California drought: town uses trucked water amid shortages

Residents of Mendocino have had to make radical adjustments to cope with diminishing water supplies

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A Northern California coastal town popular with tourists is running low on water after two years of little rainfall during a drought in the US West, forcing residents and business owners to truck in water from elsewhere.

Mendocino, known for its beaches, cliff-side trails and redwood forests, relies on mostly shallow, rain-dependent aquifers, and many of the wells are running low or have dried up, the Press Democrat reported Thursday.

The 170-year-old hamlet has roughly 1,000 full-time residents but about 2,000 daily visitors, said Ryan Rhoades, superintendent of the Mendocino Community Services District.

All of their water needs are supplied by a network of 420 wells at various depths. Many of them were hand-dug in the early years of the historic town and are only 35 feet (11 metres) deep or shallower, Mr Rhoades said.

By late spring last year, well shortages were being reported, even though locals are so focused on water efficiency that they easily meet 40 per cent conservation mandates, he said.

A historic drought tied to climate change is gripping California and other western states. It comes just a few years after California declared its last dry spell over in 2016. The earlier drought depleted groundwater supplies and changed how people use water, with many people and businesses ripping out landscaping and replacing it with more drought-tolerant plants.

Recently, Mendocino businesses like hotels have had trouble meeting their water needs, and water trucks making deliveries are now becoming almost as common as tourists.

Some hotels are charging extra for daily linen replacement and hot tub use, and other businesses are considering portable toilets to conserve water.

Most water had been purchased from Fort Bragg, a town of about 7,300 people whose primary water source is the Noyo River. But as the river’s flow has diminished, officials shut off the supply to Mendocino this week to safeguard supplies for its residents.

There’s been talk of shipping in water by barge to deliver to Mendocino and other cities in need on the southern Mendocino Coast, transporting it by railway from the inland city of Willits and trucking it to the coast from Ukiah in wine tankers.

For the foreseeable future, Mendocino is expected to be hauling in ever-greater amounts of water, although exactly where it will come from and how isn’t clear.

“From fires to pandemic to drought,” Mendocino County Supervisor Ted Williams said. “I think drought might be the worst.”

Mr Rhoades said the Community Services District has reached out to the Mendocino School Board, which has two storage tanks with capacity for 110,000 gallons, to see if its members would sell some well water to the town. But it would have to be a small enough amount to allow for well recovery, especially since the community’s fire hydrants rely on the same source.

But he said the community needs to find a long-term strategy to withstand dry conditions.

“But right now,” Mr Rhoades said, “the focus is on surviving this year.”

Updated: July 26, 2021, 7:02 AM