California Drought: Town North of L.A. Could Run Out of Water

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The Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company is one of 17 communities that state health officials are worried will run out of water within 90 days. (Molly Peterson/KPCC)
The Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company is one of 17 communities that state health officials are worried will run out of water within 90 days. (Molly Peterson/KPCC)

By Molly Peterson, KPCC Environment Correspondent

Even with some recent rain, California’s drought grinds on, and health officials say 17 communities could run out of water within the next four months – or sooner. One of those, an hour north of Los Angeles, is the town of Lake of the Woods, perched above the Tejon Pass.

At Our Lady of the Snows, parishioners have been praying lately for the thing their church was named for. Father Sidath Wilegoda is the parish priest.

“We have been praying. We have asked the people to pray for the snow and rain," he said. "On special Sundays, we pray a special intention.”

Thursday’s rain answered those prayers - somewhat (rain but no snow). But it won’t buy much more time for this town of 900. Lake of the Woods has relied on well water since Mrs. Florence Cuddy subdivided her land, creating this town in 1925.


“Last year we were doing fine. The wells were doing fine. and now, you know, they’ve gone down dramatically,” said Bob Stowell, chairman of the Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company. One of the company’s consultants estimates Lake of the Woods has lost 70 percent of its supply.

“You can’t predict this,” Stowell said. “And you can’t prepare for it as much as you like because of the lack of funds.”

Last summer, the water board knew trouble was coming when surveys showed the wells were draining faster than expected. They tried sinking new wells. All came up dry. The effort sapped the financial reserves of the water company.

Lake of the Woods could be a victim of location. It shares groundwater with several other water districts, some lower in elevation. “The water follows faultlines and stuff like that, so it’s naturally draining downhill,” said Raphael Molina Jr., the operations manager for Lake of the Woods.

Molina works for Lake of the Woods and Krista Mutual Water Company part time. His full time job is for the Lebec County Water District. On his belt is a fat ring of keys for trucks, offices, and locks around wells.

Lebec sold water to Lake of the Woods last summer. Lake of the Woods trucked it up hill and delivered it to homeowners’ tanks. This year, Molina says, that might not happen. Lebec has its own problems.

“Our water table here at this well dropped 14 feet in a year,” he said, standing at Lebec’s main well. “So a year ago the water table I think was at 93 feet. So I mean, It is dropping.”

Molina is a babyfaced 23-year-old with five years of experience in the region’s water geology under his belt.

Water emergency

He’s getting experience in human psychology, too. When Lake of the Woods declared a water emergency last summer, Molina went door to door to tell residents. At one house, a man shouted at him, and “got in his face.” A woman tore up the emergency notice.

What would it take, for people like that to conserve? I ask. “For them to have no water,” he says. “Sometimes you need a rude awakening. That’s what my dad always told me, you know. “

Water remains available over at the Mountain View market, where they sell Lake of the Woods water to all comers with a plastic jug.  Rosa Marillo works the deli counter.  “I think it’s like 25 cents a gallon?” she said, shrugging. “That is very fair.”

Property owners all pay around 45 dollars a month for an unlimited supply of water. Even with little incentive to conserve, Marillo says most people she knows are taking care to cut their use. Still, she’s never heard a water alarm this loud, this early, before.

“I mean, we never heard about this before,” she says. “And now I’m 22 and I can only imagine what the future is going to be like if we don’t have any water.”

Town water managers hope that doesn’t happen.  A contract with the state will give them around $240,000 towards sinking new wells. They’re looking into other federal and state funding opportunities, too.

At a meeting this week, water board members hung on every word from a hydrogeologist. Consultant Ken Schmidt pointed out on maps where he thought test wells might succeed.

“From your maps here does it look assuring that there is deep water down there?” one board member asked.

Schmidt nodded. “I think the chances are worth pursuing; they’re greater than 50 percent.”

Locating areas likely to have water is a science, but pinpointing the location to actually sink a wellhead is more of an art, and sometimes just a guess. Dave Warner’s company, Self-Help, is helping the town raise money for the new well.

“You could drill there and you could move over twenty feet and come up without water.”

I ask, if the Lake of the Woods water company was a horse, would he bet on them.

Dave Warner answers immediately. “Yes, because they’re running. If they weren’t running all bets would be off. But they’re running,” he laughs.

They’ll have to run fast.

“If we don’t find any water in Lake of the Woods, you know property values aren’t going to be that much. You’re not going to be able to sell your home. But people are sure gonna leave,” said Raphael Molina, Jr. “I certainly wouldn’t want to live somewhere where there’s no water.”

The state estimates the current wells at Lake of the Woods could run dry by May.

This story originally appeared on KPCC.