California city hit hard by drought crisis remains concerned over water supply despite wet winter

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Friday, May 26, 2023
California city still faces water scarcity concerns despite wet winter
Despite California's historic wet weather this year, the plight of one drought-stricken city in the San Joaquin Valley could be a preview of what's to come for the rest of the state.

COALINGA, Calif. (KABC) -- Despite California's historic wet weather this year that brought relief to drought-stricken regions, one small city in the San Joaquin Valley continues to suffer.

No place has suffered more from the state's recent stretch of dry weather than Coalinga in Fresno County.

"This has got to be ground zero - you're not going to see so many cities that have run out of water like we have done, where we ran out of our allotment and we had to go to the open market and buy from private industry," Coalinga City Councilman Adam Adkisson said.

And pay they did - almost 10 times what the city would normally pay for its water.

Coalinga gets its water from the San Luis Reservoir. At the drought's height, the city's allotment was cut by 80%.

There aren't many manicured lawns there - most have been left to die, or they've been replaced by weeds.

While Coalinga seems far away to many, its plight could be a preview of what's to come for all of California.

You can still find puddles of water from recent rains. The wet weather has given residents a sense of relief, but the fight for water could start all over again next year.

Coalinga resident Rodney Baker said it depends on how Sacramento handles it.

"If they waste it again, or if they're going to store it and manage it," he said.

Storing water depends on reservoirs, and most are now already full. Some of the water will seep into the soil and help recharge depleted aquifers, but even more will be lost.

"Run straight to the ocean. It's unfathomable, especially at a city like this," Adkisson said. "You don't see these same problems, it seems like, in big metropolitan areas like San Francisco and L.A. You see it all in these small, poor communities who seem to take the biggest brunt of it."

Coalinga's experience should serve as a warning, and also perhaps an example.

Environmentalists insist conservation has to be part of any long-term plan for the state's water needs, and it should start with getting rid of the front lawns.

"It just doesn't make sense. We don't live in English gardens," said Mark Gold of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It makes sense to have it for ball fields and the like, but not for non-functional turf, it's a waste of water. It doesn't meet the climate we have here in California, especially with the water scarcity issues getting worse and worse."

And if not more scarce, certainly more unpredictable, as weather patterns change.

California - a state of close to 40 million people - still relies on reservoirs and canals built decades ago.

"It's not like you can't see it happening. You see it happening and you still do nothing," Adkisson said. "You have infrastructure for 20 million people and we have far surpassed that."

It's hard for Coalinga city leaders to hide their frustration. The answer for many there is simply to build more reservoirs, either above ground or below.

Some improvements are in the works, but they are still years away and may still not address the state's water needs.

In the meantime, the winter waters of 2023 will continue to wash away. Residents in places like Coalinga will brace themselves for another year of wondering if the water will be there when they need it.