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The drought is so bad in one California town that restaurants can’t wash dishes

A boat floats in Folsom Lake reservoir near Sacramento, standing at only 18 percent capacity, as the severe drought continues in California on September 17, 2015. In the coastal city of Fort Bragg, the drought is so severe that restaurants are forced to use disposable dinnerware rather than wash their dishes. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

California has turned off its sprinklers, shortened its showers and let its gardens turn brown beneath a baking sun.

But even that wasn’t enough to save the coastal city of Fort Bragg, where ocean water recently started leaking into municipal pipes. More drastic measures had to be taken. Now Fort Bragg is hoping it can cut its water woes with a plastic knife.

A requirement that restaurants replace their fine china and fancy cutlery with disposable dinner- and flatware was among several emergency drought measures that are being enforced as of Wednesday. The city declared a stage three water emergency after measuring high salinity levels at the municipal water treatment plant, according to the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif. That happens when the local Noyo River gets so low it can’t push back the ocean water that seeps in at high tide, tainting the local water supply.

That leaves the city of 7,300 with only two, smaller sources of water, which can meet just about half of Fort Bragg’s normal water requirements.

“The Noyo is a critical component of our water supply, and it is too salty to use. The flows are so low, it’s off charts,” Linda Ruffing, Fort Bragg’s city manager, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We have to lower our water use to the absolute minimum.”

The emergency protocols bar restaurants from washing their dishes, force them to cut down on laundering napkins and tablecloths and require that water only be served to customers who ask for it. In addition, residents aren’t allowed to water their yards, wash their cars or wash any paved surfaces or buildings with city water.

But local restaurateurs, especially those who run establishments where the terms “paper plate” and “spork” are usually uttered with a sniff of derision, are not happy about the mandate.

“You might be able to cut a filet mignon with a plastic knife, but you are not going to cut a New York,” Jim Hurst, the co-owner of Silvers at the Wharf and Point Noyo Restaurant and Bar, told the Chronicle. “The expense is going to be horrendous, I would expect. So that’s going to be a major impact. It seems to me there are other ways to save water.”

He might be right. It takes 24 gallons of water to make just one pound of plastic (about 50 plastic cups). Not so great for long-term water conservation.

But Fort Bragg’s water problem is a short term one — sort of. Once the Noyo River levels get high enough to stop the encroachment of ocean water, the city will be able to utilize one of its regular water sources again, and the city’s water emergency will return to stage one levels, a largely voluntary conservation stage.

The city is also looking into trucking water in from elsewhere, Ruffing told the Associated Press, and a new reservoir capable of storing 15 million gallons will be ready next year.

In the meantime, “We’re real concerned,” Ruffing said. “The water has never been so low.”