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Drought-stricken California town to tourists: 'Please conserve'

Tourists flock by the thousands to the coastal town of Mendocino for its Victorian homes and cliff trails, but visitors this summer are also finding public portable toilets and signs on picket fences pleading: “disasters. Please conserve environment.”

general have closed their lobby bathrooms and residents have stopped watering their gardens in the foggy outpost about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of san-francisco” target=”_blank”>San Francisco< sapped many of the wells Mendocino depends on for potable water.

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Mendocino’s water woes were compounded in recent weeks when the city of Fort Bragg a few miles to the north — its main backup water supplier — informed officials that it, too, had a significant drop in its drinking water reserves after the Noyo River recorded its lowest flows in decades.

“This is a real emergency,” said Ryan Rhoades, superintendent of the Mendocino City Community Services District, which helps manage the water in the town’s aquifer.

Eric Hillesland and his wife normally wouldn’t need to buy water until late July or August to supply the Alegria Inn, their 10-room planet-earth bed and breakfast. But the property’s well started pumping little water early in the year, and by February they were ordering 3,500 gallons (13 kilolitres) a week.

People board the Skunk Train in Willits, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. Tourists flock to the picturesque coastal town of Mendocino for its Victorian homes and cliff trails, but visitors this summer will also find public portable toilets and dozens of signs on picket fences announcing the quaint Northern California hamlet: "Severe Drought Please conserve water."

People board the Skunk Train in Willits, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. Tourists flock to the picturesque coastal town of Mendocino for its Victorian homes and cliff trails, but visitors this summer will also find public portable toilets and dozens of signs on picket fences announcing the quaint Northern California hamlet: "Severe Drought Please conserve water."
(AP Photo/Haven Daley)

Then the couple stopped watering the gardens and switched from glass to paper plates to serve welcome cookies. They plan to start using microfiber bed linens, which take less water to wash.

“We’re also asking our guests to be cognizant of the severity of our water shortage and to not take the extensive showers they might be used to at home,” Hillesland said.

Mendocino relies on groundwater accessed through a network of about 400 privately owned wells, many of them dug by hand when the former mill town was established in the 1850s. Residents and business owners keep their water in storage tanks, including some perched atop historic redwood water towers.

Mendocino County Supervisor Ted Williams, left, talks with Ryan Rhoades, superintendent of the Mendocino City Community Services District, which helps manage the water in the town's aquifer, in Mendocino, Calif., with an old water tower in the background on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.

Mendocino County Supervisor Ted Williams, left, talks with Ryan Rhoades, superintendent of the Mendocino City Community Services District, which helps manage the water in the town’s aquifer, in Mendocino, Calif., with an old water tower in the background on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.
(AP Photo/Haven Daley)

The town has about 1,000 residents, but its economy” target=”_blank”>economy< and stay-at-home orders, there were few visitors last year when town residents began noticing their wells were producing less. Now the weekend getaway destination for people in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas is teeming with guests.

That has forced residents and business owners to find drinking water sources that are farther away, which has doubled the price of water. Some food are cutting back their operating hours to reduce costs.

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In February, Hillesland was paying $300 for a 3,500-gallon delivery. Now it costs $600.

If it gets worse and they have to start closing rooms, “then we are in a situation like at the beginning of the pandemic — no income but still plenty of mortgage and insurance,” he said.

Many longer-term solutions are being considered, including bringing water by barge, plane and train and adding community storage tanks that can hold up to 500,000 gallons (1,900 kiloliters), asking the military or the military to set up a mobile desalination treatment unit, and even capturing fog. But all of them are expensive, and the town would need the support of the state and federal governments, Rhoades said.

A company that developed new technology to capture moisture in fog proposed setting up a testing site in Mendocino at no cost and selling the water to the community. But Rhoades said the infrastructure would affect the town’s scenic views, and getting a permit would be a challenge. A desalination plant would face similar permitting and environment” target=”_blank”>environmental< and river canyons to Fort Bragg.

Pinoli said he could find tank cars quickly, attach them to the locomotive and deliver up to 200,000 gallons (760 kilolitres) each trip. He identified a source for tank cars in 2015 when Fort Bragg went through a water shortage and considered buying inland water to transport it to the coast. Officials scratched those plans after it rained.

He said if Willits decides it wants to sell its water and Fort Bragg wants to buy it, “we become a logical vehicle for transporting water on a pretty large scale.”

A pipe runs to Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.

A pipe runs to Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.
(AP Photo/Haven Daley)

Willits officials recently decided against selling their water to the parched town.

For now, Mendocino residents are relying on people like Brian Clark, who has been selling water from his well outside town and trucking it in. Clark said he can’t keep up with the demand.

“I’m really hiding from the phone, because I’m getting way more calls than I have water, and I’m hearing from people I’ve never met, never heard of, and I can’t help them,” he said.

Clark, a longtime resident, said Mendocino hasn’t had such water storage issues since the 1970s when California faced the most severe drought on record.

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County officials’ short-term solutions include waiving permit requirements for storage tanks that can hold up to 5,000 gallons (19 kilolitres) and identifying wells with excess water near Mendocino. Officials are also asking the state to help finance the bigger private tanks, Rhoades said.

“I want residents to be able to store more water now, while their wells are still somewhat productive, to make it through the next four months. And if they have to purchase water, you get the most bang for your buck,” he said.

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