MENDOCINO, Calif. — As a measure of both the nation’s creaking infrastructure and the severity of the drought gripping California there is the $5 shower.
That’s how much Ian Roth, the owner of the Seagull Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in this tourist town three hours north of San Francisco, spends on water every time a guest washes for five minutes under the shower nozzle.
Water is so scarce in Mendocino, an Instagram-ready collection of pastel Victorian homes on the edge of the Pacific, that restaurants have closed their restrooms to guests, pointing them instead to portable toilets on the sidewalk.
And the fire department has asked sheriff’s deputies to keep an eye on the hydrants in response to a report of water theft.
“We’ve grown up in this first-world country thinking that water is a given,” said Julian Lopez, the owner at Café Beaujolais, a restaurant packed with out-of-town diners in what is the height of the tourist season. “There’s that fear in the back of all our minds there is going to be a time when we don’t have water at all. And only the people with money would be able to afford the right to it.”
Mendocino’s water shortage is an extreme example of what some far-flung towns in California are experiencing as the state slips deeper into its second year of drought. Scores of century-old, hand-dug wells in the town have run dry, forcing residents, inns and restaurants to fill storage tanks with water trucked from faraway towns at the cost of anywhere from 20 to 45 cents a gallon. Utilities in California, by contrast, typically charge their customers less than a penny per gallon of tap water.
This past week, residents of Mendocino watched as the Senate passed its $1 trillion infrastructure package, wondering whether some of those funds might reach them. Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from California, has pointed out that the package specifically targets drought mitigation projects such as water storage, water recycling and desalination.
But it can’t come soon enough for many living in the small towns in northern parts of the state.
The drought is revealing for California that perhaps even more than rainfall it is money and infrastructure that dictate who has sufficient water during the state’s increasingly frequent dry spells. The drought, and the effects of climate change more generally, have drawn a bold line under the weaknesses of smaller communities with fewer resources.
Six hundred miles to the south of Mendocino, in a much more arid part of the state, the Lake Perris reservoir, a large artificial lake that provides drinking water to San Bernardino and Riverside, is nearly full.
Lake Skinner, Lake Matthews and Diamond Valley Lake, in the dry hills southeast of Los Angeles, are all around 80 percent full. These robust reservoirs, part of the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, illustrate that the haves and have-nots of water in California today are determined by financial muscle, but also by decades of planning.
Southern California’s cities have built up huge reserves through a century of building aqueducts and reservoirs, and storing water in underground aquifers during wetter years.
The Metropolitan Water District, which is the largest supplier of drinking water in the country, has 13 times as much storage capacity as it did in 1990. And Southern Californians are using much less water than they did in the past — the average consumer uses 40 percent less water than three decades ago. The net result is that despite its more arid conditions, the south is well prepared for this drought.
The smaller northern cities like Mendocino, Fort Bragg and Ukiah are in wetter climates and accustomed to relying on a plentiful supply of water from a single source.
But water specialists say that climate change and the weeks of hot, dry days in the north mean that these smaller towns are going to have to start following the example of the south and build water systems that store water drawn from multiple sources.
“This is one of the things you often see during droughts,” said Jay Lund, an expert on California’s water system at the University of California, Davis. “The bigger cities that have a lot of wealth and are very well organized, have a lot of long-term planning, are pretty well prepared.”
Across Northern California, reservoirs are at critical levels. For the first time since it came online more than five decades ago, a power generating station at the Oroville Dam stopped producing electricity last week because the reservoir, currently at just 24 percent of capacity, had dipped too low. The massive Shasta Lake reservoir at the top of the agricultural Sacramento Valley is now at 30 percent of capacity. In Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco, the city has put in place a mandatory 20 percent reduction in water use and sends inspectors through neighborhoods to check for excessive water use. Restaurants have been ordered to serve their customers water only on request.
In Mendocino, the immediate concern is being able to find enough water to last until the winter’s rains.
Ryan Rhoades, the manager of the town’s aquifer, spends his days in desperate bouts of brainstorming: The town could string 50 miles of fire hoses through the redwood forests to the city of Ukiah for an emergency supply of water. Blackhawk firefighting helicopters could drop water into the reservoir at Fort Bragg, 16 miles up the coast.
The paradox for Mendocino, which is flanked by vast redwood forests, is that on many days the town is shrouded in moisture. The fog can get so thick that residents towel off their dogs after morning walks. Silicon Valley companies have approached Mr. Rhoades about installing machines that convert the fog into drinking water.
The urgent concern is the possibility that in the coming weeks, towns and cities in the county will stop selling water to Mendocino altogether, a step that Fort Bragg, 10 miles to the north, took in July because of concerns about their own water shortage.
“That’s what keeps me up at night,” said Mr. Roth, the owner of the Seagull Inn. “If we dry up, our business is done for. We can’t tell guests to clean themselves with hand wipes.”
In the long term, residents say, the town needs to consider desalination or building pipeline networks that connect with other towns on the sparsely populated coast, projects that would cost millions of dollars.
“We definitely need the help of the county, the state and the federal government,” Mr. Rhoades said.
It’s not as if Mendocino did not see the crisis coming. Wells have been running dry for years, but not on this scale and not this early in the year.
Ed O’Brien, a retired fire chief in Mendocino, was part of a group of residents who two decades ago scoured the region for alternative sources of water — and ran into numerous roadblocks.
Mendocino has a number of water sources around it. But local rivers become brackish in the summer and many are protected as salmon habitats.
Sue Gibson, a retired schoolteacher who has lived in Mendocino for the past three decades, has given up taking baths in her cherished claw foot bathtub and is resigned to doing the dishes by hand.
“When you go to a dinner party you take a bottle of wine — and a bottle of water,” Ms. Gibson said. “It’s very common for people to ask whether you flush or not.”
With the help of friends, Ms. Gibson says she will “muddle along.”
“But it’s not how I was going to spend my golden years.”
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