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Emergency water starts flowing to Mendocino Coast communities

Emergency water shipments have begun making their way to desperate consumers on the Mendocino Coast, a result of collaborative efforts by county and city officials from Ukiah and Fort Bragg.

But the rollout is starting slowly, and Mendocino County officials are still working to recruit haulers with the right kind of tankers to meet the demand.

Only one truck hauling 5,000 gallons a trip is working at the moment, with enough time in a day to make two deliveries from the water source in Ukiah to Fort Bragg, according to county Transportation Director Howard Dashiell.

With wells running low or even dry in Mendocino and other coastal communities, something closer to 75,000 gallons a day is needed to supplement what’s being drawn from groundwater wells on the coast, said Josh Metz, a consultant with Regional Government Services who is working with the county.

Still, for someone like Ruth Rosenblum, who co-owns Frankie’s Pizza in Mendocino, access to water delivered Thursday proved a godsend.

Rosenblum said she and several retail stores on the same property off Ukiah Street had been sharing weekly water deliveries but were two weeks overdue. They learned late Wednesday some was headed their way — just as she was contemplating closing the restaurant doors.

“It’s been a hard enough year with the pandemic,” she said, noting that food is being served on expensive, single-use compostable dishes and a portable toilet stands out front to save water. “I don’t want to see all this hard work go down the drain — literally.”

The mere rumor that deliveries were underway “is causing a huge sigh of relief” on the coast, Mendocino City Community Services District General Manager Ryan Rhoades said.

“People who were super stressed are starting to see sort of a light at the end of the tunnel,” Rhoades said.

The effort is being underwritten largely by Mendocino County, which has put aside up to $1.5 million from its Pacific Gas & Electric wildfire legal settlement funds to truck water over the hill from Ukiah to a treatment reservoir owned by the city of Fort Bragg. The county also is applying for $3.84 million in noncompetitive grant funds through the Department of Water Resources to help offset operational costs.

Local haulers, who previously bought water from Fort Bragg and several other coastal water districts until their own supplies ran short, can now acquire water from Fort Bragg to deliver to coastal residents and businesses.

Domestic water users will pay only the local hauling fee, while businesses will also pay 20% of the long-haul costs from Ukiah. While Ukiah is selling the water for 3 cents a gallon, the cost for shipping it overland is estimated at 24 cents a gallon under emergency contracts expected to be negotiated with individual truckers.

The county has been seeking certified potable water haulers, but so far the only rig available is a food-grade tanker that normally carries liquid sweetener for ice cream production from the Oakland port to a Humboldt County creamery, Dashiell said. The state Division of Drinking Water has approved its use, and Dashiell said he hopes to engage a second truck from the same company.

“It’s used to driving these crazy Mendocino County roads — these steep hills and windy roads,” he said. “Right now, I’ve scratched the surface, and we’ve at least started.”

Ukiah, which is using groundwater for its own 16,000 or so residents, sent groundwater in the first shipment to Fort Bragg on Wednesday and in two more tanker loads Thursday, Ukiah Water and Sewer Director Sean White said.

But beginning Friday, the city will begin pumping small amounts of surface water from the Russian River. The move comes after the state amended an order that had threatened fines or other consequences to keep water rights holders from exercising their claims.

On Wednesday, the State Water Board issued an order specifically authorizing Ukiah to begin small scale river diversions to aid its coastal neighbors in need, said Erik Ekdahl, Division of Water Rights deputy director.

Those who receive water through emergency shipments would be required to abide by a 55 gallon per capita per day health and human safety water use limit. However the amended order specifically relieves the citizens of Ukiah from having to abide by the same cap, as their water will continue to come from groundwater wells.

White said the city would pump only one day a week.

“I’m just really happy that for now everything’s been worked out in a mutually agreeable way,” White said. “Our concern really is executing the task of helping those people, getting water to the coast, at the end of the day.”

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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