Small Towns Grow Desperate for Water in California

By Thomas Fuller for The New York Times

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.

This past week, residents of Mendocino watched as the Senate passed its $1 trillion infrastructure package, wondering whether some of those funds might reach them. Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from California, has pointed out that the package specifically targets drought mitigation projects such as water storage, water recycling and desalination.

But it can’t come soon enough for many living in the small towns in northern parts of the state.

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.

“This is one of the things you often see during droughts,” said Jay Lund, an expert on California’s water system at the University of California, Davis. “The bigger cities that have a lot of wealth and are very well organized, have a lot of long-term planning, are pretty well prepared.”

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