Member Spotlight – July 2018

  • by Will Holbert
  • Jul 20, 2018
  • Newsletters

Bon Tempe Reservoir is one of seven storage reservoirs in the Marin Municipal Water District, which was the first municipal water district in California.

100-year-old Alpine Dam Underpins Marin Municipal Water District’s Rich History

Replacing pipelines, maintaining infrastructure and ensuring the flow of high-quality drinking water to customers tops the agenda of most municipal water districts in California today, including the very first one in the state. But if there is one thing the Marin Municipal Water District has more of than water, it’s history.

The Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) traces its roots to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which resulted in a population boom as former City residents relocated in Marin County. That helped create pressure to establish a publically owned water supplier, against the wishes of private water companies. The private water companies lost and Marin Assemblyman George Harlan successfully drafted legislation allowing the creation of municipal water districts, starting with MMWD in 1912. A century later, the district’s rich history was chronicled by MMWD board member Jack Gibson in “Mount Tamalpais and the Marin Municipal Water District.” 

Quite a lot of MMWD’s early history is told through its first major project, Alpine Dam on Lagunitas Creek, which marks its centennial next year. MMWD will be hosting a community event to commemorate the occasion in May 2019.

The freshly minted district recognized an urgent need to balance population demand with water supply. It managed to get a $3 million bond issue passed to build Alpine Dam, despite the private water companies fighting a rear-guard action through an aggressive vote-no campaign. 

Meanwhile, real fighting on the other side of the world almost shut down the construction of Alpine Dam.  America’s entry into World War I drastically increased the cost of labor and decreased the supply of construction materials. The contractors hired to build the concrete dam gave up, forcing MMWD to take over construction and appointing district Board Member Michael O’Shaughnessy to step in as head engineer. O’Shaughnessy went on to design the eponymous dam that created Hetch Hetchy, a fact that has modern-day Alpine Dam nicknamed Hetch Hetchy’s “Mini Me,” according to MMWD Facilities and Watershed Division Manager Crystal Yezman.

Completed in early 1919, Alpine Dam measured 100 feet in height and spanned 325 feet along the crest. A 15-foot-wide road along the top was just wide enough for automobiles of the day. Alpine lake behind it contained more than 3,000 acre feet of water. Over the years, Alpine Dam would grow taller and become one of four MMWD dams on Lagunitus Creek, which drains the Mount Tamalpais watershed. 

Shortly after Alpine Dam opened, the California and Hawaiian Sugar Company, better known as C&H, offered MMWD a sweet deal. The giant sugar processor offered to pay for raising Alpine Dam eight feet and then for pipelines that would carry fresh water to Point San Quentin. From there, barges would haul the water across the San Francisco Bay to C&H’s massive refinery in Crockett. The expansion became known as the “Sugar Line,” and while no longer in use by C&H, the pipeline remains in use today as a water main supplying communities in Marin County’s Ross Valley.

Global developments once again affected work on Alpine Dam in 1941, when crews were raising it by 30 additional feet to double its capacity. Concrete was poured one week after Pearl Harbor, and timing became a critical factor because the war effort would quickly deplete available manpower, according to Gibson’s book.

While Alpine Dam is among the earliest dam and reservoirs built in MMWD’s system, it’s not the oldest. That honor goes to Lake Lagunitas, built in 1872, and Phoenix Lake built in 1905, both inherited from private water companies. The district added Bon Tempe reservoir in 1948, followed by Kent Lake in 1954. The district then built Nicasio Reservoir in 1960 followed by Soulajule Reservoir in 1979, the last addition to the district’s water storage system. Alpine Dam is the district’s only concrete dam.

Over time, MMWD has also built a legacy for responsible stewardship of its property – mainly the Mount Tamalpais watershed, which accounts for 75% of the district’s water supply. 

Alpine Dam today.

“As the largest landowner on Mount Tamalpais, MMWD prides itself on working with conservationists and making its land accessible for public recreation,” Yezman said. 

The district maintains one of the oldest park ranger programs, dating from 1917. During the 1950s, a developer approached the district with a proposal to build a resort on top of Mount Tamalpais. MMWD turned it down in favor of maintaining the mountain in a more natural state. 

Alpine Dam under construction 100 years ago. Next year marks the centennial of Alpine Dam’s completion.

MMWD continues its emphasis on conservation today by engaging in forestry work to reduce fire risk and restore habitat for endangered species, as evidenced by its healthy population of Northern Spotted Owls. It also invites the public to participate through a watershed volunteer program established in 1995. Today it works closely with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to protect its land and preserve public access to Mount Tamalpais.

“In a way, we were founded as part of an early movement toward publically owned water, and today we reflect that legacy through environmental stewardship and keeping land open for public recreation,” stated Jack Gibson, board member and resident historian for MMWD.


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