A California city’s water supply is expected to run out in two months


“The hots are getting a lot hotter. The dries are getting a lot drier,” Newsom told reporters at the time. “We have to adapt to that new reality, and we have to change our approach.”

California started the year with its driest four months on record. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada this year was a small fraction of the historical average. Depleted reservoirs have led to restrictions on outdoor watering for millions of state residents.

Coalinga’s water comes from the San Luis Reservoir, about 90 miles to the north, and is delivered along a portion of the California Aqueduct that was built in the 1960s and helped fuel the region’s agricultural growth. This is part of the Central Valley Project, a network of dams, reservoirs and canals now severely hobbled by drought.

Farmers received no allocation from that network this year; municipalities and industrial users were limited to what the Bureau of Reclamation calculates as their “public health and safety” needs – a first in the history of the Central Valley Project, which dates to the 1930s.

For Coalinga, that meant 1,920 acre-feet of water – a quarter of its historic allotment and just over half of what it expected to consume this year. Federal officials raised that in April to 2,500 acre-feet – a level that still fell more than 1,000 acre-feet short of what Coalinga needed. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, what it would take to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.

Over the summer, city officials calculated the city’s supply would run out by mid-September.

Beyond that point, if Coalinga kept using water from the aqueduct, it would belong to someone else.

“You don’t have the right to take that water,” was the message Sean Brewer, Coalinga’s assistant city manager, said he got from Reclamation officials.

The bureau said in a statement that it had been working closely with Coalinga on its “unique water supply circumstances and challenges.” Brewer agreed that the bureau has been “extremely helpful” even as its “hands are tied.” Federal officials gave him names of vendors who might sell the city the extra water it needed. But as Brewer worked his way down the list of irrigation districts, farmers and other private interests, the news wasn’t good.

“Nobody has water to sell right now,” he said.

Those who do are not selling it cheap.

“I cringe when I say this,” Brewer told the City Council on Aug. 4, as he reported that water that normally cost the city $190 per acre-foot was being sold on the open market for as much as $2,500 per acre-foot. The city might need up to $2.5 million to buy enough water to last the year, he said. The city’s entire budget is $10 million.

“We just don’t have $2.5 million to buy water,” City Council member Adam Adkisson said in an interview, calling the water prices “criminal.”

“In a natural disaster, you can’t increase the cost of bottled water 2,000 percent; you’d go to jail for that,” he said. “But somehow these people can increase it 2,000 percent and everything’s just fine.”

Fear of that kind of “drought profiteering” prompted state Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D) to write Attorney General Merrick Garland in May asking for an investigation into the anti-competitive practices of hedge funds and other investors that “literally steal our most life dependent resource from ourselves and future generations in exchange for a profit.”

Hurtado talked to Adkisson in August as he was searching for a solution for Coalinga and found him “in panic mode.”

“The price of water, the cost of water, is increasing, but it’s not just going to be to the Central Valley; it’s going to be statewide,” Hurtado said. “We’re in a crisis situation in a matter of weeks, I think.”

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‘What do you do when the water runs out?’

In the High Times marijuana store – a burgeoning industry for Coalinga, which has two prominent dispensaries downtown and a pot farm run out of a defunct prison owned by Bob Marley’s son Damian – manager Luis Zamora is just starting to register a new level of concern about the water crisis.

“Just in the last probably two days, I’ve had people asking me, like, what do you do when the water runs out?”

He laughed.

“Exactly. What do you do?”

Coalinga has tried to get tough on water waste. The city has code enforcers and even police officers patrolling for water violations. The city put a moratorium on building swimming pools, raised water rates several times and last year began imposing “drought fees” for overuse. But the city soon voted to refund the $277,000 it had raised in fees because water use wasn’t declining enough.

“It was supposed to be a deterrent,” said Netherton, the chamber of commerce’s executive director. “It wasn’t deterring anybody.”