Lake of the Woods, a small community north of Los Angeles, is running dry amid a deep California drought. A sign announces the town's water levels. Residents are changing water habits, but many worry about the future. Photo: Matt Black / The New York Times

7 March 2014

LAKE OF THE WOODS, California (The New York Times) –  People in this mountain town straddling the San Andreas Fault are used to scrapping for water. The lake for which it is named went dry 40 years ago. But now, this tiny community is dealing with its most unsettling threat yet: It could run out of water by summer.

As of last week, just two of the five wells drilled into the dry lake bed that serve its 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 their 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 stark red-on-white warnings of a “Water Emergency” and plead for conservation.

“I didn’t think it would come to this,” said Diane Gustafson, the manager of the Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company, 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.”

So far, nothing has seemed to have helped: 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 three inches of rain that soaked the area last weekend. Three attempts to drill new wells, going down 500 feet, have failed. […]

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.

But that assurance is being met with skepticism from residents who, with every dry passing day, have grown uneasy at the prospect of running out of water for drinking or, no less alarming, to fight what many see as the inevitable forest fires on the way. […]

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

In Parched California, Town Taps Run Nearly Dry



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