The Mendocino Coast's water woes made statewide headlines last week with the news that a quarter of the village of Mendocino's wells had run dry just as the City of Fort Bragg, one of the biggest if not the biggest water supplier to the coast, had ended private water sales about six weeks earlier than expected.
Water talks among city and county officials in recent weeks have yielded ideas, but no workable plan yet for supplying the Mendocino Coast's growing number of water-starved households and businesses. For now, the City of Fort Bragg will not be one of the suppliers, City Manager Tabatha Miller said Monday.
“We can't ask our ratepayers to continue to cut back while we keep supplying others” outside city limits, Miller said.
The move comes during, and partly because of, skyrocketing demand for delivered water on the coast as wells fail. Demand was four times what it was last July, Miller said, after trending sharply upward for the past few years.
Fort Bragg's water supply through summer and fall seems pretty secure, according to Miller. The city's Summers Lane reservoir is full and holds 30 days worth of water at Fort Bragg's current use level. A desalination unit to be installed at the water treatment plant in August will produce 200 gallons per minute - enough, Miller said, to cover gaps in supply when high tides and low river levels interrupt the fresh water available at the city's Noyo River intake. Also, the city has a proposed agreement with the Fort Bragg Unified School District — subject to school board approval in early August — to use water from district wells, an expected 50-100 gallon-per-minute source, Miller said, which would add another 5% to the city's supply.
“We feel pretty confident about getting through this year,” Miller said, “To be honest I have no idea what to expect next year. I'm terrified of it,” meaning that another year of drought would likely upset even the best laid plans for the coast's water supply.
At its Aug. 6 meeting, the City Council will likely consider raising the city's water emergency to Stage 3, triggering tighter restrictions, including set days for lawn and garden irrigation and reduction of laundry services at local motels and inns.
Fort Bragg's situation is a stark contrast to the village of Mendocino's, where a quarter of wells have gone dry, according to a Santa Rosa Press Democrat report last week. Along with the household needs of residents, the supply crunch is threatening the town's ability to serve tourists as thousands flock from the superheated, increasingly smoky inland valleys.
The problem is not just Mendocino's. Though there are private sources of water from Westport to Elk, they all report the same dwindling supplies, while the number of failing wells — and new customers for delivered water — continues to rise.
County government started talks on water supply issues in June, and included Fort Bragg officials, but so far the effort has come up with no concrete alternatives for the coast, at least in the short-term.
Among the ideas being discussed are buying water from Willits and transporting it by train or truck. Both transport methods would mean significantly more expensive water for the coast, but Miller said trucking it might actually be cheaper. Both Willits and Fort Bragg charge about three cents a gallon for treated water. The Skunk Train is reportedly asking for seven cents a gallon to transport the water, as well as assurances that the demand for water would pay for the railroad's investment in new tanker cars and whatever other costs would be involved. Water delivered by train would also have to be run through Fort Bragg's water system, for which the city would charge. Given those factors, Miller said, it might be cheaper for water wholesalers to buy from Willits and haul directly to their customers, without Fort Bragg and the Skunk Train taking a cut.
Miller said it is possible Fort Bragg will restart water sales, depending on its own supply, as the summer wears on. If the well agreement with the school district goes through and the desalination unit is up and working, water sales in late summer are a possibility, she said.
Serious Jeopardy in Mendocino
The Town of Mendocino became an emblem of California's intensifying drought last week, with news coverage from San Francisco to LA focusing on the plight of the town's thirsty restaurants and inns, and its cluster of shallow, failing wells.
The Mendocino City Community Services District treats the town's wastewater, and monitors Mendocino's water table and wells. The water table, said MCCSD board president Harold Hauck on Monday, is “dropping precipitously.”
“We're in serious jeopardy,” Hauck continued. “For most of the central part of town, where the wells are not deep… it's worse than anything I've seen in 20-plus years living in Mendocino.”
On Monday, the first six porta-potties were delivered by the county Office of Emergency Services to replace closed bathrooms at Harvest at Mendosa's, Patterson's Pub and Good Life Bakery. Other restaurants and inns may be switching to porta-potties too. The MCCSD relies on reporting from residents about the state of their wells, so knowing exactly how sharply the water shortage is being felt is difficult, said district superintendent Ryan Rhoades. The report of a failed well could be a “black mark” that potentially hurts a property's value, Rhoades noted, so some property owners keep their water situations private.
An estimate in a Santa Rosa Press Democrat article that a quarter of the town's wells have failed is apparently based on a March survey in which about a quarter of those who responded said they had dry wells. But only about a third of property owners in the district answered the survey.
Another survey sent out a couple of weeks ago is starting to yield results, Rhoades said, but it is too early to base estimates on that. He encouraged residents to return the surveys, since state aid can rely on an accurate description of the need.
Rhoades said the district has been talking with state and county governments about the widening gap between water supply and demand on the Mendocino Coast. The situation got more urgent last week when the City of Fort Bragg ended outside water sales.
That leaves not only Mendocino, but all of the unincorporated Mendocino Coast without probably its biggest supplier of delivered water. Water systems in Westport, Elk and Irish Beach are still selling some, Rhoades said, and there are usable springs and ponds up and down the coast, as well as water systems feeding housing developments and trailer parks, that might be able to spare a couple of truckloads a week.
Other than that, the coast's water options are all inland. Since transportation makes up more than 75% of the cost of delivered water, bringing water over the hill, most likely from Willits, would make it a lot more expensive.
Bringing it by rail would be the cheaper option, Rhoades said, but many logistics still need to be worked out. Trucking could drive the cost of a 3500-gallon load well over $1000, he said, as opposed to maybe $750 by rail. A more typical cost of a truckload of water when supplies aren't strapped — depending on where it is delivered — is between $350 and $450 dollars, he said.
Beyond immediate transport, Rhoades said the district is looking at various forms of aid for residents with dry wells, including helping them buy storage tanks, subsidizing hauling costs, and buying a water trailer for the district that could haul a 900-gallon tank to a dry household on short notice.
Longer term, the district is reviving discussion of a town-wide water system and/or developing new wells. An agreement with the Mendocino Unified School District to supply households from its wells is also in the works, Rhoades said.
He added he has been hearing mostly from businesses in water trouble, and that residents so far are not asking for help.
Aid from state government will likely be a factor in whatever the MCCSD does to help residents, and Rhoades said the state requires low-income residents to be helped first, putting local government in the position of selecting who can buy water and screening them for income.
“It gets very complicated,” he said. “They're not just opening their checkbook.”
“We're working really, really hard to find not just immediate solutions, but long term solutions,” Rhoades added.
MCCSD Board President Hauck said Mendocino's water predicament is more urgent than he's ever seen and he expects things to get worse before they get better.
“There are no alternatives for the town. We don't have a water system… I wish I could say we're optimistic.”
Asked what message he would like to send to residents, Hauck said, “Conserve water. Not just residents, but visitors too. It's a dire situation.”