Clara MacLeod
B.S. Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning
University of California,  Davis '17

Though only separated by an hour drive, my hometown of Berkeley and my college town of Davis are very different places. Berkeley is a busy semi-urban city with tall buildings and a lively street scene, while Davis is a peaceful rural city surrounded by agricultural fields and bike lanes. Regardless of these differences and the distance that separates the two cities, drinking water is always supplied to my home in Berkeley and in Davis. Though the one difference I have noted between the water in Berkeley and in Davis is the taste; Berkeley’s water tastes pure and fresh while Davis’ not so much. The main complaint about Davis’ water is the hardness, which is noticeable by the calcium and magnesium deposits that build up around faucets, showerheads, and sinks. I have grown accustomed to the taste of Davis water over the past two years, but it makes me wonder why there is such a difference in water quality between the two water supplies. There are many factors that play a role in the provision of water, from regulations to institutions to water sources to infrastructure. One important factor in estimating water quality in any city is the size of the population being served, and Berkeley and Davis have very different population sizes. That difference has played an important role in the evolution of the cities’ current water provision system since consumers received piped running water.

Berkeley History

In an urban area like the East Bay, comprising many cities to the East of San Francisco including Berkeley, the cities are densely populated and touch one another, which makes it convenient to share resources or collaborate. Since 1923, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, also referred to as EBMUD, has provided drinking water and sewage treatment to the majority of the East Bay. The service area extends eastward from San Francisco and includes fifteen cities and fifteen unincorporated communities in Alameda and Contra Costa County. EBMUD’s expansive trans-county service area, however, is a relatively new occurrence. In the late 1800s, cities managed their own water supply, mostly through private water companies. The City of Berkeley, for example, received water from Henry Berryman’s private Berkeley Waterworks Company. The Contra Costa Water Company, founded in 1866, was the first company to provide piped water into the City of Oakland. A few years later, the Oakland Water Company formed to compete with the Contra Costa Water Company, an incident known as the “Water Wars”. To settle the “Water Wars, ” the City of Oakland created a municipal utility in 1989 and the two water companies merged to become known as the Contra Costa Water Company.

Shortly after, in 1907, the Contra Costa Water Company and Berkeley Waterworks Company merged into the newly formed private People’s Water Company of Oakland. The People’s Water Company was the largest water utility in the East Bay, supplying eight cities—Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont, Alameda, Emeryville, San Leandro, Richmond, and Albany. Around this time, the population in the East Bay increased dramatically due to an inflow of San Francisco Earthquake refugees. Simultaneously, water supplies in the East Bay began to decrease dramatically due to multiple droughts and a lack of water storage space. To address this water shortage, the San Leandro and San Pablo Reservoirs were built in the East Bay by the water companies but were ultimately unable to withstand the drought and increasing demand. In 1914, less than a decade after its formation, the People’s Water Company went bankrupt.

During this period, the population of the East Bay had outgrown the available water supply, and any single private company did not have the capacity to finance the infrastructure needed to divert water from other parts of California. In 1916, several cities in the East Bay purchased the private People’s Water Company and formed the public East Bay Water Company. As a result, this formed a large public water district with expanded resources and capacity.

It was not until the end of World War I in 1918 that the State of California truly began to address population growth and how to provide municipal services to a rapidly growing population. In 1921, the California State legislature passed the Municipal Utility District (MUD) Act, which allowed a municipal utility district to provide services throughout counties and unincorporated areas. Former Oakland mayor and California Governor George Pardee proposed a water district for Alameda and Contra Costa County in the East Bay, known as the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD). Upon state approval in 1921, the newly proposed district was formed in 1923. In 1928, EBMUD purchased the East Bay Water Company, forming the framework for the large multi-city water utility for the East Bay currently in place today.

From the late 1800s to when EBMUD was formed, many of the local water companies built dams around the East Bay for water storage. In time, this infrastructure was acquired by EBMUD but more water supplies were needed. In 1923, the EBMUD Board of Directors acquired water rights from the Mokelumne River in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and in 1929 water from the Mokelumne River and Pardee Reservoir reached East Bay households. Before reaching household, water from the Mokelumne River is distributed to the several East Bay reservoirs, transported to treatment plants and delivered to local reservoirs and tanks. EBMUD customers still receive the majority of their water supply from the Mokelumne River but in times of drought, the Mokelumne River is insufficient to meet the demand of EBMUD customers and the utility must look to other sources—a complex issue as EBMUD does not have a local water source.

Davis History

In 1917, around the same time the East Bay formed its first large public water utility, Davis was declared a city. Prior to its incorporation, Davis was known as Davisville. The small town of 400 citizens by 1870 had developed as an agricultural center and railroad junction. Davisville’s economic activity was largely related to agriculture, and water was mainly used in the form of irrigation. In 1905, Davisville was chosen as the University of California, Berkeley’s University State Farm. Shortly after the site selection, Davisville was incorporated and known as the City of Davis. The State Farm allowed Davis to develop from a purely agricultural and rail center to a college center with a growing population.

Unlike Berkeley, which is surrounded by several cities, Davis is much more rural. Prior to 1917, when Davis was an unincorporated town, water was supplied by the Davis Water Company. The private Davis Water Company, formed in, took over the private Schmeiser Manufacturing Company. The Company, with only 153 consumers, supplied water for irrigation and domestic purposes. Following the city’s incorporation in 1917, the City of Davis developed a local governance structure, which featured the establishment of a City Council and the installation of a water and sewage system.

The City’s water system was largely developed in the 1950s when the population size was still small and groundwater sources were enough to supply community demands. Hence, the City of Davis did not develop a water management plan until 1989 and only began metering all of its’ customers in 1997. The City still currently relies solely on groundwater, which comes from the Sacramento Valley groundwater basin, to meet its potable water needs. The City first collects groundwater from 21 wells, which pump directly into the distribution system. This water is stored in water towers and finally distributed through pipelines. As opposed to Berkeley’s water provision, Davis’ water supply is purely local and the City lacks a central distribution system.


Davis Schematic

The Future of the Drought

In January 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown declared the California drought a State of Emergency. Once again, both water suppliers, EBMUD and the City of Davis, are faced with water shortages. Since the Mokelumne Aqueduct and Pardee Reservoir are the primary sources of water supply for the EBMUD service area, EBMUD is seeking to collaborate with other local agencies to expand its water supply during periods of drought. EBMUD has collaborated with the Contra Costa Water District and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for water supplementation and is considering groundwater storage in San Leandro and an expensive desalination project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Like EBMUD, the City of Davis is also seeking ways to expand its water supply. As the quantity and quality of groundwater begins to decline, the City of Davis is forced to drill deeper wells to reach deeper aquifers. Considering this, the City wants to diversify its water supply and is in the process of expanding to surface water sources. Similar to what the East Bay did during the 1920 drought years, the City of Davis has partnered with the City of Woodland to establish the Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency (WDCWA) to divert water from the Sacramento River. Permitted under California law, the WDCWA is a Joint Powers Authority, which means that the Agency operates independently with its own Board of Directors. Construction of the Regional Water Treatment Facility began in April 2014 and is expected to be complete by the end of 2016. As exemplified by EBMUD and now Davis, multi-county and multi-city water projects are a way of promoting regional cooperation and increasing water reliability. The Cities of Berkeley and Davis have well-established systems for water provision but the drought forces EBMUD and Davis to seek new alternatives to sources of water. Whether the water comes from rivers or from the ground, EBMUD and the City of Davis are creatively working to secure ways to deliver water to its citizens from source to tap.


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