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3,200 People Risk Running Out of Water In California Drought

Mike Jenson / Merced Irrigation District

As California’s drought continues to deepen, one community that sits between two large reservoirs is running out of water. About 3,200 people in the Sierra Nevada foothill enclave of Lake Don Pedro rely on water from nearby Lake McClure. But the lake level is dangerously low. That’s forcing the community to find another supply. And so far, they've come up dry.

The Lake Don Pedro community is operating in emergency mode.  For the last several weeks, work crews have drilled well after well, hoping to find groundwater.

“We’re on our sixth test hole, and none of the other test holes yet have produced enough to be worthwhile to develop into permanent groundwater sources,” says Pete Kampa, general manager of Lake Don Pedro Community Services District.

“We’ve got a short period of time in which to pull a rabbit out of a hat as far as coming up with additional water supply,” says Kampa.

One look at Lake McClure makes the community’s predicament starkly clear.

The reservoir holds just eight percent of its capacity. At one point, water levels were the lowest since the dam was built in the 1960’s.

The Merced Irrigation District operates the reservoir. Farmers within the district won't be getting any surface water deliveries this year either.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on this lake, but I’ve never been on the lake when it’s been this low, this is amazing." says  John Sweigard, general manager with MID. "I’ve never seen that island in the middle before.”

More than 200 boats would normally be out on the lake on this 75 degree day. Most of them are in the parking lot now.

Forty remain moored in the deepest part of the lake. But it’s so far away, owners have used paddleboats to get to them.

Also out on the lake are floating pumps that carry water to the Lake Don Pedro community. 

“Our emergency floating pumps have another 50 feet below them," says Kampa. "Once that gets exhausted, which right now we estimate to be sometime mid-summer, then it’s five miles to get to another location where the water exists.”

Lake McClure depends entirely on rain and snow runoff from the Merced River watershed. The drought has taken a toll.

The Merced Irrigation District is also required to release water downstream for fish. It has received a temporary reprieve, but increased flows could be required again by April. That would put the community in a dire situation.

More than 200 people showed up at community meeting earlier this week to learn the grim news: a ban on outdoor irrigation in place since December would continue, and now people must conserve half their water.

To help, they were given five gallon orange buckets. Inside were low flow showerheads, shut-off valves for garden hoses, and colored dye used to detect leaks in toilets. 

The buckets are also used to capture extra water in showers so it can be reused. Until now the community has been conserving 30 percent.

Johnathon Oden, president of Lake Don Pedro Owners Association, says conserving even that much is difficult. 

“You’re going to be filling a five gallon bucket until that water gets hot so you can take your shower," he says. "You’re going to get wet. Shut it off. Soap up, Turn it back on. Wash off. Shut it off," says Oden. "Look at your water bill and cut back your water 30 percent, and then tell us what it’s like, 50 percent is going to be really hard.”

Other homeowners say the new restrictions will be a struggle but achievable. Chuck and Sheila Arndt have lived in Lake Don Pedro for 12 years. They’re both worried what the drought will mean for the community long term.

“I think it’s horrible," says Chuck Arndt. "It’s scary. Nature gave us this water. They’re not giving us any this year. What I think is criminal is all the water that has to be let out because of the fish.”

"People aren’t going to move here," says Sheila Arndt, who is also a realtor. "And the value of your homes are going to plummet when this type of thing happens especially when it’s such an unknown.”

Some homeowners here have been hit particularly hard by the drought. One couple gave up their horse; another homeowner lost the family orchard. Everyone is worried about the prospect of a wildfire season with no water.

Johnathon Oden says he – and everyone in the community – are doing their best to conserve. They just hope it’s enough.

“Everybody here is pitching together, to try to save as much water as we can because it’s a very very serious situation that’s going to affect the rest of California," he says. "We’re just first in line, We’re up here by the lake.”

The solution may require building a five mile overland pipeline to carry water from the deepest part of the lake to the district.

That would likely cost more than six times the district’s annual budget. It’s asked the state for help. Otherwise even with mandatory conservation measures in place, the water could run out by August. 

Copyright 2015 Capital Public Radio