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[whitespace] David Keller
Photograph by Michael Amsler

Taking a stand: David Keller stood up to the SCWA's threats.

Pipeline Expansion

By Janet Wells

Last year, a $180 million pipeline expansion project that could double the amount of water available for use in the next 30 years hit a pesky snag in the form of the Petaluma City Council. A slim majority of the council, citing concerns about environmental and fiscal impacts, refused to sign off on the Sonoma County Water Agency proposal by the September 2000 deadline.

Needing unanimous agreement among the agency's eight primary contractors, SCWA general manager Randy Poole threatened to restrict Petaluma's water supply for holding the pipeline project hostage. "Randy [Poole] did negotiations city by city. He lied, cheated, and twisted arms until each city would sign," says water activist David Keller, a former Petaluma councilman.

Huey Johnson, president of the Resource Renewal Institute in San Francisco, called Petaluma's upstart focus on conservation, rather than water-as-asset, "a historical breakthrough for water policy in California. It marks a beginning of transition and change," Johnson wrote in a Jan. 4 opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Municipal action to leave unallocated water in a river for conservation purposes is unprecedented in the history of the American West," wrote Johnson. "I don't know what those people of Petaluma are drinking, but I hope they share it."

The bubble of resistance didn't last long. Keller and another green-majority colleague decided not to run for re-election in November. Within weeks of being sworn in--in a late-night action that stunned and outraged the environmental community and has resulted in a recent legal action--the new council voted to sign the contract amendment.

Marin County residents may be in for sticker shock, says water district board member Jared Huffman, when they understand the impact of the project. While the water district is not one of the primary contractors needed to approve the amendment, at least a portion of the project's cost would be passed on in increased water rates.

"People don't realize that increasing dependence on Sonoma County water is going to be millions and millions of dollars down the road," Huffman says, adding that the expansion project "is 1950s thinking, relying on infrastructure solution. . . . We need more water, but it is not clear that water has to come from Sonoma County. It could come from conservation, recycling, desalination."

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From the April 5-11, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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