Gallagher well appealed to state agency

09/08/2021

A proposed well that could relieve Point Reyes Station residents coping with salty water has been appealed to the California Coastal Commission. 

Gordon Bennett, an Inverness Park resident, argues that North Marin Water District hasn’t presented adequate evidence showing the well won’t impact Lagunitas Creek streamflows, and in August, he appealed the county permit for the project. 

“Even a small reduction in water level over the two-mile stretch impacted by the proposed well could dry out acres of floodplain and isolate pools in which special species fish would be trapped,” Mr. Bennett wrote in his appeal.

The well would be the second one on the Gallagher ranch outside of Point Reyes Station. Both wells were intended to relieve the district’s dependence on two saltwater-contaminated wells on the former Coast Guard property. 

The district’s general manager, Drew McIntyre, said the second Gallagher well would not only remedy the salinity issue, but also create much-needed redundancy in the system. Currently, if the first Gallagher well, which produces far less water than hoped, breaks down, the district would have no access to low-saline water for its West Marin customers, he said. 

Mr. McIntyre said customers are conserving at impressive levels, but even with an almost 40 percent reduction in use, saltwater continues to intrude on the Coast Guard wells. On Aug. 22, sodium levels at the wells were measured at 110 milligrams per liter, dropping to below 40 a week later. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends sodium levels in drinking water not exceed 30 to 60 milligrams per liter. 

The district has installed an emergency tank downtown, but it is only open to customers on sodium-restricted diets when salinity levels reach 115 milligrams per liter.

“We’re bouncing around that sodium threshold,” Mr. McIntyre said.

Yet Mr. Bennett, president of the local organization Save Our Seashore, argued there is no urgent need for the well. He said that if North Marin pushed for more effective conservation—such as targeting landscaping overuse—there would be enough water for the district’s West Marin customers from the first Gallagher well.

His appeal also argues that North Marin’s plans violate several aspects of the Local Coastal Program, the document used by the county to ensure compliance with the Coastal Act. He points out that the district refers to “negligible” loss of sensitive habitat, though the L.C.P. requires “no net loss” of habitat. He said the district failed to consider the cumulative impacts of both wells operating at once, as mandated by the L.C.P., and that it did not provide any scientific evidence that the project would “minimize impacts to stream functions” or “preserve and enhance” the margins of the riparian area, both requirements. 

The coastal commission, which administers the Coastal Act, has the power to alter the permit to require North Marin to more carefully preserve streamflows. 

In his appeal, Mr. Bennett asked for a “compromise” mitigation measure that he said would better protect fish habitat while allowing the well to move forward. If flows drop below six cubic feet per second at the Gallagher well, he suggested, North Marin would tap supplies from Marin Water, utilizing the districts’ intertie agreement. This guideline comes from a California Environmental Quality Act analysis conducted by N.M.W.D. itself in 2009, when the district considered building the second well. 

For its part, North Marin says it conducted streamflow studies last fall and is planning another round of studies next month. “I think that the district and Gordon have the same interests, and that’s to cause no harm to the fish,” Mr. McIntyre said. “We just have different visions on how that occurs.”

This is the third time Mr. Bennett has appealed the well. In May, county planning commissioners rejected his initial appeal, and in July, the Board of Supervisors rejected the second, contending that the matter fell outside of their jurisdiction. Now, Mr. Bennett is appealing directly to the statewide agency that handles coastal planning.

A hearing is set for October. If the coastal commission sides with Mr. Bennett, it could revoke the permit for the well. If it sides with North Marin, the appeal process would be exhausted and the district could have the well in operation by next summer.