California drought: Dozens of communities are at risk of running out of water

Paul Rogers, Mercury News,  8/2/21 

In Fort Bragg on the Mendocino Coast, city leaders are rushing to install an emergency desalination system. In Healdsburg, lawn watering is banned with fines of up to $1,000. In Hornbrook, a small town in Siskiyou County, faucets have gone completely dry, and the chairman of the water district is driving 15 miles each way to take showers and wash clothes.

So far, California’s worsening drought has been an inconvenience in big cities. But it is already imperiling an alarming number of communities, especially between the Bay Area and the Oregon border, threatening the water supplies for more than 130,000 people.

The severe shortages are not just in small towns and rural hamlets that rely on one or two wells or streams that have run dry. Larger towns, with their own reservoirs and water departments, are in trouble too.

As the state struggles with its worst drought since at least 1977, no one has a complete list of which of the state’s 7,500 public water systems are facing the most severe shortages.

But in May, officials at the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento set out to create one. They called it: “Public water systems likely to have critical water supply issues by the end of August.” It currently includes 81 water systems that serve 132,559 people — from tiny Mammoth Pool Mobile Home Park in the Sierra foothills near Yosemite National Park, to well-known Northern California towns like Ukiah, Lakeport, Bolinas, Healdsburg, Cloverdale and Fort Bragg.

“This is going to be a long, hot dry summer,” said Dan Newton, assistant deputy director of the board’s Division of Drinking Water. “Throw fires in on top of that with stressed water systems, and it is going to be really difficult for some systems to survive.”

Their list, Newton and his colleagues stress, is not an inventory of communities certain to run out of water. Rather, it is a roster of areas that have told the state they are in danger of running out or are facing extreme shortages. It also includes communities about which the water board’s staff has serious concerns and wants more information.

Once a community is put on the list, water board officials order weekly reports showing water use, conservation rules and plans to avoid running out of water. State water board officials can also order building moratoriums or tougher conservation rules. That hasn’t happened yet. But Newton said he expects the board to take some stronger measures in August.

When towns run dangerously low on water, typical fixes include drilling emergency wells, trucking in water and connecting small water systems to larger systems. But the state water board has only $10 million in its budget to help. The bulk of the costs must be borne by local counties and ratepayers, Newton said.

In many cases, visitors and even local residents often don’t realize how severe the problems are.

In Fort Bragg, an oceanfront town 165 miles north of San Francisco known for its logging history, fishing port and scenic coastline, tourists are checking into hotels and visiting beaches just like in past summers.

But this year is different. Last month, the city council voted to buy an emergency desalination system to keep the town of 7,500 people from running out of water. The main water supply is the Noyo River, which flows from redwood forests to the ocean. The river is just two inches deep in some places now, the lowest flows recorded since measurements began in the 1950s. When tides come in, salt water is pushed up river near intake pipes, putting the city’s water supply at risk.

“It’s extremely serious,” said Fort Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell. “I’ve lived here all my life, 51 years, and I haven’t seen anything like this.”

The city has a three-week water supply in a small reservoir and tanks. City officials have had no luck drilling wells. They’ve considered bringing in water by train or truck. On June 21, they agreed to spend $335,000 to buy a reverse osmosis plant from a company in San Diego to purify salty water. The equipment, about the size of a one-car garage, can provide about 30% of the city’s water supply, allowing pumping from the river during high tide, Norvell said. The plan is to have it installed by October.

“We’re hoping we can limp along until this thing gets here,” Norvell said.

Last week, Fort Bragg cut off all water sales to water haulers — companies that fill trucks and sell water to smaller towns like Mendocino — which has put the areas they serve in severe shortages. Some residents want the city, which still allows lawn watering two days a week, to do more.

“Restaurants need to be using paper plates,” said Megan Caron, who owns a vintage shop in town. “Hotels should not be allowing people to run spas and baths. People shouldn’t be watering lawns. It’s alarming.”

Two hours’ drive to the southeast, Healdsburg — a Sonoma County city of 12,000 where rainfall was just 35% of normal this year and Lake Mendocino is at risk of going dry this fall — ordered residents June 7 to cut water use 40%. City officials banned all lawn watering seven days a week, filling swimming pools, and even planting new plants, flowers, or fruit trees. Violators face fines of up to $1,000.

More than 650 Healdsburg residents have purchased large backyard storage tanks. A city truck carrying treated wastewater from the town’s sewage treatment plant fills them once a week. The water cannot be drunk, but keeps trees and other landscaping alive.

Brigette Mansell, a retired high school English teacher, spent $740 to buy a 550-gallon tank from a farm equipment dealer in Sebastopol. She uses the treated wastewater to keep her Japanese maple tree, Chinese pistachio and blueberry bushes alive. Inside, she has 11 buckets to capture water from sinks and showers.

“It’s an emergency,” said Mansell, a former mayor of Healdsburg. “I’m so concerned about my town. We are not in good shape.”

Mansell wants a moratorium on building new hotels in the area, and better planning by city officials as climate change worsens.

“Our four seasons now are fire, flood, earthquake and drought,” Mansell said. “We are not learning. We can no longer run our town on systems and procedures that are decades old.”

Some communities already have run dry. Hornbrook, population 300, near the Oregon border in Siskiyou County, is one of them. The town’s water tank is empty. Its wells aren’t working properly. Some homes have a trickle when they turn on faucets. Others have none.

One in the latter category belongs to Robert Puckett, chairman of the town’s water district. A retired ranch worker and Walmart cashier, Puckett and his wife have been driving 15 miles each way to the town of Yreka to take showers and wash clothes at their church since their home’s taps ran dry July 17. An emergency well is bring drilled in a few weeks that he hopes will bring the town more water.

“We didn’t get the rain this year,” Puckett said. “We didn’t get snowpack on Mount Shasta. And I’ve never seen the Klamath River running this low. It’s bad. We’re doing what we can to try to stay afloat.”

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