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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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Surviving the Drought with a Little Help from your Friends at MMWD and Resilient Neighborhoods

1 Jun 2021 8:34 PM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)
  Phoenix Lake on April 11, 2021
No doubt you have noticed that things are looking a little brown and crispy outside. Not surprising, given that the past 16 months was the county’s driest period in 140 years. Current reservoir storage capacity is less than 50%, whereas it is usually 90% at this time of year. 

Let’s take a look at what is causing the drought and how the county is responding to it. And, in case you are experiencing crisis fatigue like I am, we’ll explore some resources to guide and support you until the rains return.

What is Causing the Drought?

The rainfall pattern in California is very different from that in other parts of the country. Growing up in San Francisco, my concept of “raining” was a light misty sprinkling. I was in for a surprise when I moved to Massachusetts, where cartoonishly large rain drops hurtled from the sky for hours on end (when it wasn’t snowing). 

In fact, the light sprinkling type of rainfall is typically interspersed in California with bigger storms caused by flowing columns of water vapor called atmospheric rivers. These rivers of moisture are the main drivers of our water supply, with a single big storm typically supplying around 15% of the year’s water. In general, they have been hitting California with more intensity than in earlier years, with attendant disastrous flooding and mudslides. 

However, sometimes the atmospheric rivers don’t materialize, and then we suffer from drought. In the winter of 2017, California was pummeled by 51 atmospheric river storms, 14 of which were classified as strong or extreme. That wet winter marked the end of the state’s five-year drought. But during the winter of 2019-20, there were just 43 storms, only one of which was strong. This past winter saw 30 atmospheric river storms, only two of them strong. Media accounts of this pattern use terms like “whiplash” to describe this alternating pattern of extreme wet and dry weather.

Living with a paradoxical increase in flooding and drought  
Why have atmospheric rivers been scarce here in recent years? This year, as in the previous drought several years ago, they have been diverted northward to Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia by a high-pressure ridge of air parked off the state’s coastline. Scientists do not yet understand exactly why these “ridiculously resilient ridges” are afflicting us. 

What we do know is that our water supply suffers without the rainfall contributed by atmospheric rivers, and some climate scientists argue that we should learn to embrace even the really strong ones. After all, the soil dries out more quickly now that the air is, on average, two degrees warmer than it was 50 years ago. Water from rainstorms and melting Sierra snow soaks into the parched soil instead of accumulating in rivers and reservoirs. So, as problematic as they are in terms of flooding, powerful atmospheric rivers may be more important to California’s future than we had previously realized.

  Marin’s current water crisis can be mitigated drop by drop through personal actions

How is Marin Preparing for the Drought?

In Marin, much of the preparation for drought conditions is being coordinated by the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD), the agency that provides water to the majority of county residents. MMWD water is 100% locally sourced – 75% from seven reservoirs on Mt Tamalpais and 25% from the Russian River in Sonoma County. The North Marin Water district serves Novato and parts of West Marin; 80% of its water comes from Sonoma, and the other 20% is from Stafford Lake. 

No such thing as a bad idea?  

The MMWD board of directors began a public water conservation program in February of this year, with additional provisions and restrictions added in April and May. The newest restrictions are aimed at reducing water use by 40% districtwide. Some of the more important restrictions for households pertain to landscape irrigation (e.g., limit spray irrigation to two days a week, and drip irrigation to three days) and washing vehicles, driveways, and sidewalks (e.g, don’t!). Also, it’s important to fix leaks within 48 hours of discovering them (and you’ll get a rebate to cover the cost of repairs). 

The MMWD also has suggestions for what you can do in your home during this crisis, including taking short showers, capturing and reusing water from showers, and waiting to run the dishwasher or washing machine until you have a full load.

If you are a Marin resident, you can find an extensive array of well-written, sensible tips and suggestions for reducing your water consumption on the MMWD website.  You can also stop by a MMWD drought drive up event on Saturday June 12 and get a free water saving kit that includes, among other things a low-flow faucet aerator and showerhead as well as a five-minute shower timer. 


To learn more about California’s response to the drought, I attended a virtual town hall meeting on the drought sponsored by Senator Mike McGuire on May 20. Speakers included representatives from Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino County as well as the Yurok Tribe. One featured speaker was Ben Horenstein, the general manager of MMWD. He targeted lawn irrigation as a primary way to achieve the county’s 40% reduction goal. He underscored the fact that letting your lawn turn brown will probably not kill it, and you have to have faith that it will spring back to life when the rains finally come. 
For anyone willing to wean themselves off of lawns entirely, MMWD offers a lawn replacement program consisting of free consulations and rebates for the purchase of sheet mulching materials, drip irrigation components, and climate-appropriate plants.

Mulch, stones, succulents, and native plants can replace a lawn in a sustainable garden  

Resilient Neighborhoods: Offering Support for Climate Action 

  Tamra Peters, founder of Resilient Neighborhoods    
If you are a mere mortal, you may find the tips and suggestions from MMWD somewhat overwhelming. How can we get additional (non-website) support as we face these pressing need to conserve water and other precious environmental resources?  I have a suggestion: Sign up for a Resilient Neighborhoods workshop! It’s a free, five-session class for Marin residents on how to reduce your household’s carbon footprint and increase the resilience of your community to disasters. I just completed it and can vouch for its effectiveness. 

The Resilient Neighborhoods program has been around since 2010, when it was created by long-time Marin resident Tamra Peters. Now with over 1,600 graduates, it is a fun and effective program for supporting important behavioral changes in households.

Our Resilient Neighborhoods class at the final session of the workshop  

During prepandemic times, members of an Resilient Neighborhoods workshop would meet at a library or other community space, but our pandemic-era class was a Zoom experience that included 13 households from around the county. Some of the participants in our group were already very aware of carbon reduction strategies while others were beginning the journey. Regardless of our starting place, all of us learned a lot and made substantial changes in our daily lives. 

We started by gathering data needed to calculate our household carbon footprint. This involved confessions about the number of vehicles owned by household members and miles driven per year, flight miles traveled per person, household energy consumption, food choices (i.e., meat eater vs. vegan or vegetarian), and recycling habits. Tamra and Outreach Associate Jen Hammond used this data to calculate each household’s total CO2 emissions, which we subsequently shared with the group, all of whom were non-judgmental and supportive.

With this reality starkly in mind, we then engaged in four more sessions where we learned how to take specific actions to reduce food and other types of waste, shift to a plant-based diet, cut CO2 emissions from our transportation, conserve energy and purchase electricity from renewable sources, prepare for climate-related emergencies, and contribute to building a climate movement.

We each filled out a Climate Action Plan in which we selected from a checklist of over 100 actions that either reduce green-house gas emissions or build a community resilient to disasters created by climate change. The idea was to undertake the selected actions during the program or to pledge to take them in the coming year. These behavioral changes are supported with an amazing array of written resources that provided detailed, constructive guidance on how to achieve our specific goals. Each action is quantified in terms of contribution to carbon reduction or community resiliency. 

Emergency preparedness leads to community resilience


In the area of water conservation, the Plan offers a menu of 23 possible actions. In addition to the items recommended by the MMWD like limiting shower time, the list also includes some bigger-ticket actions like purchasing an Energy Star dishwasher or installing a WaterSense-labeled smart irrigation controller.  

I was also interested in the Plan’s emergency preparation actions. I can proudly report that I assembled new emergency supply kits for my home and car and created a household preparedness plan that even has a place to sketch the floor plan of my home where I identify the location of my emergency supplies as well as shut-off points for gas, electricity, and water

At the end of the course, Tamra and Jen tallied up our actions (and intended actions for the coming year), and each of us learned how many pounds of CO2 had been (or will be) saved by our actions. We also learned how many “resiliency points” we had earned through the actions supportive of community resilience to disaster.

At the end of the workshop, our team’s actions accounted for an annual CO2 reduction of nearly 225,000 pounds and boosted the overall Resilient Neighborhoods program’s total reduction to over 9 million annual CO2 pounds. It was very inspiring to see concrete evidence that all our seemingly small changes added up to something substantial.  

So go to and sign up for a climate action team. There are two new sessions starting in June!

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions:

As usual, thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website to see more birds, flowers, and other images.

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