Small Towns Grow Desperate for Water in California

Water towers in Mendocino (Calif.), where many wells have dried up. Aug. 7, 2021 (Max Whittaker/The New York Times).
MENDOCINO (Calif.) The $5 shower is a measure of both California's crumbling infrastructure and the severity the drought has caused,

This is how much Ian Roth spends on water at the Seagull Inn in San Francisco. He washes guests for five minutes every time they use the shower head.

Mendocino is a collection of pastel Victorian homes at the Pacific edge that are Instagram-ready. Because water is scarce, many restaurants have shut down their bathrooms and referred guests to portable toilets along the sidewalk.

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In response to a report about water theft, the fire department asked sheriffs to watch over the hydrants.

Caf Beaujolais is packed with tourists during peak tourist season. We grew up in this first world country believing that water is a given. We all fear that there will be a day when we don't have enough water. Only those with money could afford to have it.

Mendocinos' water crisis is a stark example of the problems that Californians in faraway places are facing as it slips further into its second year under drought. Numerous century-old, hand-dug water wells have been flooded, forcing residents to use storage tanks to store water transported from faraway places at a cost of 20 to 45 cents per gallon. California utilities, on the other hand, charge less than one penny per gallon for tap water.

Residents of Mendocino sat and watched the Senate pass its $1 trillion infrastructure package. They wondered if some of those funds would reach them. Dianne Feinstein (the senior senator from California) has highlighted that the package targets drought mitigation projects like water storage and water recycling.

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It won't happen soon enough for those who live in small towns in the northern part of the state.

California's drought has shown that, perhaps more than rain, it is infrastructure and money that determine who has enough water in these increasingly dry times. The drought and other effects of climate change have shown that smaller communities with less resources are vulnerable.

The Lake Perris reservoir is 600 miles south of Mendocino in an area that is much more dry. This large artificial lake supplies drinking water to Riverside and San Bernardino.

In the hills southeast of Los Angeles, Lake Skinner, Lake Matthews, and Diamond Valley Lake are all about 80% full. These reservoirs are part of the strong Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. They show that California's water resources today are influenced by planning and financial muscle.

Southern California's cities have amassed huge reserves over the past century through the construction of aqueducts, reservoirs, as well as storing water underground in aquifers during dry years.

The Metropolitan Water District is the nation's largest water supplier and has 13 times the storage capacity it had in 1990. Southern Californians use 40% less water today than they did three decades ago. The south is prepared for drought, despite the more dry conditions.

Mendocino and Fort Bragg are smaller cities in the northern regions and have adapted to being dependent on water from one source.

Water specialists warn that the climate change and weeks of dry, hot days in the north will force smaller towns to follow the lead of the south and create water systems that draw water from multiple sources.

This is a common thing you see during droughts, according to Jay Lund, a University of California, Davis expert on California's water system. Larger cities with a lot wealth are more organized and have a lot to long-term planning.

Northern California's reservoirs are at dangerous levels. A power generating station at Oroville Dam shut down last week for the first time in its history, more than 50 years ago. The reservoir, which currently holds 24% of its capacity, was too low. The huge Shasta Lake reservoir, located at the top end of the agricultural Sacramento Valley, is now at 30% capacity. Santa Rosa, located an hour north from San Francisco, has imposed a 20% water reduction requirement. Inspectors are sent through the neighborhoods to inspect for excessive water usage. Restaurants are now required to only offer water on request.

Mendocino's immediate concern is water availability.

Ryan Rhoades is the town's aquifer manager. He spends his days brainstorming in desperate moments. The town could run 50 miles of firehoses through redwood forests to Ukiah, where it would have an emergency water supply. Blackhawk firefighting helicopters could drop water in Fort Bragg's reservoir, 16 miles away from the coast.

Mendocino is surrounded by redwood forests. This makes it a paradox that the town is often covered in moisture. Residents can find themselves in thick fog, which makes it difficult to walk their dogs. Rhoades has been approached by Silicon Valley companies to install machines that convert fog into drinking water.

It is possible that towns and cities within the county may stop selling water to Mendocino in the next few weeks. This is a move Fort Bragg made in July due to concerns about its water supply.

Roth, owner of the SeagullInn, stated, "That's what keeps my eyes open at night." Our business will be over if we stop working. We cannot tell guests to use hand wipes for cleaning.

Residents believe that the town should consider desalination and building pipeline networks to connect with other towns along the coast. These projects could cost many millions of dollars in the long-term.

Rhoades stated that we need the support of the state, the county and the federal governments.

Mendocino didn't see the crisis coming. Although wells have been dry for many years, they are not at this level and not as early in the year.

Ed OBrien is a Mendocino fire chief who was part of a group that searched the area for other sources of water two decades ago and hit many roadblocks.

Mendocino is surrounded by many water sources. However, many local rivers turn brackish during the summer and are designated salmon habitats.

Sue Gibson, a retired teacher who lived in Mendocino over the past 30 years, decided to stop taking baths in her beloved claw foot tub and instead resigned herself to washing dishes by hand.

Gibson explained that you should bring a bottle wine and water to a dinner party. People often ask you if you have flushed.

Gibson said Gibson will persevere with the support of her friends.

It wasn't how I wanted to spend my golden years.

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