Berkeley Needs to Adopt a
Management Plan for
Its Groundwater Supply


Berkeley Needs to Adopt a Management Plan for Its Groundwater Supply
L A Wood, Berkeley Daily Planet, April 17, 2000

At that time, there were approximately 3400 active wells. The data were collected by Dockweiler (1912). The map does not include wells that had been abandoned prior to 1910. The pattern of wells provides an Indication of the population density of the cities at the time. Oakland, Alameda Island, and Berkeley were well developed, while Richmond (founded in 1900), Hayward, and San Leandro were just beginning to develop.

The phrase "banned in Berkeley" evokes a myriad of images ranging from bans on panhandling to public nudity. But who could have guessed that the next Berkeley ban would be on the city's groundwater as a potential source for emergency drinking water. This proposed action comes from the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), which is conducting its final hearing this week to "de-designate" Berkeley's aquifer and to reduce requirements for groundwater remediation. This regulatory shift will result in the loss of the city's groundwater as an emergency source of drinking water for many generations to come.

The first attempt at deregulating Berkeley groundwater came in the mid 1990's. The RWQCB began to amendthe SanFrancisco Basin Plan with the intent of relaxing regional cleanup standards for groundwater. The water board argued for allowing soil and groundwater contaminants to biodegrade on site through natural attenuation, if the pollution was "contained." One of the many problems Berkeley has had with this new Containment policy was that natural attenuation is a very long process and on-site containment of toxics is not always possible. The RWQCB has learned this important fact about the difficulties of containing on-site pollutants with the gas additive MTBE and its serious impact on the state's groundwater resources.

The City of Berkeley fought to protect its groundwater resources because of its responsibility to protect both the public's health and the environment. Berkeley argued that it could maintain a higher standard for cleanup of contaminated properties than the state. At that time, Berkeley even considered taking legal action against the adjacent City of Emeryville because of its designation as one large containment zone of groundwater contamination. The climax to this regulatory drama came in March of 1996 when the RWQCB staff came to the Berkeley City Council to debate the future of Berkeley's groundwater.

Certainly to the dismay of the RWQCB staff, the Berkeley City Council chose to unanimously endorse a groundwater protection resolution. This measure was then forwarded to the state water board in response to its proposed "no action" cleanup policy. The RWQCB was not happy that the outspoken City of Berkeley rejected the RWQCB's and state's lowered cleanup standards. Readers should not be surprised to know that the supporting science for RWQCB's new-cleanup policy was funded in part by Shell Oil.

Historically, Berkeley's use of groundwater was patterned after other local cities. Wells provided a valuable resource for industry and agriculture, including private use in backyard gardens. Maps from the turn of the century show a proliferation of wells throughout Berkeley, and as you might expect, some are still in use. Of course, wells were used as a source of drinking water. However, even back then, Berkeley also had to rely on outside drinking water sources. Currently, there are no records of Berkeley's groundwater being used as a source of drinking water.

This newest round of groundwater deregulation in Berkeley attempts to single out the city's shallow aquifer and arbitrarily set a new regulatory cutoff for drinking water protection at Berkeley's aquifer depth of 300 feet. This new sub-area designation for the Berkeley portion of the East Bay aquifer is based on little more than assumptions regarding citywide well usage. There simply isn't much hard data on Berkeley's groundwater usage.

It's time for Berkeley to develop a municipal groundwater management plan to protect the city's aquifer for use as a drinking water source in cases of extreme emergency. We owe it to Berkeley and future generations to take a legal stand against the RWQCB's assault on the city's groundwater resources. In the coming decades of global warming and dwindling freshwater supplies, our city may come to appreciate that we had the forethought today to protect Berkeley's groundwater for tomorrow.

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