What Happens When a Town Runs Out of Water?

California drought
As California's drought deepens, many towns are forced to consider a bleak future Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Lompico, California, is running out of water. The idyllic community of around 1,200 is tucked into a canyon in the Santa Cruz mountains, where majestic redwoods are common features of people's backyards. Last week, Lompico appeared on a list of 17 rural districts that the state says may completely deplete their water supply in 60 to 120 days.

"As the drought goes on, there will be more that probably show up on the list," Dave Mazzera, acting drinking-water division chief for the state Department of Public Health, told reporters.

It is hard to imagine what that means in absolute terms: Lompico's approximately 500 homes get their water from three wells that draw on an underground aquifer. Aquifers are replenished by rainfall that seeps through the ground, which is a very slow process under normal conditions. California is three years deep into the worst drought the state has ever seen, and levels in the Lompico aquifer are dropping, as demand for water outstrips the rate at which it can be replenished. Even the Lompico creek, which might have been able to make up for part of the difference, has been all but dry since August. Lompico is largely out of options.

For Lois Henry, who has lived in Lompico for 43 years and has sat on the board of its water system for the past five, the situation is dire.

"I've never seen a drought like this," she tells Newsweek. "We have no water supply here other than what is right here in the county. We don't get water from the Colorado River, or the Hetch Hetchy [reservoir near Yosemite], or the San Joaquin Delta. We just have the water that's here," and there's simply not enough.

With approximately seven inches of rain in California in 2013 (compared to the average 22 inches), Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January. Many reservoirs in the state are only 30% full, and the Sierra snowpack, a major source of California water, is at only 12% of its normal water content for this time of year.

While Lompico is running out of its own water, other parts of the state are about to be cut off from shared state reservoirs. Gov. Brown has called for a 20% voluntary reduction of water use for Californians, and in many local communities have imposed mandatory cuts to individual water use. In Lompico, the water district has asked its customers to cut use by 30%.

Scientists have determined that extremely dry conditions will likely persist in California due to climate change, and a recent study concluded that climate change will cause droughts to "set in quicker and be more intense." The American Meteorological Society intends to take up the question of climate change's role in the current drought later this year.

"I know that there are periods of drought. It happens. There was the dust bowl in the '30s. They're probably fine now," Henry says. "I'm hoping that this isn't a permanent climate change. What would happen to the redwoods?"

For now, Lompico has enough water to limp by. But Henry says one of the town's three wells has recently been cutting out, reducing even further the approximately 35 gallons per minute the district is able to pump to its 494 water hookups. The water supply is so precarious that, Henry says, Lompico is one water main break or major fire away from disastrously low levels.

Directing people to use less water also means less money in water payments will come in to help pay for a potential new well, or repairs on the one well that's in disrepair.

"It's like you can't win," Henry says.

The tiny town of Lompico is in discussions with neighboring San Lorenzo for a water-district merger, which would alleviate the situation. But with upwards of 90% of the state suffering the drought, a huge increase in rainfall is the only long term solution.

As a last-ditch measure, water may be able to be trucked in to little Lompico, Henry says. But she says she has never once thought of leaving. Besides, how could she? Selling a home in a drought-affected area would be almost impossible.

"What am I going to do? I'm retired, this is my home. My house is paid for free and clear. You just don't walk away from something like that."