As surplus water sales evaporate, Mendocino Coast scrambles to keep from going dry

Mendocino County is forging ahead with plans to truck water from Ukiah to Fort Bragg despite snags.|

With private wells running dry on the Mendocino Coast and neighboring communities too tapped out to share, Mendocino County officials are racing to organize a giant bucket brigade over the hills from Ukiah.

The tiny unincorporated community of Westport, the last community that was still selling water, quit this week, leaving the town of Mendocino and neighboring coastal villages — along with families, restaurants, inns and other users — at risk of running out.

Mendocino City Community Services District General Manager Ryan Rhoades recently characterized the coast’s water status as “a dire situation … teetering on catastrophe.”

“Right now, there is virtually no bulk water for sale available on the coast,” Rhoades told county supervisors. “Residents and businesses are scared.”

The county board has approved using up to $1.5 million in PG&E settlement funds from the 2017 fires to help transport water from Ukiah to Fort Bragg over the next four months. The water would be transported by private haulers and sold to individuals along the coastline. The board is also applying for $3.84 million through a new Department of Water Resource “Small Communities” drought resiliency grant fund.

The cost to buy and ship up to 118,500 gallons a day would be an estimated $959,850 a month, though actual demand might be two-thirds of that, county officials said.

There are other obstacles. Chief among them is the need to find enough tanker trucks certified to transport potable water as required by state drinking water officials. Ten to 12 trucks are needed, each making two to three trips each day, officials said.

There’s also the cost to business users, whose long-haul transport costs — an estimated 24 cents per gallon — would not be subsidized through the state grant. That puts the overall cost at 27 cents a gallon or about $945 a truckload retail — likely beyond the “breaking point” for many businesses, county Supervisor Ted Williams, who represents the south Mendocino Coast, noted during a board meeting last week.

Another complication is that Ukiah water officials have indicated they intend to resort to pumping small amounts of Russian River water for delivery to coastal users without obtaining an exemption from the California State Water Supply Board, which has curtailed the city’s surface water diversions.

The Russian River watershed, which runs through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, supplies water to cities and towns along the river as well as to cities and districts served by the Sonoma Water. Source: Sonoma Water (Dennis Bolt / For The Press Democrat)
The Russian River watershed, which runs through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, supplies water to cities and towns along the river as well as to cities and districts served by the Sonoma Water. Source: Sonoma Water (Dennis Bolt / For The Press Democrat)

Ukiah Water and Sewer Director Sean White said the city has weaned itself off surface water for the first time and is relying solely on groundwater to meet municipal demands. It is also producing about 10 million gallons a week of recycled water for local farmers and ranchers. But he’s not comfortable throttling up well production beyond the current level to supply the coast.

He described the river diversions as would be so minimal they would be “inconsequential” but acknowledged the city could be fined as a result. However, he said the city council views the risk as a worthwhile one “if that’s what it takes to do the right thing.”

White said the city’s reluctance to file for the human health and safety exemption that would likely enable it to avoid being fined is based on his understanding that Ukiah’s roughly 16,000 people would be obliged to limit their water use to 55 gallons per person per day.

Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights, said the 55-gallon cap would actually apply only to the coastal residents receiving diverted water.

He said Ukiah officials simply needed to fill out a form to acquire the exemption and probably could get approval in a day. But even though it’s a simple process, he said it was a critical step that allowed the state board to track exactly what was being withdrawn from the shrinking supplies released from Lake Mendocino into the upper Russian River watershed and ensure the basic needs of others downstream were protected.

“Lake Mendocino is below 20,000 acre feet,” Ekdahl said. That is the minimum threshold water managers had hoped to maintain in the reservoir until at least Oct. 1. “There’s no rain in the forecast. It’s just a downward trajectory, and if we keep going at the same pace, the lake drains by the end of December.”

The ongoing drought is expected to be the new “drought of record,” replacing the 1976-77 drought as the worst in recorded history. Its consequences are both severe, complex and varied, depending on the hydrology, planning, population density and infrastructure investment of different areas, among other factors. But after two years of record-low rainfall, almost no one has as much water as they would like right now.

In Mendocino County, inland users with rights to water from the upper Russian River have mostly been forbidden to take any more than what’s allowed under special health and human safety exemptions equal to 55 gallons per person per day.

As a result of what White said had been around $40 million invested in drought resiliency, Ukiah is known for having a diverse water portfolio that is allowing it now to support itself without drastic water cuts.

On the coast, shallow wells have been going dry at a record pace, and others have been struggling to recover fast enough to meet supply needs. But while at the beginning of summer well owners could purchase water in bulk from Fort Bragg, Irish Beach, Elk and Westport, each community gradually found their own supplies diminishing to the point they no longer had surplus to sell, officials said.

In Mendocino, an internationally known tourist destination, some inns and restaurants have had to close down to one-third capacity to save water, Rhoades said. Businesses are “getting creative” with laundry service, adding surcharges for drought costs, using single-use plates and utensils and taking other measures to try to reduce water use, as well.

The county also has arranged for six port-a-potties through the California Office of Emergency Services to be placed around town to take the pressure off businesses who public restrooms need to be closed to save water, he said.

For a time, it appeared water from the city of Willits might be sent by rail aboard the Skunk Train to Fort Bragg for subsequent sale to coastal communities, but the groundwater production facility that was to be the source of the water required improvements first, said Josh Metz, a consultant to the county through Regional Government Services. The Skunk Train also needed assurances the plan would work before it invested in tanker cars, he said.

Trucking water from Ukiah has emerged as the more ready solution, but one that comes at higher cost to coastal consumers — and the potential for a fine from the state board.

However, Ekdahl said in a written statement, “Curtailment is not standing in the way of Ukiah being a good neighbor.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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