Just a few miles down Highway 1, desperate residents of another town have been urged to buy thousand-gallon storage tanks to catch any water that may fall from the sky. And over the coastal range to the east, Ukiah is awash in water and has begun sending tankers full to its dry neighbors near the sea.
The vastly different ways these small towns between San Francisco and the Oregon border are managing their water supplies highlight how uneven California’s brutal drought has been across the state — and even within a single county. Traditionally one of California’s wettest, Mendocino County is now a confused mountain-and-valley geography of damp and dry as the climate changes.
This was the first year in memory that Fort Bragg could not sell its surplus water to Mendocino Village, an old lumber town of historic Victorians and homegrown boutiques. That town has run completely dry, and the only water it receives is trucked in from Ukiah, the Mendocino County seat. Tracing the water shipments nearly 70 miles from Ukiah through Fort Bragg and into Mendocino Village shows the unprecedented steps the haves and have-nots are taking to keep water flowing.
“We don’t know how long this is going to last, and we expect the consequences of drought to grow worse with duration,” said Jeanine Jones, the drought manager for the state Department of Water Resources. “That’s what makes this so different.”
The drying of the American West, as well as the inconsistencies of the winners and losers when it comes to its most precious natural resource, is evident from the rapidly retreating Great Salt Lake to shrinking Lake Tahoe, to the rain shadows cast by the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains to the historic lows of Lake Mead, highlighted earlier this week when Vice President Harris visited.
The geology-caused inconsistencies are apparent in the vast Central Valley, where sandy, silty underground natural reservoirs keep well water available, even if wealthy farmers are the only ones who can afford to drill deeper and deeper to get it. San Diego County has plenty of water even though it is a near-desert, importing almost all of its supply from the shrinking Colorado River and historically wet Northern California.
Then there is the climate, shifting so quickly in recent years from wet to dry, cold to hot, that water officials at all levels of government have no way of predicting rainfall or the extent of future Sierra Nevada snow caps.
Earlier this month, the Sierra got its first snow dusting of the year while simultaneously, here and across much of Northern California, high heat and gusting wind prompted fire officials to issue a “red flag” warning of elevated fire risk. Storms are forecast for this weekend and into next week. While bringing much-needed rain and the possibility of raising reservoir levels, the storms overall are not expected to dent the drought.
California’s summer, from July through September, was the driest since 1895, when the government began keeping drought records. The state government’s calls for conservation, meanwhile, have resulted in well-below necessary savings.
“At this point we’re just trying to figure out what is going to happen next year,” said Tabatha Miller, the city manager of Fort Bragg, built largely on fractured rock that cannot hold water underground, a problem shared by many of California’s coastal towns. “Where do we get more supply? How do we store what we have? No one knows when this is going to end.”
The challenges within one county
This tale of three towns, all within the wine-and-weed country of Mendocino County, highlights how near-neighbors are confronting Year Two of a drought that came on faster and has the potential to last longer than others in the state’s recent history.
Many here settled in the county’s small, scattered towns decades ago as part of the post-Summer of Love, back-to-the land movement. And now everyone is trying to pitch in.
But Mendocino, which relies mostly on ground water, has a set of unique challenges that complicate efforts at conservation.
The county has not had a summer tourist season as big as this one for years, as people with pent-up wanderlust flow into the bed-and-breakfasts along this lovely coast. Tourists, though, bring more than just revenue to the town. They also drive up water use, complicating conservation efforts. Signs plastered across Mendocino Village, for example, warn visitors of “Severe Drought, Please Conserve Water, Our Wells Run Dry.”
Today there are 1,100 cannabis farmers working their way through the county regulatory system. County officials estimate that there are more than 6,000 — and perhaps as many as 9,000 — illegal growers still operating large farms of the water-intensive crop.
“With the drought on top of this, people freaked out,” said John Haschak, a Mendocino County supervisor who sits on a local drought task force. “There isn’t enough water as it is in much of the county, and this crop is a big draw down.”
Along with its marijuana, Mendocino’s wine and pear crops are renowned. All have taken a hit, whether through the intentional fallowing of crops that farmers cannot water or fruit simply withering on the vine, depending on where the crops sit.
Glenn McGourty, a Mendocino County supervisor who also sits on the local drought task force, grows a variety of white-wine grapes on more than seven acres along the Russian River.
His allotment of river water was cut a few months ago, and he has no ground water to rely on. He will lose an estimated 40 percent of his crop this year — a figure, he said, that roughly mirrors the overall loss for Mendocino agriculture this season.
“Praying for rain is a pretty good start,” said McGourty, who has lived in the county for 34 years. “The rest is pretty complicated.”
Water to share
Ukiah has water to share — at least for now. But the climate here is changing rapidly, making some of the agreements it has reached to sell its water outside the county when it was one of the state’s wettest places appear shortsighted.
The drought, California’s worst in a century, came on so fast and deepened so quickly with hot, dry weather that it blindsided many county officials.
Lake Mendocino, a few miles outside Ukiah, is at one of its lowest levels in memory — the telltale “bathtub” rings show a series of high-water marks far above the current water line. In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) used the lake as a backdrop for his announcement of an emergency drought declaration for parts of the North Coast, an order he extended this week to cover the entire state. His calls for a 15 percent reduction in water use statewide have not been met.
Even when full, Lake Mendocino does little for local farmers and businesses. An agreement reached in the 1950s, long before years-long droughts were imagined as regular occurrences in wet Northern California, requires Mendocino to send most of the Lake Mendocino supply south to Marin and Sonoma counties.
Ukiah itself sits on an alluvial aquifer, as does much of the Central Valley. It is silty and soft, absorbing water as it trickles down to the water table. This is ideal underground storage in contrast to the rocky hydrology of the rough North Coast. Even when the lake gets low, Ukiah has enough underground water to share with its more geologically challenged neighbors.
As the only Mendocino city with water, Ukiah is trucking it west over the steep Mendocino Range, carpeted with giant redwoods and fir, to Fort Bragg, now serving as a water way station rather than a source. The shipment amounts to 50,000 gallons a day at a cost of $16,000 per shipment. A person uses an estimated 55 gallons a day, Fort Bragg officials said.
Ukiah received $2 million from the state to help defray the costs, and the county itself subsidizes about $800 of each shipment. Once it reaches Fort Bragg, the water is transferred into smaller tankers for home deliveries in Mendocino Village.
“The state wants this to be a one-time deal, and we want it to be a one-time deal,” said Haschak, a former public-school teacher who has lived in Mendocino since 1969. “It’s just not a sustainable model.”
None of the signs warning of drought and urging conservation are apparent along Ukiah’s roads, although county officials have set up an emergency drought committee and urge residents to save.
The town in the middle
Fort Bragg was named for Braxton Bragg, a U.S. Army officer in the Mexican-American War who was then commissioned a general in the Confederate army. One of the general’s underlings gave the city its name, which has been a source of controversy for decades.
Cresting the curvy Highway 20 as it rises over the Mendocino Range, travelers slope down to the sea, skirt the coast for a few miles near the Noyo River, which empties at Fort Bragg into a windblown Pacific dabbed by white caps.
“Welcome to Fort Bragg,” the jolly greeting reads. “Save our Water.”
The town of about 6,000, not including the seasonal inundation of tourists, evokes the frontier and still emphasizes independence. The Heavenly Soles shoe shop and the Spunky Skunk toy store capture the small-business spirit of the place.
Earlier this month, a few days of rain helped fill the small reservoirs Fort Bragg has built in the past five years, offering a respite from imminent empty faucets across the town. Fort Bragg residents rely on private wells and the city’s water system that draws from a small reservoir and the Noyo River, which splits the town as it flows into the Pacific.
Fort Bragg officials had already informed Mendocino Village that it would not be able to sell the town, perched on a rocky promontory 10 miles to the south, water this year as it has done in the past.
They had their own shortages to worry about.
Over the first year of the drought, which coincided largely with the pandemic stay-at-home orders, town residents here cut their water use by 30 percent. But the lifting of the pandemic rules brought people here in huge numbers — “Our best year ever,” in Miller’s words — which helped wipe out those water savings.
“A lot of what’s happening in terms of water use now is simply the result of the state coming out of covid,” Miller said.
The desalination plant is unlikely to alter that fundamentally anytime soon, as town officials try to assess what the winter will bring and what will be needed next year.
Already, though, they are more optimistic about the plant than the steps they took during the last drought, including a townwide advisory to use disposable plates instead of those that needed washing, which led to clogged landfills and a lot of plastic waste.
The plant could produce 144,000 gallons of fresh water a day, a quarter of the town’s needs. Because the water flowing through it is brackish and not pure, salt-rich ocean water, the plant does not have to work as hard or draw as much electricity to purify it. Town officials do not expect water prices to rise as a result.
“We’re certainly looking at having to rely on it even more next year,” Miller said. “But this is definitely a temporary measure for us and for the region.”
Plastic tanks and bathtubs
There is no water in Mendocino Village, another big tourist draw along the well-traveled Highway 1. Not in the wells, not in underground reservoirs. Nowhere.
It is a town that logging made rich in the past century and a half — the large, graceful Victorians lining narrow streets that run toward the ocean a testament to that wealth.
One is the Joshua Grindle House, graced by a carved, lacy Victorian overhang above its wraparound veranda. Grindle was a lumber magnate. A sign announcing that it was built in 1879 hangs at the driveway entrance, along with another pleading for guests to save water during their stay.
In the apple tree-lined backyard, once a large vegetable garden that has been cleared for conservation reasons, Kate Taylor recently hosted a “water workshop” attended by many business owners in town. She also joins conference calls each Monday morning with others in town to assess water conditions and share thoughts on conservation.
Taylor and her husband, Ken, bought the 10-room house nearly three years ago and turned it into an inn. “There are way more people in town right now with the end of covid,” Taylor said. “And, frankly, that is taking a real toll on the town.”
That is the “losing when winning” dilemma of being a tourist town, post-pandemic, in a place without water. Taylor did not take any water deliveries this year, mainly because Fort Bragg has ceased doing them directly. She did the previous year.
Mendocino Village residents are entirely dependent on water drawn from their private wells and what they can store in multiplying backyard tanks. There is no reservoir, no water system here on the stone shores of the Pacific.
Taylor has installed a 4,999-gallon plastic water tank, a new Mendocino architectural aesthetic that town leaders have urged owners to partially hide from view. “And, of course, it rained the day we put it up, so we missed all of it,” Taylor said. “It hasn’t rained since.”
She plans to buy a few more, and, meanwhile, has developed a way to use the unpotable water from the tanks and other “gray water” to irrigate a fallow garden that she hopes will soon be a draw for her guests. She has not had second thoughts about her move.
“There was a moment or two there during the pandemic, just wondering about our timing,” she said. “But nothing serious, and it really didn’t have anything to do with the water. This is just a great place to live.”
Heading toward the sea, visitors pass a patchwork baseball diamond, unwatered since the last rains. Art galleries and restaurants along the main strip in town are busy with masked tourists.
The Highlight Gallery is fairly typical. The managers do not allow customers to use the bathroom, guiding them politely across the street to the public ones. Among the employees, Sylvia Gilmour, a 68-year-old store assistant, said, “We subscribe to the ‘if it’s yellow, then it’s mellow’ rule.”
“We’ve all worked together for so long there’s no embarrassment,” said Gilmour, whose own Fort Bragg home’s well has run dry. She tried to have it dug deeper, to reach the sinking water table, but the well driller said that would be impossible because of the rock all around it.
The gallery just installed a large storage tank out back. Abiding by the rules, it tried with a small wood-plank fence to shield much of it from the street. It’s still pretty easy to see.
Across the street, in a former house of ill-repute during the peak mid-19th century logging years, Sue Gibson lives alone with “a dry well and a 1,000-gallon storage tank.” After enduring eight days without water, she turned to a friend to borrow enough to fill her bathtub, which she uses primarily to flush her toilet.
Private deliveries from Fort Bragg run $315 each, a lot for many Mendocino Village residents who, like Gibson, live on fixed incomes.
“It’s become much worse, it really has, because of the warmer weather,” said Gibson, who has lived in Mendocino for more than three decades. “I don’t have enough knowledge to be optimistic or not. But I’m going to stay anyway.”
The stiff onshore breeze cools the sunny day to a temperature somewhere between shorts-and-sweatshirt and jeans-and-T-shirt weather. JoAnn Grant, born in Mendocino Village 71 years ago, is taking advantage of the cool to rake a quarter-acre or so of front yard, brown in places and a resilient green in others.
She has a well and a holding tank, the latter quite new and already one-third empty. The well sputtered empty days ago. Through a resigned smile, Grant gives the first answer to any question asked in these parts about how the drought will end.
“Pray for rain,” she said.
Grant is a daughter of the town, her father a logger in his day. She has known her neighbors for decades. What’s next, most likely, is the purchase of new storage tanks given the uncertainty surrounding the winter rains. Each will have to be hidden, she said, adding, “I really just don’t have the money.”
For now, it’s sponge baths and the occasional trip out of town to a friend’s house or hotel where, she said, “it feels so good to take a real shower.”
“We’re all kind of a mess,” Grant said. “But I don’t really care. I have no place to go and no one new to see anyway.”