Small towns desperate for water in California

MENDOCINO, Calif. -- As a measure of both the nation's creaking infrastructure and the severity of the drought gripping California, there is the $5 shower.

That's how much Ian Roth, the owner of the Seagull Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in this tourist town three hours north of San Francisco, spends on water every time a guest washes for five minutes under the shower nozzle.

Water is so scarce in Mendocino, an Instagram-ready collection of pastel Victorian homes on the edge of the Pacific, that restaurants have closed their restrooms to guests, pointing them instead to portable toilets on the sidewalk. And the fire department has asked sheriff's deputies to keep an eye on the hydrants in response to a report of water theft.

"We've grown up in this first-world country thinking that water is a given," said Julian Lopez, the owner at Cafe Beaujolais, a restaurant packed with out-of-town diners in what is the height of the tourist season. "There's that fear in the back of all our minds there is going to be a time when we don't have water at all. And only the people with money would be able to afford the right to it."

Mendocino's water shortage is an extreme example of what some far-flung towns in California are experiencing as the state slips deeper into its second year of drought. Scores of century-old, hand-dug wells in the town have run dry, forcing residents, inns and restaurants to fill storage tanks with water trucked from faraway towns at the cost of anywhere from 20 to 45 cents a gallon. Utilities in California, by contrast, typically charge their customers less than a penny per gallon of tap water.

The drought is revealing for California that perhaps even more than rainfall, it is money and infrastructure that dictate who has sufficient water during the state's increasingly frequent dry spells. The drought and the effects of climate change more generally have drawn a bold line under the weaknesses of smaller communities with fewer resources.

Some 600 miles to the south of Mendocino, in a much more arid part of the state, the Lake Perris reservoir, a large artificial lake that provides drinking water to San Bernardino and Riverside counties, is nearly full. Lake Skinner, Lake Matthews and Diamond Valley Lake, in the dry hills southeast of Los Angeles, are all around 80% full.

These robust reservoirs, part of the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, illustrate that the haves and have-nots of water in California today are determined by financial muscle and also by decades of planning.

Southern California's cities have built up huge reserves through a century of building aqueducts and reservoirs, and storing water in underground aquifers during wetter years.

The Metropolitan Water District, the largest supplier of drinking water in the country, has 13 times as much storage capacity as it did in 1990. Southern Californians are using much less water than they did in the past -- the average consumer uses 40% less water than three decades ago.

The net result is that despite its more arid conditions, the south is well prepared for this drought.

The smaller northern cities like Mendocino, Fort Bragg and Ukiah are in wetter climates and accustomed to relying on a plentiful supply of water from a single source.

In Mendocino, some fear that in the coming weeks, towns and cities in the county will stop selling them water altogether, a step that Fort Bragg took in July because of concerns about its own water shortage.

"That's what keeps me up at night," said Roth, the owner of the Seagull Inn. "If we dry up, our business is done for. We can't tell guests to clean themselves with hand wipes."

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