‘It’s getting dire’: Drought-stricken California tourist town resorts to porta potties and water deliveries by train to survive

Residents have begun trucking in water for hundreds of dollars

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 06 August 2021 10:58 BST
‘It’s getting dire’: Draught-stricken California tourist town resorts to porta potties and water deliveries by train to survive

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Louise Thomas

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People come to Mendocino, California, a historic town in the far north of the state for the water, situated as it is on a rugged, scenic part of the foggy Pacific coast. But soon, there may be no more water coming to Mendocino, thanks to the West’s dire, climate crisis-fueled drought.

Residents of the village have resorted to using porta potties, watering plants with dishwater, and trucking in fresh water at exorbitant prices to survive, but soon even that may not be enough, the latest blow to a tourist town already struggling to recover from the Covid pandemic.

“The town in general is in terrible, terrible shape,” Helen Mackenzie, manager of the town’s Blair Inn, told The Independent. “Over 25 percent of the wells in town have gone dry. Everybody in the village of Mendocino is on a well. A lot of businesses are already having to haul water in.”

To do that, local residents and business owners have to pay huge sums to have trucks deliver them water regularly. Julian Lopez, who owns Cafe Beaujolais, a French restaurant, told CBS he’s paying $3,600 a month for water deliveries. Restaurants have also stopped serving water to guests unless they ask for it.

But even these regular lifelines of water may be drying up, with larger neighboring towns like Fort Bragg limiting or preventing water deliveries to places like Mendocino. City officials have said they’re considering bringing in water by train.

If that happens, Mendocino, which lacks a central water system and instead relies on a series of individual wells to supply homes and business, could face the prospect every town in the West dreads: running out of water completely.

The situation is a reminder of the many braided crises facing the US. The climate crisis is exacerbating extreme weather and drought, while the Covid crisis is devastating both public health and the economy of places reliant on tourism. When these forces all combine, as they have in Mendocino, the effect is particularly acute.

“This is a tourist town. If there’s not enough water for the inns to keep running and the restaurants to keep running, it’s going to be back to the way it was during Covid, and that’s  going to impact economically,” Ms Mackenzie continued. “Pray for rain. This is beyond the control of any government agency or federal anything. It’s all about the drought, which of course, climate change is driving the drought. It’s not looking good.”

Homes and businesses have been told to cut their water use by up to 40 per cent. The Blair Inn has started taking its linens to another town to be laundered so it doesn’t cut into its official water allocation.

Meredith Smith, who owns multiple restaurants in the town, including the Mendocino Cafe, says the area’s reliance on tourism puts it in a bind in the middle of a drought and a pandemic. The town courts visitors with water-intensive amenities like hotels and restaurants, but to keep the town functional, they’ve had to cut back on water usage. On top of that, Covid precautions like regular cleaning and hand washing also rely on steady water usage.

“They’re inextricable right now, the effects of the two on any kind of hospitality industry. They’re one woven thing,” she said. “If you’re going to be a person who serves people, [visitors] will come in and say, ‘Can we use the bathrooms?’ You  can’t encourage tourism and act like they’re not allowed to have bodies.”

The dire water situation throughout California has inspired authorities at the State Water Resources control board in Sacramento to begin compiling a master list of the 7,500 public water systems facing the most severe shortages. As of now, 81 systems are on the list, serving more than 130,000 people.

Ms Smith is taking the situation as a sign: society needs to change how it uses its resources, and fast, while also not leaving behind those less fortunate.

“The planet needed to get this message,” she said. “You can’t leave people without shelter. You can’t leave people without water. You can’t burn the bridge if you’re the last one over it.”

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