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After second dry winter, parched California tourist town Mendocino pleads: ‘Please conserve water’

‘This is a real emergency,’ the head of the agency that helps manage the town’s aquifer says. People have stopped watering their gardens. Hotels have closed their lobby bathrooms.

An exposed dry bed is seen at Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, Calif. The drought-stricken town of Mendocino gets some of its water from the reservoir.
An exposed dry bed is seen at Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, Calif. The drought-stricken town of Mendocino gets some of its water from the reservoir.
Haven Daley / AP

Tourists who flock to the California coastal town of Mendocino for its Victorian homes and cliff trails are being confronted with something new this summer: public portable toilets and signs on picket fences that plead: “Severe Drought. Please conserve water.”

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

Hotels have closed their lobby bathrooms, and people have stopped watering their gardens in the foggy outpost about 150 miles north of San Francisco after two years of little rain sapped many of the wells Mendocino depends on for drinking water.

In recent weeks, things got worse when the city of Fort Bragg a few miles to the north — Mendocino’s main backup water supplier — announced hat it, too, had a significant drop in its drinking water reserves after the Noyo River recorded its lowest flows in decades.

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 oceanfront 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 a week.

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, some perched atop historic redwood water towers.

The town has about 1,000 residents, but its economy depends on about 2,000 people a day who visit at the height of the tourist season, from May to October, Rhoades said.

Businesses normally have had to haul in water in the fall, but, after a second straight dry winter, many have had to order more and much earlier than before.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders, there were few visitors last year when 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’s forced residents and business owners to find drinking water sources that are farther away, which has doubled the price of water. Some restaurants are cutting back operating hours to cut costs.

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 in water by barge, plane and train and adding community storage tanks that can hold up to 500,000 gallons asking the U.S. National Guard or the Army Corps of Engineers to set up a mobile desalination treatment unit and even capturing fog from which to draw water.

But all of those methods are expensive. 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 environmental hurdles.

“Transporting water that is treated and is known from an inland source might be a faster solution even though it’s expensive,” he said.

For now, Mendocino residents are relying on people like Brian Clark, who has been selling water from his well outside town.

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

County officials’ short-term solutions include waiving permit requirements for storage tanks and identifying wells with excess water near Mendocino. Officials also are asking the state to help finance 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,” he said.