Public officials scrambling for solutions amid water emergency on the Mendocino Coast
Water trucks are becoming almost as common as tourists in the coastal village of Mendocino this summer, as two years of critically low rainfall have taken a toll on the town’s groundwater wells and left public officials scrambling to find new supplies.
The famed community relies on mostly shallow, rain-dependent aquifers, and many of the wells are running low or even dry, forcing residents and business owners to purchase water elsewhere.
Even that has become problematic as their key supplier, the City of Fort Bragg, closed the spigot early this week to safeguard supplies for its own residents.
The outlook for a town dependent on tourism and hospitality is bleak. Some hotels are already charging extra for daily linen replacement and hot tub use, and other businesses are considering portable toilets to preserve potable water.
There’s been talk of shipping water in by barge for delivery to Mendocino and others in need on the southern Mendocino Coast; transporting it by railway from the inland city of Willits on the same track that the Skunk Train uses; and trucking it to the coast from Ukiah in wine tankers.
Either way, Mendocino is expected to be hauling ever-greater amounts of water into town for the foreseeable future, though exactly where it will come from and by what means remains unclear.
“From fires to pandemic to drought,” said Mendocino County Supervisor Ted Williams, “I think drought might be the worst.”
Williams pointed to the need to balance the interests of residents and those of businesses, a tension that was already fraught because of the coronavirus pandemic, when some locals rejected having outsiders in town even though businesses relied on them.
Williams said it’s not realistic to shut businesses to accommodate water rationing needs, particularly because there is no financial assistance of the sort that was available to owners and employees during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak.
With water in short supply throughout California, there are complications at every turn — from logistical to financial, regulatory to political — even assuming that other avenues for water delivery exist.
“The amount that they really need in the big picture is, honestly, very de minimis, to keep people going, but it’s going to give people heartburn,” Ukiah Sewer and Water Director Sean White said. “But finding an alternative? No one’s been finding alternatives.”
State and local elected and agency staffers have been enlisted in the effort, as stakeholders seek both viable solutions and emergency funding sources. There remain some limited water supplies from small rural communities around the county, but each additional mile adds cost and uncertainty to the equation, and everywhere, water providers are asking their own consumers to conserve because of the intensifying drought.
Willits City Manager Brian Bender’s city is considering selling water from a groundwater production facility for transport by the Mendocino Railway to a point near Fort Bragg’s water intake site on the Noyo River, several miles east of town, where it would be piped into the treatment system there.
He cited a number of obstacles, including repairs still needed on Willits’ groundwater facility, the railway’s need to purchase eight, 25,000-gallon tanker cars, unresolved funding questions and the city council’s desire for assurance water haulers would be unable to gouge consumers on the far end.
“It’s an interesting project on paper,” Bender said. “It’s something really interesting to talk about and work through the ramifications. On paper, it’s relatively simple. But once you try to apply it, it's not simple.”
The 170-year-old hamlet of Mendocino 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 individual wells at various depths. Many of them were hand-dug in the early years of the historic town and are only 35 feet deep or shallower, Rhoades said. But most of the water supply is further underground.
When the community services district was formed, residents and commercial accounts were given water allocations based on their size and use. Some businesses, like hotels and restaurants, already needed more water than their older wells provided in summer and have long supplemented their allocations by trucking water in.