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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.”

“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.

Last year, after the rainfall total reached only half the annual average of 40 inches, wells began running dry, though some were usable for a few months after January and a bit of rain arrived, Rhoades said.

By late spring, well shortages and delayed recovery were being reported again, even though locals have water efficiency so ingrained in them that they easily meet 40% conservation mandates, he said.

Businesses such as hotels face particular challenges meeting the needs and demands of tourists, however, he said, and the result is the increasingly common presence of private water trucks making deliveries to both residents and commercial entities in town.

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 Noyo River stream flow has diminished, problems have arisen during high tide cycles like one that arrived early this week, city Operations Manager Heath Daniels said.

Heavy tides overpower the outgoing river flow, pushing brackish water far enough upstream that it reaches the city’s intake valves 4½ miles up river. The city then must shut down the intake pumps because its equipment can’t handle the added salinity, Daniels said.

The Fort Bragg City Council last month approved spending about $336,000 for a reverse-osmosis desalination treatment system that can be used to process high-salinity water to avoid delays, but it won’t arrive until September, he said.

But in June, when the three primary water haulers who buy from the city would normally truck away about 200,000 gallons, they instead took about 750,000 gallons. The supplies were bound for Mendocino and other areas on the south Mendocino Coast where wells have run dry, officials said.

“I see them driving around the district,” said Williams, the county supervisor, whose district runs from Mendocino, where he lives, south to the Sonoma County line. “I see the trucks filling water tanks, and it doesn’t seem to be just one community. It seems to be fairly distributed.”

The spike in sales, combined with the high tides, prompted Fort Bragg to stop outside sales last Sunday, about six weeks ahead of what was anticipated, accelerating what already was an urgent need for solutions to the coastal shortage.

Already, several commercial businesses in Mendocino are struggling to keep public restrooms open because of the water needed to flush toilets, and there may have to be emergency portable potties and hand-washing stations brought in, Rhoades said.

One of the businesses facing challenges because of a slow well-recovery rate is the Harvest Market, whose second-generation operator, Tim Bosma, said the restrooms account for 20% to 25% of the market’s daily water use.

Bosma said he dreads the notion of asking customers to use portable toilets and tasking employees with servicing them. The store already is “very efficient for a grocery store of our footprint,” and there may be no alternative, he said.

“I think we’re going to have to cross that bridge,” Bosma said. “This is just July, and we still have at least four more months where there’s going to be low well recovery.”

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 might be willing to 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.

He’s also been encouraging homeowners to increase their own individual storage, in part so they can take full delivery of a 750-gallon truckload, if they’re paying for it anyway.

But he said the community really needs to look strategically, long-term toward enhanced resilience.

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

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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