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Originally published Friday, March 7, 2014 at 5:34 PM

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Dry California town struggles to save water

Residents of Lake of the Woods, Calif., are watering trees with discarded dishwater, running the washing machine once a week and letting carefully tended beds of flowers and trees wither.


The New York Times

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Gustafson said the owners of summer homes had threatened not to pay their water bills... MORE
This likely could be the new normal for Southern California, especially the interior... MORE

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LAKE OF THE WOODS, Calif. — People in the mountain town of Lake of the Woods, which straddles the San Andreas Fault, are used to scrapping for water. The lake for which it is named went dry 40 years ago. Now the tiny community is dealing with its most unsettling threat yet: It could run out of water by summer.

As of last week, two of the five wells drilled into the dry lake bed that serve the town’s 300 homes were producing water. The mountains of the nearby Los Padres National Forest got their first dusting of snow — and it was a light one — last week; it is the winter snow that feeds the wells come spring.

People are watering trees with discarded dishwater, running the washing machine once a week and letting carefully tended beds of flowers and trees wither into patches of dusty dirt.

There are scenes all across California that illustrate the power of the drought. A haze of smog, which normally would be washed away by winter rains, hung over Los Angeles this week. Beekeepers near Sacramento said the lack of wildflowers has deprived bees of a source of food, contributing to a worrisome die-off. Across the rich farmland of the San Joaquin Valley, fields are going unplanted.

But for 17 small, rural communities in California, the absence of rain is posing a fundamental threat to the most basic of services: drinking water. And Lake of the Woods, a middle-class enclave 80 miles from downtown Los Angeles, a mix of commuters, retirees and weekend residents, is one of the most seriously threatened. Signs along its dusty roadways offer red-on-white warnings of a “Water Emergency,” and plead for conservation.

“I didn’t think it would come to this,” said Diane Gustafson, manager of the Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Co., as she greeted a team of county and state officials reviewing the community’s request for emergency funds to drill more holes. “Our wells are so deep. I have lived here for 40 years, and this is the first time we’ve had a problem like this.”

Nothing has helped ease the water crisis: not the yearlong ban on watering lawns and washing cars, not the conscientious homeowners who clean their dishes in the sink and reuse the gray water on trees, not even the 3 inches of rain that soaked the area last weekend. Three attempts to drill new wells, going down 500 feet, have failed.

For a while, Lake of the Woods bought water from Frazier Park, 5 miles up the road, but that community halted sales as its water table dropped. Now the community is trying to line up alternatives, and fast. State officials predict the existing water supply will last no more than three months.

The town, which covers an unincorporated square-mile of Kern County and has a population of about 900, says it is prepared to truck in water should the wells run dry, an expensive remedy it employed briefly during a dry spell last year and which now looms as a potential fact of life.

Bob Stowell, a general contractor who is the unpaid chairman of the board of the water company, promises that no faucets in Lake of the Woods will go dry.

That assurance is being met with skepticism from residents who have grown uneasy at the prospect of running out of drinking water or fighting what many see as the inevitable forest fires on the way.

“I am very worried,” said Craig Raiche, 43, who works at the local hardware store, as he tended the dry dirt of his front yard. “We understand what we are in the middle of. People have been cutting back considerably. I don’t see neighbors gardening anymore.”

The developments in Lake of the Woods offer a window into the battles that may be ahead for many parts of the drought-stricken region should rain not return. Gustafson said the owners of summer homes had threatened not to pay their water bills after they were told they could not water their lawns; she has responded by vowing to cut off their water.

For Stowell, the once-modest obligations of running the water company have become time-consuming. He spends much of his day dealing with homeowners anxious about what the next season will bring, and scolding the occasional water scofflaws who resist the conservation directives.

As the drought has shown no sign of easing, the water company, with emergency financial assistance from California, has intensified its efforts to find new water sources: buying land, opening up closed wells and drilling ever deeper.

“We did drill three test holes, and we found nothing,” Stowell said. “Went down, 3, 4, 5 hundred feet. And we didn’t find anything. Now we’re going to go down more, 1,000 feet.”

“We’ll keep drilling until we find water,” Stowell said. “We have three new test locations. ... I suspect we will eventually find water.”



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