Martinez readies for El Niño

Council receives water-saving lesson

Martinez Tribune

MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez city employees have taken measures to prepare for anticipated heavy “El Niño” rains, Martinez City Council heard Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, because California is still suffering from a four-year drought and Governor Jerry Brown has mandated water consumption cutbacks, the council also heard students describe how residents can reduce their use.

Bob Cellini, Public Works superintendent, said preparing for winter storms is an annual activity for city employees. But some forecasters have predicted a strong El Niño year, with heavier than average rains. He said that means this year, he and staff members are taking “a different approach.”

And 30 percent of the city employees weren’t here for the flooding that took place in 2005, to experience firsthand “some of the things we have learned,” Cellini said.

On the other hand, he said, “60 percent of the work force lives in Martinez.” That means city employees “have a lot of industrial knowledge.”

Municipal preparation for an El Niño winter began as early as May and June, Cellini said. Storm drains need to be cleaned, because they may be asked to handle storms that drop 10 inches of rain in two hours.

Some storm drains may need extra monitoring, he said. “Alhambra storm drains are shallow,” he said.

The drought has not been kind to trees, and so city employees have stepped up tree trimming as a way to prevent some of the more vulnerable trees from adding to the problem.

Normally, the city prepares 8,000 sandbags and 150,000 yards of sand that can be used to shore up low areas. This year, Cellini said, the city is doubling the bags it will have on hand, and increase the sand yardage, too.

“We’ll try to keep 10 to 12 pallets for business owners,” he added.
This year, two sites will be chosen where residents can pick up and fill bags, he said.

Since the 2005 storms, Martinez has purchased some heavy equipment, such as a front end loader that can move mud, and a water truck that can be used for cleaning, he said.

Martinez won’t be short on signs, particularly those noting areas that are prone to flooding, such as Marina Vista and E and Escobar streets.

“We watch the National Weather Service,” Cellini said. The calls his department makes will be based on the service’s predictions.

“We feel we’re ready,” he told the council.

Mayor Rob Schroder said he’s still worried about excessive silt that has accumulated in Alhambra Creek in the downtown area, especially since he has seen little water flow there. “It’s a ribbon of water in low tide,” he said, asking whether the city would be allowed to “drop a bobcat,” a small front-end loader, into the creek to clear it out.

Cellini said he has been speaking with a California Fish and Wildlife biologist, who said such work would not be a problem. In fact, one of the beaver dams “is half gone,” he said, although he has been unable to get a state biologist to come to Martinez to determine what wildlife might be affected by deepening the creek.

“We’d be remiss not to look at it. We’ve been dodging a bullet,” Schroder said.

Vice Mayor Mark Ross suggested observing the length of the creek when the tide is high, which would be “a good barometer for us.” However, he said he doesn’t know that anyone has explored the creek’s length recently.

“I have walked large portions of the creek, but a lot is on private property and hard to get to,” Cellini replied. He has seen at least one fallen tree and knows of some others that should be removed before a storm strikes. “It’s a very delicate system,” he said. Rules have changed about what private property owners can do, and the cost of removing a tree properly can be high, he said.

Councilmember AnaMarie Avila Farias urged providing information to the public about the matter, and City Manager Rob Braulik said in addition to the city website, information would be included in the city’s next newsletter.

While the council and city employees are looking ahead to future storms, it also is addressing Governor Brown’s order to cut back water consumption by 25 percent compared to use in 2013.

Statewide, reduction has exceeded the governor’s mandate for three months in a row, according to State Water Board reports. But everyone can do more, the council heard from members of the New Leaf Collaborative.

New Leaf is a nonprofit partnership with such members as the John Muir National Historic Site, Contra Costa County Mental Health, Friends of Alhambra Creek, Shell Oil, Muir Heritage Land Trust, Lunchbox International, Contra Costa Resource Conservation District and Alhambra Watershed Council. It works within Martinez Unified School District to provide a leadership academy, internships and multi-school service projects.

Armed with an umbrella and a toothbrush at Wednesday’s council meeting, Josh Pratt and Regan Dillon stressed the importance of shutting off water while brushing teeth and taking shorter showers or shallower baths.

They also showed the council how Yosemite looked in 2011 and this year, and how low Lake Oroville, the second largest California reservoir, has gotten.

“We don’t have rainwater anymore,” Pratt said.

“So you know how much water you use in a day?” Dillon asked, advising the council that each of them is likely to consume 80 to 100 gallons daily. “That’s 400 gallons a day for a family of four,” she said.

The pair got their scripts at fifth period that day, but felt strongly enough about the subject to ignore any fears about giving their presentation before the council, Dillon added.

Jesse Maeda, dressed in a lab coat, described how New Leaf shared the same information with both teachers and students. One of the peer mentors, he said: “I love teaching kids about rainwater.”

Schroder added his own thoughts – shut-off valves on shower heads, so residents would be more likely to take briefer “Navy showers” by turning off water while they lather with soap, and keeping a five gallon bucket in the shower.

He’s got one, and the water he catches when he showers? “I use [it] to water plants,” he said.

Dr. Rona Zollinger, career pathways coordinator for the collaborative, said, “I’m proud of where we’re at,” as she introduced its 2014-15 water quality and conservation report to the council.

Not only has the collaborative encouraged Martinez residents to meet state consumption goals, it also has helped reduce or eliminate pollutants from entering the municipal storm drain system, Zollinger said.

The collaborative has offered internships in ecoliteracy peer mentoring, such as the council saw Wednesday night, as well as in a community science workshop involving 450 students who learned about water, and rainwater ambassadors, who were involved in 16-hour installation technician internships and installed two 420-gallon systems.

Teachers have also learned about the area’s watershed, she said, and have been encouraged to teach about water conservation as they would about mathematics and reading.

A dozen high school interns have been trained, and they’ve shared information with 1,343 elementary pupils, helped with water quality sampling and participated in John Muir Legacy Day. Interns have also taught about soil and rainwater conservation, urban water runoff and recycling.

Zollinger said the 2014-15 programs involved 51 at-risk Vicente Martinez High school students as well as the 1,343 elementary school pupils. In the future, she said she expects the program will be expanded with the help of a CalRecycle grant so that during 2015-16, Vicente Martinez High School will have a garden that both promotes butterflies and grows food the students can eat.

In addition, she expects to continue, increase or add the ecoliteracy mentoring project, community science workshops, nature appreciation hikes and maintenance of rainwater catchment systems. A team will also be responsible for the Native Plant Botanical Trail, from the Martinez Amtrak station to the John Muir National Historic Site.

Ross praised the program, which he said was in keeping with a city that “cares about the environment.”

“You all are all naturals,” he told the students, adding: “You might be elected officials someday!”

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