California tourist town lacking water: “It’s a shock”

California tourist town lacking water: “It’s a shock”

Many mornings the village of Mendocino disappears in a thick white fog that covers its seaside cliffs, redwoods and quaint Victorian houses.

Carved into the northern California coast, the historic hamlet’s rugged beaches, scenic hikes, charming guesthouses, and shopping galleries draw 1.8 million visitors each year.

” Of course yes. This place is so beautiful. It’s so lush and humid here, ”said Julian Lopez, Executive Chef of Café Beaujolais in Mendocino. “So when you learn about all the water issues, it’s really a shock. “

Over the past century, the misty and forested Mendocino – although nestled along a number of major rivers, streams, and springs – depended on shallow wells for water. But amid a historic drought drying out the western United States, the aquifers beneath the city’s wet fog layer have rapidly dwindled, threatening to wreck the area’s tourism industry and the residents who depend on it.

Café Beaujolais, which normally draws all of its water for cooking and cleaning two small wells on its property, has already spent thousands of dollars to have water trucked from neighboring towns.

Because surrounding areas also face shortages, the costs of filling water tankers with drinking water have nearly doubled in recent months -om about $ 350 per 35,000 gallon load to $ 600, a said Lopez.

« It is likely to continue to worsen, ”he said. “Especially with global warming, as the earth gets hotter and the dry seasons get longer. “

Almost every business owner in Mendocino grapples with similar anxieties.

A few minutes from Lopez’s restaurant, the Good Life Café and Bakery recently closed its toilets. The crowds of tourists lining the block to sample the cafe’s quiches, cappuccinos, and organic salads are instead directed to the portable toilets in the back parking lot. The owners of the local Harvest grocery store also brought portable toilets.

Managers of hostels and shelters along the mountain road through town have placed signs on dressers and vanities in each room, asking guests to save water by taking shorter showers . But Mendocino depends on the half a billion dollars in annual revenue that visitors bring in, and establishments here aren’t inclined to scare them away with overly dire warnings.

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

For example, in a city of roughly 1,000 full-time residents and 2,000 daily visitors, many residents are learning to live with much less water.

The coastline near Mendocino, California. The city relies on shallow wells for water that runs out in times of drought. Photographie : Talia Herman/The Guardian

“Right now I’m setting personal hygiene back centuries,” said Sue Gibson, 82. The well that supplies her fenced yellow house near downtown Mendocino has spilled less and less – and she has had to spend hundreds of dollars to get water delivered.

To save money, she takes short “sea showers”, turning off the tap while she washes and soaping herself. She wears clothes over and over again, “longer than I ever would have before.” And except when she is hosting a business, she serves her food on paper plates. “I hate it – really really,” she said. “My mother would be horrified!

Still, compared to some of her neighbors, Gibson said, she felt lucky. Although she lives on a fixed income, she has so far been able to afford to truck in water. “It’s people with babies and the elderly that I feel the most,” she said. If her husband had been alive, “keeping him clean and tidy 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 survived several droughts.

Sue Gibson, at her home in Mendocino. She found ways to conserve water, including shorter showers. Photographie : Talia Herman/The Guardian

“But it’s the worst year I’ve ever seen,” said Donna Feiner, whose company Feiner Fixings operates 24 small community water supply systems in the area. Throughout the summer, she has kept a close watch on the electronic monitors of the well systems she manages, looking for small leaks and scouring the area regularly testing 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 showering only once a week. “Many of us residents are already very good at conserving water,” she said.

“It’s a challenge,” said John Dixon, who owns shelters in the area. It requires customers to reuse towels, and it has installed water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines. But last month, one of his properties briefly ran out of water when the town of Fort Bragg, which regularly sent trucks of additional water to nearby coastal towns, including Mendocino and Little River, halted exports. High tides had pushed brackish water into the declining Noyo River, on which Fort Bragg relies for its water, and local authorities decided to halt outside sales to protect residents’ supplies.

“The 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 am, the taps went completely dry. After a few hours, Dixon managed to convince another water supplier to send a tank from the inner city of Ukiah. He has since paid a premium to continue to do so. Yet like most other residents and business owners in the area, he is hungry 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 area, Rhoades said. Most of the rainwater that seeps into the ground collects in the first eight to 30 feet of the ground, he explained. Drilling deeper into the bedrock could reveal more water deposits – or nothing at all. A local resident got a permit to drill at 165 feet, “and it came back completely dry,” Rhoades said.

There have been discussions about transporting water by barge or via the Skunk Train, a historic railroad built in 1885 to transport lumber which, for the past decades, has served as a tourist attraction. Robert Jason Pinoli, chairman and general manager of the train, or his “Head Skunk,” recently proposed to use his railroad’s diesel locomotives to pull 200,000 gallons of water at a time from the nearby town of Willits to Fort Bragg, where water could be brought to homes and businesses in Mendocino and neighboring towns. A tanker can only transport about 35,000 gallons of water at a time. Using rail would therefore be faster and more efficient, Pinoli said. “It is my friends and neighbors who are facing shortages,” he said. “I just want to help. “

But Mendocino doesn’t necessarily have the money to cover operational costs. And Willits Mayor Madge Strong said local leaders “should take a very close look at whether it would have been possible or advisable to send that much, given our reservoir and groundwater supply.”

The Skunk Train, a historic railway that was proposed as a transportation system for water.
The Skunk Train, a historic railway that was proposed as a transportation system for water. Photographie : Talia Herman/The Guardian
Robert Jason Pinoli, the 'Chef Skunk', on board the train.  “It's my friends and neighbors who are facing shortages,” he says.
Robert Jason Pinoli, the ‘Chef Skunk’, on board the train. “It’s my friends and neighbors who are facing shortages,” he says. Photographie : Talia Herman/The Guardian

Mendocino County Supervisor John Haschak said the most realistic option at the moment was to pay a little more for water by truck from Ukiah, an hour and a half away. In the coming years, the county will need to help residents install more water storage tanks, improve efficiency, and invest in water recycling and reuse systems.

“Statewide, many of our water supply systems are outdated,” said Newsha Ajami, 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 before,” she said. “And this is an opportunity to rethink how to use water more efficiently while preserving our cultures and our 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 say to the host, ‘Are you flushing the toilet or not? “” Gibson laughed. It’s not exactly what you’d call a dinner conversation, you know?


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