water shortage.  

Visionaries of the time included hydrographer/master dam designer Arthur Powell Davis (also a major contributor to what is now Hoover Dam), and EBMUD’s first president, former mayor of Oakland and former governor of California, George Pardee. According to biographical materials, “[Pardee’s] exposure to innovative environmental conservation efforts in Germany heavily influenced his political decisions; as governor, he was a strong supporter of conservation measures.”

A major dam and reservoir system that could be controlled to reliably supply water was the answer. In July 1927, work began on a 358-foot-high Powell Davis-designed dam on the Mokelumne River, on the boundary between Amador and Calaveras counties. When finished in June 1929, it and the reservoir it created were named for Pardee, whose political connections had helped shepherd through the necessary permits. 

Pardee Reservoir, from which East Bay water now flows, covers 2,257 acres, with a capacity of 197,950 acre-feet of water. Three aqueducts bring the water 91 miles across the San Joaquin Valley and Delta to East Bay reservoirs.

It’s no exaggeration to describe this as a masterful engineering accomplishment.

A visit to Pardee Dam

Pardee Reservoir, and nearly Camanche Dam and Reservoir, are brimming this year, and both reservoirs offer camping, fishing, boat rentals and hiking opportunities. But Pardee Dam, protected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), cannot be visited without special permission.

For this story, however, a visit was allowed, and assistant superintendent Stephen Rowan conducted a tour and answered questions. The nearly 100-year-old dam is in fine shape, he said, rigorously inspected for leaks, which are also monitored by automated meters. The dam is fully prepared to handle even this year’s “Big Melt,” which is already sending water cascading over the dam’s spillway, he said. Water is also released as needed through the sluice pipes, which remove sediment from the base of the dam.

Stations downstream from the dam are notified whenever a large water release is needed, minimizing flooding risks.

A quadriceps-challenging steep staircase allows access to a viewing ledge where the dam’s impressive scope and design elegance are displayed. (The 278 steps are commemorated on the “Complaint Dept. at the top of the stairs” sign at the bottom of the stairs.)

Rowan acknowledged that during the next century, innovations in water storage, water loss through leakage and pipes that are more seismic resistant will be vital. “As we face future droughts, we’ll need to figure out how to feed water needs while minimizing the impact on the environment,” he said. “But the dam itself is good for another 100 years.”

Water, water everywhere in century two?

The water supply had been assured, but by mid-20th century, “inadequate sewers began to turn the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay into a swamp of sewage,” according to EBMUD materials. In 1944, Alameda and Contra Costa residents voted to build a wastewater treatment plant and sewer interceptor system, which EBMUD put online in 1951. This wastewater system now serves approximately 740,000 people in an 88-square-mile area of Alameda and Contra Costa counties along the Bay’s east shore, extending from Richmond on the north southward to Oakland.

EBMUD public information officer Nelsy Rodriguez cites “investing heavily in the water and wastewater infrastructure while keeping rates affordable for our customers” as one of the most significant challenges the district has faced in its first century. 

The ongoing effort to replace aging iron pipes is another issue. And EBMUD has led the nation in removing lead from water infrastructure, she said. But far and away the most crucial problem confronting the district is how to deal with climate change, and the prospect of chronic, severe droughts.

“Droughts are one of the biggest challenges for any water provider,” said Rodriguez. To weather this most recent drought, EBMUD turned on the Freeport Regional Water Facility, drawing supplemental water supply from the Sacramento River. The district also increased outreach efforts to request conservation from its customers. “By and large, EBMUD has some of the most water-wise customers in the nation,” she said. The drought declaration EBMUD had issued was lifted in late April. 

But, she noted, dry periods are getting longer and more frequent, wildfires are getting more intense, and when the pendulum swings the other way, atmospheric storms are getting more significant. 

“EBMUD must be prepared for these extreme events to occur more regularly, or to occur with more severity,” Rodriguez said. The district is planning significant investments in “everything from replacing pipelines that leak and waste water underground, to removing dead trees and brush from the watersheds we own, to investing in the wastewater system that treats storm and wastewater before it is released to the San Francisco Bay,” she explained. 

A $325 million project currently under construction in Orinda will add ultraviolet light as a disinfection process to the district’s largest water treatment plant. “This will help us when wildfires or future droughts impact the quality of the raw water. With UV disinfection, we can elevate the quality of our drinking water without chemicals,” Rodriguez said.

Climate change, she said, is on the forefront of everything EBMUD faces now and in the future, “not just in terms of providing water to our customers but also in terms of protecting the environment.” For example, while the builders of Pardee Dam and Reservoir were not greatly concerned with impacts on the immediate environment, today, said Stephen Rowan, impacts on wildlife and habitats are part of the management plan.

EBMUD general manager Clifford Chan also pointed to climate change as one of the challenges of a second century. “Our systems weren’t designed for addressing this,” he said, “and [most of] the infrastructure we inherited is 100 years old.” New solutions are required, such as replacing neighborhood water storage tanks, built for maximum storage, with more, smaller tanks to replenish the tank sooner, keeping stored water fresher.

Another challenge is continuing to cope with contaminants and pollutants, including microplastics.

“This is too big for any one utility to address,” Chan said. But it also provides an opportunity to find new collaborations, ones that can aid in innovating solutions. This will include vendors, regulators and other water utilities statewide, he explained.

“A century ago, EBMUD and other water agencies operated entirely independent of each other,” said Rodriguez. “Today, we understand and appreciate that water in California is a statewide issue, and regional partnerships are key to our successful future.”

Chan also emphasized the importance of “getting the next generation of leaders interested in what we are doing. We teach a class at UC Berkeley, for example,” he said. He believes that the more the message is communicated that EBMUD’s mission includes protecting public health and the environment, the more young people will seek careers with it. “It’s the real meaning of the work we do,” said Chan.

Deliberately low profile

EBMUD employs around 2,000 people, and owns/operates/maintains hundreds of facilities, with full-time staff in about two dozen, according to Rodriguez. District personnel are working on “roughly 60-plus capital projects on any given day, which includes both EBMUD crews and contractors,” she said. “We also perform 24/7 emergency construction repairs… more than half of our organization has boots on the ground daily.”

For example, EBMUD maintenance superintendent Ted Lam told this story: “In October 2018, after months of preparations, my maintenance group replaced the emergency generator at San Pablo Center on the grounds of the San Pablo Water Treatment Plant in Kensington.

“This new, 1500-kilowatt generator was 53 feet long and weighed around 90,000 pounds,” said Lam. “Due to the wide turning radius of the truck hauling the generator, we had to demolish the entrance a bit early to accommodate its arrival.

 “We had over a dozen highly qualified people bring in the generator, including a very large crane with a highly skilled crane operator at hand,” he continued. “We communicated with the nearby residents before its arrival. Everything was done very carefully and safely.

“Then electricians and other technicians had to connect the generator to special switchgear to make sure it would automatically turn on in the event of a PG&E outage. The generator has been functioning well since its installation and has been needed in subsequent power outages,” Lam noted.

Yet the vast majority of residents have no idea of the scope of EBMUD operations, Rodriguez said. “Customers tend to pay attention to water only when they pay their bills or if there is an outage and they don’t have it,” she said. Many people use EBMUD recreation areas without knowing that they are enjoying themselves on protected watershed. 

Two years ago, a ranger working for EBMUD discovered a petrified forest in the valley next to the Camanche Reservoir. Then, he found bones scientists have since confirmed are from the Miocene era, approximately 10 million years ago, comprising the biggest trove of fossils in California’s history. These finds include those from mastodons—and 400-pound salmon with spiky fangs, said Rodriguez. 

This made headlines, but usually, the district prefers to keep a low profile, she said.

“EBMUD intentionally aims to diminish its public footprint,” she noted. “Almost all our infrastructure is buried underground, and we design our above-ground facilities to blend into the environment. We intentionally aim to do our work with as little disruption to our communities as possible.”

But in honor of the centennial, EBMUD is inviting the public to a free, family-friendly party May 21, 11am-4pm, at Oakland’s Lake Temescal. Food, live music, a beer and wine garden, kids’ zone, “Touch-a-Truck” and prizes are all part of the festivity. More information:  www.ebmud.com/100Party.

In the meantime, Chan noted that some East Bay street names still reflect the contributions of the water visionaries, such as Oakland’s Pardee Drive. Perhaps a wave or a thumbs-up at a working EBMUD crew would be a gesture of gratitude for a century of service.

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