MENDOCINO Co., 9/27/21 — Despite a slow start, the plan to truck water from the City of Ukiah to Fort Bragg is gaining momentum, most recently with a hefty grant from the state.
The state Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced last week that Mendocino County would be getting up to $2 million for the water hauling program from the $28 million Small Community Drought Relief program funds. The City of Ukiah was also awarded $264,600 for two potable water pumps expected to help deliver water to neighboring districts. “As drought conditions continue, it’s clear that our smaller communities do not have the same resources as their urban counterparts to address the impacts of drought,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. “The department is working diligently to evaluate applications and provide support to the communities that need it most.”
Coastal communities have been especially hard-hit by the drought, with businesses and residents alike reporting dry wells. The most recent count of dry wells in the town of Mendocino this August was 35, up from 25 in July, out of about 420 total. Those affected began turning to water hauling, but all of the districts selling water on the coast had shut off sales by Sept. 1, leaving residents there with few options.
That led the county Board of Supervisors to approve a program to haul water from the City of Ukiah to the coast, including fully subsidizing the long hauling cost for residents and partially subsidizing it for businesses. The supervisors approved using just under $1 million of Pacific Gas & Electric disaster settlement funds to start the program, which is expected to cost $3.8 million over four months. The $2 million from the state is expected to reimburse the cost of the program and needs to be expended by February 2023, which means the money can be used next year if needed, said Josh Metz, who was contracted by the county to coordinate the drought response.
Howard Dashiell, the county’s director of transportation and the county’s point person for the drought response, told the supervisors at their Monday meeting that the grant funds may only reimburse the long hauling cost for residential water use and not commercial. “Our water hauling has been about 30% commercial,” Dashiell said. “So that would mean, if we can’t get that changed, which we will try to do as we work the details out with the state, that we would not be able to use that grant money for the commercial users.” The $2 million is also only a portion of what was requested in the county’s grant application, and at the current rate and cost, it would cover nine months of coastal water deliveries. The other potential funding source the supervisors have discussed is the transient occupancy tax, which is collected whenever visitors stay overnight at hotels and other lodging in the county. Three-quarters of that tax revenue is generated on the coast.
Water is moving to the coast even with the funding challenges. The major barrier to getting the program off the ground was finding contractors to haul the water. Dashiell said that trucking capacity was up and the county has now contracted with three haulers. “We started rather slow a little over three weeks ago,” Dashiell said, “and we’ve probably only hauled a total of 200,000 gallons to Fort Bragg in that three-week time, but I believe at this juncture, with the additional trucking companies and trucks, we could haul 200,000 gallons per week if we needed to.” This isn’t a viable long-term solution, but it should give the county “breathing room” to strategize about how to manage water going forward, Metz said.
The City of Ukiah’s grant is intended to purchase two potable water pumps that will pressurize the water system’s emergency interties. Those interties allow water to move between Ukiah, Millview and Willow. “They’re connected now,” Sean White, Ukiah’s director of water and sewer, told The Mendocino Voice last week, “but those interties were always set up with very short-term operation in mind, like a fire or earthquake or something like that, not assisting with the drought.” They may not be needed for this drought, but White said “they take a long time to get and the time to get prepared is now, not when you need them.”