Wednesday, October 20

California resort town running out of water: ‘It’s a shock’ | Climate crisis in the American West

Many mornings, the town of Mendocino fades into a thick white mist that covers its seaside cliffs, redwoods, and quaint Victorian homes.

Sculpted from the northern California coast, the historic village’s rugged beaches, scenic hikes, charming bed and breakfasts, and boutique galleries attract 1.8 million visitors each year.

“Sure it does. This place is so beautiful. It’s so lush and humid here,” said Julián López, the executive chef of the Mendocino Café Beaujolais. “So when you hear about all the water issues, it really amazes you.” .

For the past century, misty, forested Mendocino, despite being located along several major rivers, streams, and springs, has relied on shallow wells for water. But amid a historic drought drying out the western US, aquifers beneath the city’s wet fog layer have rapidly diminished, threatening to sink the region’s tourism industry and the residents who depend on it.

Café Beaujolais, which normally draws all of its cooking and cleaning water from two small wells on its property, has already been shelling out thousands of dollars to transport water from nearby towns and cities.

Because surrounding areas also face shortages, the costs of hauling tanker trucks full of drinking water have nearly doubled in recent months, from about $ 350 per 35,000-gallon load to $ 600, Lopez said.

This is likely to continue to get worse, ”he said. “Especially with global warming, as the earth warms and the dry seasons lengthen.”

Almost all Mendocino business owners are dealing with similar anxieties.

Just minutes from Lopez’s restaurant, the Good Life Café and Bakery recently closed its restrooms. Crowds of tourists lining the block to sample the café’s organic quiches, cappuccinos and salads head instead for the portable toilets set up in the rear parking lot. The owners of the local Harvest grocery market have also brought in portable toilets.

The managers of the inns and boarding houses on the mountain road that runs through the town have posted posters on the dressing tables and vanities in each room, asking guests to save water by taking shorter showers. But Mendocino relies on the $ 500 million in annual revenue that visitors bring in, and the establishments here aren’t about to scare you with overly dire warnings.

Privately, however, several business owners said they were concerned that if their water problems continued, they would have to shut down or downsize. “Businesses are still reeling from the effects of Covid,” said Ryan Rhoades, superintendent of the Mendocino Community Services District, which manages the city’s water. “The idea that the lack of water could again lead to higher unemployment and fewer jobs is scary.”

So in a city that is home to roughly 1,000 full-time residents and 2,000 daily visitors, many locals are learning to live with much less water.

The coast near Mendocino, California.  The city relies on shallow wells for water that is running low in the middle of a drought.
The coast near Mendocino, California. The city relies on shallow wells for water that is running low in the middle of a drought. Photograph: Talia Herman / The Guardian

“Right now I’m putting personal hygiene behind by several centuries,” said 82-year-old Sue Gibson. The well that supplies her yellow picket fence near downtown Mendocino has been gushing less and less, and she has had to spend hundreds of dollars to get water delivered.

To conserve, she takes short “dark blue showers”, turning off the tap while washing and soaping up. She wears clothes over and over, “for longer than I ever had before.” And except when she’s hosting a business, she serves her food on paper plates. “I hate that – I really hate it,” he said. “My mother would be horrified!”

Still, compared to some of her neighbors, Gibson said, she felt lucky. Although she lives on a steady income, until now she has been able to afford to have water delivered by truck. “It’s the people with babies and the elderly that I like the most,” he said. If her husband had been alive, “keeping him clean and cared for would have been very difficult,” she said. “I’m glad he didn’t have to go through this.”

Gibson, who retired to Mendocino 30 years ago, and many of his neighbors have weathered multiple droughts.

Sue Gibson, at her home in Mendocino.  He's been finding ways to conserve water, including shorter showers.
Sue Gibson, at her home in Mendocino. He’s been finding ways to conserve water, including shorter showers. Photograph: Talia Herman / The Guardian

“But this is the worst year I’ve ever seen,” said Donna Feiner, whose Feiner Fixings company operates 24 small community water systems throughout the region. Throughout the summer, he has been keeping an eye on the electronic monitors in the well systems he manages, looking for small leaks and scouring the region to regularly test how much water is left in the aquifers. At home, she and her partner have taken water conservation to the next level, rarely flushing the toilet and only taking a shower once a week. “Many of us locals are already very good at saving water,” he said, so it is unclear how much more they can cut.

“It’s a challenge,” said John Dixon, a homestay owner in the area. It requires guests to reuse towels and has installed water-saving dishwashers and washing machines. But last month, one of his properties briefly ran out of water when the city of Fort Bragg, which used to send regular trucks of supplemental water to neighboring coastal cities like Mendocino and Little River, stopped exports. High tides had pushed brackish water into the shrinking Noyo River, which Fort Bragg relies on for its water, and local officials decided to stop outside sales to protect residents’ supply.

“That day For Bragg cut us off, the wells at one of my properties ran dry,” Dixon said. “And the drivers weren’t going to be able to bring us a delivery.” At around 11 a.m., the taps dried completely. After a couple of hours, Dixon was able to convince a different water supplier to send a tank from the inner city of Ukiah. Since then, he has been paying a premium to continue doing so. Still, like most other residents and business owners in the region, he’s eager for a longer-term solution.

Many of the wells around here are hand-dug and very shallow, but digging deeper isn’t necessarily a solution due to the geology of the region, Rhoades said. Most of the rainwater that seeps into the ground collects in the first eight to 30 feet of ground, he explained. Drilling deeper into the bedrock could reveal more water deposits, or nothing at all. A local resident obtained a permit to drill 165 feet, “and it came completely dry,” Rhoades said.

There have been discussions about transporting water by barge or on the Skunk Train, a historic railroad built in 1885 to transport lumber that in recent decades has served as a tourist attraction. Robert Jason Pinoli, president and CEO of the train, or its “Skunk Chief,” recently proposed using his railroad’s diesel locomotives to extract 200,000 gallons of water at a time from the nearby town of Willits to Fort Bragg, where it could be driven Water. to homes and businesses in Mendocino and nearby towns. A tanker truck can only carry about 35,000 gallons of water at a time, so using the rail would be faster and more efficient, Pinoli said. “These are my friends and neighbors who are dealing with the shortage,” he said. “I just want to help.”

But Mendocino doesn’t necessarily have the money to cover operating costs. And Willits Mayor Madge Strong said local leaders “would have to look very closely at whether it would have been possible or advisable to ship that much, given our supply of reservoir water and groundwater.”

The Skunk Train, a historic railway that has been proposed as a water transportation system.
The Skunk Train, a historic railway that has been proposed as a water transportation system. Photograph: Talia Herman / The Guardian
Robert Jason Pinoli, the 'Chief Skunk', aboard the train.
Robert Jason Pinoli, the ‘Chief Skunk’, aboard the train. “These are my friends and neighbors who are dealing with the shortage,” he says. Photograph: Talia Herman / The Guardian

Mendocino County Supervisor John Haschak said the most realistic option at this point was to pay a little more to transport water from Ukiah, an hour and a half away. In the coming years, the county will have to help residents install more water storage tanks, improve efficiency, and invest in systems to recycle and reuse water.

“Across the state, a lot of our water systems are out of date,” said Newsha Ajami, a water policy expert at Stanford University. They were built mainly in the 20th century for a different climate, unaltered by the effects of global warming, and for a smaller population.

“Now, we have to live the reality that we cannot be as rich in water as we used to be,” he said. “And this is an opportunity to rethink how to use water more efficiently while preserving our cultures and industries.”

For many in Mendocino, out of necessity, water has become a daily topic of conversation among neighbors, Gibson said. “And it’s like, now you go to a dinner party and you say to the host, ‘Are you blushing or not?'” Gibson laughed, “That’s not exactly what you would call dinner table conversation, you know?”

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