Building the Watershed's Resiliency to Wildfire & Other Threats
The ability to deliver clean, reliable water to 191,000 central and southern Marin County residents is our top priority. Nowhere is that mission more evident than in the work the District does to care for the Mount Tamalpais Watershed where we source more than half of our water for our customers. Great effort goes into protecting our natural resources there from threats, including the impacts of wildfires.
And among the forested hillsides of the Mount Tamalpais Watershed, small vegetation fires are common, especially during fire season. Wildfire has the potential to degrade forests and watershed functions that could impact water quality and water supply infrastructure as well as threaten neighboring residential communities.
Through detailed planning, comprehensive training and robust vegetation management and forest restoration efforts, Marin Water works year-round to minimize the impacts of potential wildfires and maximize ecological health on our watershed lands – all of which help to protect water quality, our water delivery infrastructure and the community.
Planning and Collaborative Partnerships
As climate change continues to impact weather patterns, environmental conditions and fire behavior, Marin Water works to ensure a strong understanding of existing conditions on the watershed, including the watershed’s wildfire resilience, which was most recently detailed in the 2021 Wildfire Resilience Study. This study is a living document that presents a comprehensive review of the current state of the District’s wildfire preparedness programs and operations.
In addition, staff work closely with numerous partners to coordinate on fire resiliency and response on the watershed. The District takes part in bi-monthly Fire Safe Marin Board meetings and engages with the Advisory Technical Committee for the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority.
The District is also a member of One Tam, a multi-agency partnership that will soon publish a Forest Health Strategy planning document outlining guidance to ensuring Marin’s forests remain resilient in the face of looming threats from wildfire, invasive species and disease.
Managing Vegetation & Restoring Forest Health
Managing vegetation is a key aspect of mitigating the spread of large, dangerous wildland fires. Simultaneously, preservation and enhancement of existing significant biological resources is also critical to a healthy forest. Since its adoption in late 2019, the District’s Biodiversity, Fire, and Fuels Integrated Plan has been the guiding force behind Marin Water efforts to mitigate fire hazards and maximize ecological health. The plan expands vegetation management throughout the watershed, which is home to more than 1,000 species of plants. The plan layers on added protection of those plants by implementing an adaptive management approach that includes no herbicides.
The plan outlines 27 actions that support:
Restoration of forest health: Through selective thinning of small diameter conifer trees, which would otherwise be removed by wildfire in the watershed’s fire-adapted landscape, and through the protection of oak woodlands from the spread of sudden oak death by reducing the volume of infected biomass.
Conserving valuable habitat: Through removal of non-native invasive species, such as French broom, and extensive early detection surveying for new weeds before they become established.
Improving wildfire resilience: To protect critical water storage, treatment and delivery infrastructure essential to providing clean water for more than 191,000 people.
Increasing understanding of forest ecosystems: Through extensive biological monitoring and pre-project surveys for nesting birds, sensitive wetland communities, bat roosts, woodrat nests, rare plants, snags, and other valuable habitat, which also ensures that work will not inadvertently harm natural resources
Annually, watershed maintenance staff create and maintain fuel breaks, manage non-native broom, conduct forest structure improvements and remove invasive plants. These projects and other forest restoration work has been implemented in several key areas across Mount Tamalpais Watershed lands.
- Prescribed fire: The Bay Area Air Quality Management District allows prescribed fire for forest management Nov. 1 to April 30. In coordination with Marin Water, the Marin County Fire Department may occasionally conduct prescribed fire operations on the Mount Tamalpais Watershed. Safely burning off overgrown vegetation is a natural way to restore and maintain ecological health on the watershed. Additionally, Marin County Fire Department uses prescribed fire, among other vegetation management approaches, as an efficient and cost-effective way to reduce fuels across large landscape areas where physical and social conditions are conducive to its use. The result can aid firefighters with fire suppression efforts during a wildfire by creating a natural firebreak, which can limit fire spread helping to protect the surrounding community. Read more about local prescribed fires, including answers to frequently asked questions, on Marin County Fire Department's vegetation management page.
Click the right or left scrolling arrows on the photos below to learn more about recent watershed resilience work on the watershed:
- Biodiversity, Fire, and Fuels Integrated Plan (2019)
- BFFIP Environmental Impact Report (2019)
- Watershed Resiliency Map: Recent/Planned Projects (2022)
- Staff Report - BFFIP/Veg, Mgmt Annual Progress (9/16/21)*
- French Broom Mapping Summary (2018)
- Watershed Invasive Plant Management
- Grazing Feasibility Study for Mt. Tam Watershed (2018)
- Rare Plant Inventory Update (2019)
*next report to be published fall 2022
Understanding Fire Behavior
Marin Water is also working with an outside consultant to obtain hyper-specific fuel and fire behavior modeling for the entire watershed. Expected to be completed in fall 2022, the modeling work will help the District and our residents better understand the potential risks to facilities and neighboring communities, while also gauging the efficacy of existing and proposed fire fuel reduction efforts.
Seeking Outside Funding for Watershed Resiliency
In an effort to expand and expedite fire resiliency and forest health work on the watershed, Marin Water regularly pursues outside funding and financing opportunities, including through state and federal grants. Marin Water was recently successful, in securing funding for vegetation management, forest restoration and other critical work on the watershed through the below competitive grant opportunities.
Recent Grants Awarded to District for Watershed Resiliency:
- California Coastal Conservancy Grant - $1 million
- Awarded: August 2021
- Collaborated with One Tam and Marin County Parks and Open Spaces on the proposal for fuel reduction and forest restoration work on the watershed
- CAL FIRE Forest Health Grant - $3 million
- Collaborated with Marin County Parks on the proposal for critical forest restoration, fuel reduction, and invasive management work
- Awarded: June 2021
Preparing for Response During Fire Season
Staff Training & Equipment
Although Marin County and other fire districts are primarily responsible for fire response, Marin Water equips and prepares its watershed maintenance staff and rangers to provide initial response to wildfire ignitions until firefighting agencies arrive. These staff members attend annual interagency wildfire trainings, and are also trained to operate the District’s water tender, fire dozer, Type III Wildland Fire Engine housed permanently on the watershed with a 500 gallon water capacity, and a boat with a portable pump for fire suppression. Ranger patrol trucks are also equipped with either 100 or 200 gallons of water storage and fire hosing for responding to small fire starts and initial response support.
Watershed Closures during Red Flag Warnings
As the dry season drags on, fire risk increases. The National Weather Service (NWS) issues Red Flag Warnings during periods of high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds. Because of the increased threat of wildfire during these conditions, and out of an abundance of caution, Marin Water regularly closes the Mount Tamalpais Watershed to vehicle traffic in conjunction with NWS Red Flag Warnings.
Fire Detection Camera Network Managed (Managed by Marin County Fire Department)
Thanks to a funding partnership between Fire Safe Marin, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), and Marin County Fire Department, a high-tech, remote wildfire detection system was installed back in 2014 on four key Marin County mountaintop areas to monitor for fire ignitions within the community. The system was later upgraded in 2018 through a partnership with ALERT Wildfire and provides 24/7 access to far sweeping visibility of Mt. Tamalpais. The camera feeds are monitored by firefighters, other emergency responders, and dispatchers in the Emergency Command Center in Woodacre. The cameras tie into a much larger network of cameras utilized in communities across the state and beyond. The live camera feeds are also available online to the public. For more information on the cameras, visit Marin County Fire Department’s website.
Human Lookout (Managed by Marin County Fire Department)
Historically, the Marin County Fire Department utilized human lookouts for fire monitoring on Mount Tamalpais from a mountaintop vantage point. While this Lookout is still utilized today, it operates only during the daytime, seasonally (summer and fall) and is staffed with specially trained volunteers. Marin County Fire operates the Lookout and its use supplements the County’s fire-detection cameras which provide the same visibility, 24/7. For more information, visit Marin County Fire Department’s website.
Emergency Notifications (Managed by the County of Marin)
Marin Water coordinates with the County of Marin Office of Emergency Services who sends out emergency alerts and notifications in the event of an imminent threat to the public. All members of the community are urged to subscribe to Alert Marin, the County’s emergency alerting system, to receive critical alerts for all types of potential emergencies in Marin County.