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Coast Water Woes

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.”


  1. Lee Edmundson July 30, 2021

    NB: Chris Calder — Excellent reporting. Please, oh please, keep at it. Good clear writing about the facts.

    One nit to pick: It is not the Village of Mendocino. We are the Town of Mendocino. We do not have a Coastal Commission certified Mendocino Village Plan, we have a Mendocino Town Plan.

    Let’s drop the other shoe. How would you like it if we referred to Fort Bragg as the Town of Fort Bragg? Better yet, as the Village of Fort Bragg. Rankles, doesn’t it. Same here. We’ve fought for years for Mendocino to be respected as the Town which it is, albeit unincorporated. Please follow suit and report accordingly.

    Your reporting is clear and concise. I hope you’re a stringer for some news entity.

    PS:I’m 4 miles in from the coast. I’ve owned my place since 1982 and have a 50’+ deep well. It’s never gone dry and hasn’t yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. We’re all on strict water watch out here.

    PPS: As my dearly departed Uncle DV once told me, the Sahara Desert was once, thousands of years ago, a tropical rain forest. Time passes. Things change. We must change with them, or suffer and perhaps perish.

    Keep up your good work.


  2. Daniel July 30, 2021

    Hear, hear! Great reporting.

  3. mr. wendal July 30, 2021

    “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.“ needs to be corrected.

    Fort Bragg already has a restriction of set days for irrigation – Tues. and Sat. 12am-9am and 6pm-11:59pm (exception for drip irrigation). During Stage 3 all watering, including drip irrigation, can only occur on Tuesdays).

    Lodging establishments already have laundry service restrictions – no laundry service for stays under 3 days unless needed for sanitation or health reasons. Since last year, most motels reduced laundry service to help avoid exposure to visitors due to Covid-19 so their laundry restriction won’t make as big a dent in water usage as the City Council thought.

    Those water restrictions, along with a list of others, began with Stage 2 on July 12.

  4. Kathy Borst July 30, 2021

    Is anyone talking about not hosting tourists on the coast? Bringing in tourists to use trucked in water seems like a form of madness. But I have never understood “civilization” all that well.

    • Pat Kittle July 31, 2021

      You realize temporary immigrants (aka “tourists”) exasperate our worsening water woes.

      (Try to be objective here. Not hateful, just objective.)

      How about permanent immigrants?

      • Kathy Borst July 31, 2021

        I guess that means you have to define what a native is. I wasn’t born in Mendocino County but I’ve been here 42 years. Am I a native or a permanent immigrant?
        Yes, all humans are having an impact. If there’s a fire somewhere, it’s a disaster. Tourists don’t go there. If there’s a flood, it’s a disaster. No tourists. If there’s a drought, it’s a disaster… in fact I think I heard or read somewhere that the county was declared a disaster area due to drought. One of many such counties.

        • Pat Kittle July 31, 2021


          You contradict yourself — you say “tourists don’t go [where] there’s a disaster” such as a “drought.”

          But obviously tourists do, which is precisely why you argue, “Bringing in tourists to use trucked in water seems like a form of madness. ”

          By your own reasoning, “Bringing in immigrants to use trucked in water seems like a form of madness. ”

          (According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, an “immigrant” is “a person who has come to a different country in order to live there permanently.”)

          Try to be objective here. Not hateful, just objective — there are legitimate non-hateful reasons to limit immigration. Admit it.

  5. Kathy Borst July 31, 2021

    There are legitimate non hateful reasons to limit everything, though some are specious. My point is that an immediate action could be taken to address an immediate problem.
    And immigration is limited or there would be millions more people here.

    • Pat Kittle July 31, 2021

      Kathy Borst:

      You clearly are afraid to acknowledge the FACT that the US population would be heading in the direction of (water) sustainability without mass immigration.

      The “immediate problem” won’t be solved solely with your “immediate action,” and you know it.

      BTW, how is immigration “limited”? For all practical purposes we not only have open borders, we offer ever more numerous incentives for endless millions more immigrants to come here. A recent example is the notion that non-citizens should now be able to vote — legally.

      You want to reduce the demand for water, but you can’t handle the truth.

      • Bruce Anderson July 31, 2021

        Mass immigration, which isn’t mass anyway, has nothing to do with water availability. And where are non-citizens voting?

        • Marmon July 31, 2021

          by mail


        • Pat Kittle July 31, 2021

          Evidence that immigration has a down side(s) is automatically slandered (by the powers that be) as “hate speech,” and censored. But I’ll respond anyway.

          “Mass immigration, which isn’t mass anyway, has nothing to do with water availability.”

          Bruce, do you deny that more people need more water?? Seriously??

          “Five Ways Immigration-Driven Population Growth Impacts Our Environment”:
          “Population growth in the United States is almost entirely driven by the federal government’s immigration policy. The Census Bureau predicts that the nation’s population will grow from 325.5 million today to 403.7 million by 2060 — and 96 percent of that increase of 78 million people is due to the current historically high level of immigration. As both Americans and as global citizens, we have an obligation to consider how such rapid growth might impact the planet around us.”
          — [ ]

          “…where are non-citizens voting?”

          Do you deliberately twist what I say? I said: “A recent example is the notion [NOTION] that non-citizens should now be able to vote — legally.”

          Here’s a recent example:

          “There Is No Good Reason You Should Have to Be a Citizen to Vote”
          (By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, NYT; July 28, 2021):
          — [ ]

          • Bruce Anderson July 31, 2021

            Water probs, as most people know, originate with global warming. One guy writes an essay in the NYT and it becomes reality. Gotcha, Kittle.

            • Pat Kittle August 1, 2021

              “Gotcha, Kittle”?? We’re presumably having a serious discussion of a serious problem — not playing “Gotcha.”

              “Water probs, as most people know, originate with global warming.”

              Once again… “Five Ways Immigration-Driven Population Growth Impacts Our Environment”:
              — [ ]

              “2. WATER SHORTAGES — As immigration continues to drive the United States population higher, the demand for water continues to rise, yet the availability continues to decline. For example, a study out of Columbia University found that massive droughts in the Southeastern United States in 2007-2008 were due to the region’s exploding population, which posed “the root of the water supply problem.” Georgia’s population grew from 6.5 million in 1990 to 9.5 million in 2007, and has now reached 10.4 million. Nearly a quarter of total water use in Georgia is for public water supply, meaning a higher population puts a large strain on water availability.

              “This problem goes beyond the Southeast, although it is especially visible there. Water managers in 40 states expect water shortages in the next decade, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation. These problems will likely be amplified by climate change, as warming climates mean higher rates of evaporation and lower snowpack, leading to less freshwater.”

              “One guy writes an essay in the NYT and it becomes reality. Gotcha, Kittle.”

              — (Apparently you didn’t check that out either, or you’d know a woman wrote it.)
              — You want evidence that non-citizens demand voting privileges.
              — How much evidence (that you won’t read) do you want? I gave you an excellent example.

              — The New York Times (unfortunately) is arguably the world’s most influential newspaper, and its politics (including immigration) are far more like yours than you might want to admit.

              You’ll probably ignore all that, so just answer my previous question:

              Bruce, do you deny that more people need more water?? Seriously??

              • Bruce Anderson August 1, 2021

                OK, one woman wrote her opinion and it becomes another of your “facts.” More people need more of everything but water shortages are drought-driven, and drought is a result of a warmed climate, not the desperate brown people you fascists like to blame for everything from crime to shortages of potable water.

                • Pat Kittle August 3, 2021

                  As with Kathy Borst, you contradict yourself.

                  “More people need more of everything…”

                  Yes, Bruce, that’s EXACTLY my point — immigrants are people, and “everything” includes water.

                  “…but water shortages are drought-driven, and drought is a result of a warmed climate,…” [instead of people??]

                  You, Bruce, demand evidence.

                  Once again… “Five Ways Immigration-Driven Population Growth Impacts Our Environment”:

                  “5. CARBON EMISSIONS — Immigration transfers populations of people from lower-polluting parts of the world to the United States, where CO2 emissions are far higher per person. According to a CIS study, U.S. immigrants produce an estimated 637 million tons of CO2 annually, which is 482 million tons more than these immigrants would have produced had they remained in their home countries.

                  “Of course, this does not make immigrants responsible for global warming, nor does it mean that native-born Americans shouldn’t do more to reduce their own footprints…. However, it is dishonest to discuss large-scale immigration without considering the impact that immigration has on our climate.”
                  — [ ]

                  If my FACTS are not FACTS, simply show me how I’m wrong and I will have no problem agreeing with you.

                  But strawmen & ad hominems don’t count, and so far that’s all you’ve got. Calling me “fascist” doesn’t support or reject the FACTS I’ve stated one iota. Likewise, if I called you “commie.”

                  BTW, the debate over how much climate change is anthropogenic misses the elephant in the room. If climate change IS anthropogenic, we can reduce it by reducing our population size, and our per-capita consumption — both of which would be served by reducing immigration.

                  If climate change IS NOT anthropogenic, that means there’s nothing we can do about it, and its effect will continue to REDUCE the ecological carrying capacity for people. Either way, FEWER people, NOT MORE people, should be a no-brainer.

                  BTW, we humans are responsible for the horrific mass extinction we’re currently in. If 30 to a 100,000,000 other species could have a say in the matter, how do you think 99.99% of them would vote — MORE people, or FEWER people?

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