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When The Well Runs Dry

The smattering of recent rain hasn't rid the Albion River of its gray and orange hued appearance. On the other hand the 200-foot deep well that serves this house continues to regularly pump water into a tank that holds thousands of gallons.

I was in the Savings Bank of Mendocino County branch in the town of the same name last week and inquired of one of the long time employees about their water situation. "We've been buying it since June," she replied. "Last year [2012] was just about the same. We started buying water in June or July."

Across Ukiah Street and a bit east the good folks at Frankie's (purveyors of delicious ice cream, pizza and more) have been buying water since October. Recently, they've shut down the restroom and rented a port-a-potty.

At a more than 100-year old residence near the Mendocino Art Center, the 40-foot well isn't completely dry, but the owner is planning to pay for water delivery starting sometime this week. As the Board of Supervisors recently recognized on an official level, this is a drought. Drive by Lake Mendocino if you still have any doubts.

While California and much of the West remain painfully dry the Midwest has just suffered through intense cold, unsuitable for a polar bear. Anyone who doesn't believe that we humans are impacting climate change need only take a long hard look at time lapse photography of what once were polar regions covered in ice and snow for millienia and now thoroughly melted in less than an average human lifetime.

That doesn't mean that there haven't been instances of whiplash weather before. The heat and high winds that caused the Great Comptche Fire of September, 1931 (burning many miles wide from the east end of Big River southward to the Navarro River) was followed two and a half months later by an extended December cold snap so severe the Albion River froze over in tidewater. In its freshwater the Albion froze so solidly about a half mile east of here that cattle walked over the river without so much as a crack in the ice.

Seven years before, in 1924, California was in its third straight year of drought, the worst to date here at the Macdonald Ranch. My then teenaged father and his younger brother, Forrest, dug deep holes in the bottomland adjacent to the river in order to find enough pools of water for their grazing milk cows to survive on.

That 1920s drought covered the entire state and brought into play one of the most unusual figures in California history. In late May, 1924 a Modoc County newspaper, the Surprise Valley Record, noted an item that had just run in the Lakeview Examiner of southern Oregon. The Record's piece said, "There is some talk of getting Charles Hatfield, the rainmaker, up there in order to have him punch up old Jupiter Pluvius and have him get on to his job of giving mother earth [a] bath. His services would be mighty acceptable down this way, also. A great deal of fun is being poked at the rainmaker. At any rate, he pulled down eight thousand dollars for making it rain in the lower country. A good rain here now would do an immense amount of good just now for the ground is getting very dry, and unless rain comes soon, the crops here will be very short."

Charles Mallory Hatfield
Charles Mallory Hatfield, 1915

Charles Mallory Hatfield was certainly the most successful person to practice the art of pluviculture, or artificial rainmaking. Born in Kansas but raised in southern California, Hatfield first gained broad public acclaim when, in 1904, he climbed to the top of Mt. Lowe and released a secret mixture of chemicals into the air. The rain storm that followed proved so successful that the local farmers who had promised a $50 payment for precipitation doubled the amount. Hatfield followed up by making it rain buckets near Rubio Canyon, with a reward in the neighnorhood of $1,000.

In 1914, the City of San Diego purchased the recently completed reservoir at Morena Dam. A year later it was far from full, so late in 1915 the city council hired Hatfield for a $10,000 fee. Hatfield and his brother, Paul, built a 20-foot tower alongside the dam, where early in the new year of 1916 Hatfield released his secret cloud-seeding chemicals. On January 5th heavy rains began to fall, and continued to fall, day after day, until nearby rivers topped their banks. The rains continued more or less unabated for over two weeks. Two neighboring dams (Sweetwater and Lower Otay Lake) overflowed. The flooding engulfed homes and farms, knocked down power poles and bridges, cut off road and rail travel throughout the region. The rains ceased for two days then started up again, pouring down for another week. By the time the flooding stopped at least twenty people had been killed.

Hatfield certainly fulfilled his end of the bargain, but the City of San Diego refused to pony up his fee unless he paid for all the damages. Lawsuits between Hatfield and the city went on until the late 1930s, when a court finally absolved him of blame, ruling the deaths and damages an "Act of God." The lesson of the story, perhaps to this day, is to be careful what you wish for, even if it's just rain; might turn out to be too much of a good thing.

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Followup to the recent denial by the Fort Bragg Planning Commission of Robert Affinito's request for permits to bring a Dollar Store to South Franklin Street: On Monday, January 24th, at 6pm in Town Hall, the Fort Bragg City Council will hear an appeal of the Planning Commission's denial of said permits.

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