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Election preview: Zone 7 Board of Directors

As the drought continues to squeeze the water supply, Tri-Valley voters will cast important votes for four seats on the Zone 7 Water Agency Board of Directors.
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As the drought continues to squeeze the water supply, Tri-Valley voters will cast important votes for the future of local water reliability with four seats up for grabs on the Zone 7 Water Agency Board of Directors.

Flood protection should be front-of-mind for voters too, as that's the other main responsibility for the Livermore-based public agency. 

Three incumbents and two newcomers are on the June 7 primary ballot for Zone 7, whose directors are elected at-large among residents in Pleasanton, Livermore and Dublin.

Director Sarah Palmer is seeking a fifth term on Zone 7 while fellow incumbents Dennis Gambs and Olivia Sanwong are each pursuing a second term. One challenger has local elected experience, as Dawn Benson served on the Dublin San Ramon Services District Board of Directors. The fifth candidate is Todd Shinohara, a pharmacist.

The top four finishers in the primary will earn election to Zone 7, representing a majority of the seven-member board.

And at least one seat is guaranteed to change hands as current Director Michelle Smith McDonald of Dublin opted not to run for election. Smith McDonald, who has been on the board since being appointed in May 2019 following a resignation, said her professional demands in communications for the Alameda County Office of Education have proven too great amid the pandemic.

The Zone 7 ballot was poised to have one more name -- and a very familiar one at that -- but John Marchand, the former Livermore mayor who also previously served on the Zone 7 board, pulled out after qualifying because he plans to run again for his city's mayoral seat in November. 

Like many other times in the 21st century, the Zone 7 election in 2022 centers primarily on issues related to drought. 

Zone 7 is the wholesale water retailer for the cities of Pleasanton and Livermore, Cal Water's Livermore division, and DSRSD serving Dublin and San Ramon's Dougherty Valley -- although San Ramon voters do not participate in the election because Zone 7 is technically an Alameda County special district.

The agency's board makes decisions that affect the four communities' water costs, as Zone 7 prices largely determine the rates local water service providers charge customers in their jurisdiction.

Formally known as the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Zone 7 is also tasked with providing flood protection in the Livermore and Amador valleys, a topic that is impacted by long-lasting drought conditions as well. 

Both main responsibilities of the agency are at the core of Sanwong's Zone 7 service, saying she aims to be "a responsible fiduciary dedicated to water supply and flood management planning," but like the other active candidates in the race she is particular focused on water reliability over the four-year term ahead.

"I bring to the board real-world knowledge that is critical when evaluating construction projects and water quality testing processes, including PFAS. This experience is essential when analyzing extreme weather impacts on our water supply and flood management system," Sanwong said, citing her professional experience in the science and technology fields.

Among water supply projects she endorses, Sanwong listed Los Vaqueros Reservoir expansion, Sites Reservoir and Bay Area regional desalination, but she added that she is still "cautious regarding the Delta Conveyance Project because the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is one of our most unique natural resources."

Sanwong also voiced support for a Tri-Valley groundwater basin study to analyze the viability of indirect potable reuse water.

"I continue to question the decision by the Pleasanton City Council majority to vote against funding this study, particularly in light of the severe drought we are in," she told Livermore Vine.

"Potable reuse treats wastewater to the highest standard using proven reverse osmosis technology," Sanwong said. "Storing this water in our groundwater basin is considered indirect because the basin acts as an environmental buffer. Indirect potable reuse would expand our water supply options during prolonged droughts." 

She said she would continue looking hard at Zone 7's water rates and overall budget if re-elected to a second term.     

I delivered on my promise when I voted No to increasing residential and commercial rates. I also re-worked agricultural rates in a transparent, public process," Sanwong added. 

Ensuring public transparency is a top priority Gambs points to as well in his campaign for a second term on the board. 

"I have a lifelong interest in water supply, flood control and community service," said Gambs, who is a civil engineer by trade who worked for Zone 7 for 34 years until retiring in 2015.

Zone 7 must improve water supply reliability to Tri-Valley residents and agricultural customers. The current drought is a stark reminder of just how precious water is," Gambs told Livermore Vine. "Climate change is reducing the Sierra snowpack storage and causing more extreme storm events -- intensity and frequency. Additional storage is needed to capture storm events and offset snowpack storage lost due to climate change."

He noted the Sites Reservoir project and Los Vaqueros expansion as two key projects in Zone 7's quest for access to increased water storage.

Gambs also touched on the Delta Conveyance Project, which is in the environmental review stage with Zone 7 participation to date.

The project "is intended to maintain water deliveries, which would otherwise be reduced 25%. Zone 7 can consider participation in this project after the Department of Water Resources completes the environmental work," he said. 

Summarizing his priorities if re-elected, Gambs said he would focus on promoting "drought water supply reliability, safe drinking water that tastes good, cost-effective water and flood programs. I am a strong advocate for community input and decision making that is readily transparent to the public."

The most-tenured incumbent on the ballot, Palmer also has a professional background in science to supplement her Zone 7 board experience -- she is near the end of her 16th year as a director.

"My background in scientific research, teaching, and public service help give me the ability to communicate to the public and to those directly in water issues. My goal is to make our water resources able to meet our urban and agricultural needs into the future," said Palmer, who is a biochemist by training who has also worked as an environmental science teacher in the Tri-Valley. 

"Experience and knowledge in water issues matter," she added. 

Palmer pointed to her three turns as Zone 7 board president over the years as well as serving on the board for the Association of California Water Agencies Region 5 and the Delta Conveyance Stakeholders Engagement Committee.

"It is my priority and passion to be on the front lines as we face increased demands and unique challenges to ensure a safe and reliable water resource," she told Livermore Vine. "With climate change and decreasing water resources, it is important to develop a diversified portfolio of water resources and updated infrastructure."

"I am passionate about my work on the issues of safe and affordable drinking water for disadvantaged communities," Palmer added. 

Benson is another candidate with elected service experience, sitting on the DSRSD board from 2010 until August 2015, when she resigned to apply for an employment position within the agency -- a job she ultimately did not get. She is also a former Dublin planning commissioner.

Benson, who did not respond to Livermore Vine's request for an interview, cites on her partially complete campaign website that she is "committed to collaboration and forward thinking for a safe and reliable water supply for the Tri-Valley."

"In this time of drought, Zone 7 needs a thoughtful board member that can lead from experience. You want a board member with the experience to make decisions that benefit our Tri-Valley community," she said. 

Benson describes having more than 29 years of professional experience in public water districts, as well as being a small business owner in the equestrian industry. 

"I share your concerns about double digit water rate increases and rising budgets being the norm and as your Director, I will ask the tough questions and ensure the public is included in those decisions," she wrote in her candidate statement in the voter guide. 

Therein she also said she would make decisions "for a safe and reliable water supply to meet the needs of residents, businesses, and our agricultural customers, strong fiscal oversight, keeping flood control a priority, and increasing communication with the public."

The other challenger, Shinohara, did not submit a candidate statement for the voter guide and does not appear to have a campaign website. Multiple attempts to contact him for an interview went unanswered this month.