The California City of Coalinga Will Run Out of Water in Two Months

If the old coal town runs out of water, city bosses say they will be forced to buy more on the private market for obscene prices

With California in the midst of the worst drought on record, the Fresno city of Coalinga, pop. 17,000, is being hit harder than anywhere else in the state, according to the Washington Post. In fact, city officials expect to be completely tapped out within two months.

Coalinga’s water comes from the San Luis Reservoir, about 90 miles north, and is delivered along part of the California Aqueduct, but the city’s allotment of that water was cut this year. This summer, city authorities calculated that Coalinga’s water would run out in mid-September, although it did get an extra emergency allowance of water in August, after pleading with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—but that will only get it to mid-December, and the city is scrambling to come up with a way to survive the rest of the year.

“How do you not give farmers water when they feed everybody unless you’re trying to put them out of business?” Scott Netherton, owner of Coalinga’s only movie theater and executive director of its chamber of commerce, asked the Post. Farmers “received no allocation from the [Central Valley Network]” this year, he said.

While most Californians are griping about their lawns, residents of Coalinga have seen drought-era nightmares which could represent the grim future the rest of the state may eventually face. The fire chief noticed something awry, for instance, when he tested hydrants in August. The first one shot out a foot-long block of compacted dirt, while the second “ejected like a can of Axe body spray,” according to the Post.

If the city comes close to completely running out, it will have to buy the water from private vendors—irrigation districts, farmers, and other interests—which will be extremely expensive, as there isn’t much of it to buy no matter what one can spend.

“I cringe when I say this,” Sean Brewer, Coalinga’s assistant city manager told the City Council on August 4 when 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. To buy enough water to last the rest of the year, the city might need up to $2.5 million. Compare that to the city’s entire budget: $10 million.

In August, with Coalinga telling the Bureau of Reclamation it was just weeks from running dry, the the bureau increased the city’s water allotment by 531 acre-feet “to assist with meeting public health and safety needs,” it said in a statement, which only bought the city enough water to get halfway through December.

Some residents feel they’re being discriminated against by the state. Mayor Ron Ramsey expressed that sentiment at a recent City Council meeting, where he alone voted against banning lawn watering. Slamming his fist on the table, Ramsey told the assembled, “It’s too much. Too fast.”

Ramsey added,“Go to the state capitol and they got green grass, don’t they? They can do it, but why can’t we?”

The drought is in the 23rd year, and across the west, reservoirs are shrinking, wells have dried up, and water shortages along the Colorado River, which supplies other area of California, have been announced. Seven states will have to divvy up what’s left of the river in the years ahead. And as the Colorado River sees crisis-level declines, California water agencies have promised to limit their use.

In August, Gov. Gavin Newsom presented a plan to deal with the expected loss of 10 per cent of the state’s water supply by 2040.

“This is our new climate reality, and we must adapt,” Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement about the drought.

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