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Can Fort Bragg Avoid Major Water Cuts?

The Fort Bragg City Council had a full plate set for its meeting Monday night: an appeal (likely to be continued to a later session) on the Planning Commission's denial of what would be the town's third cannabis dispensary; the final decision on an ordinance regulating chain stores; and a couple of hefty budget "amendments" - $1 million-plus to reroute a water main leading to the town's so far lightly developed northern hinterlands beyond the Pudding Creek bridge, and an additional $200,000 or so for trucking "solids" from the sewer plant to a distant landfill.

City Hall also reached a labor agreement with the police department - no added positions, but slight boosts in pay for extra training and comp time, plus cost of livIng adjustments - that needs council approval.

And, of course, water. 

Three weeks after Fort Bragg ended water sales to customers outside city limits, intensifying a scramble for water on the coast that has drawn international press coverage, the Council considered a Stage Three water emergency, which would require measures like limiting yard watering to certain hours and days, and requiring the town's full-to-the-brim motels and inns to impose, and not just suggest, limits on laundry service..

Twelve miles down the road, in the town of Mendocino, lodging establishments are trucking in water at growing expense. The reported cost of a truck of delivered water has risen from $350 to $600 and up, as business owners and some households reach as far away as Ukiah and Willits for water.

City Manager Tabatha Miller said Monday there has been surprisingly little rancor over Fort Bragg turning off the tap, a move triggered by historic low - and dropping - flows in the Noyo River.

The city, she said, gave water wholesalers plenty of advance warning that a shutoff was probably coming. Once the announcement was made, she said, trucks came for water “pretty much 24/7” until the actual shutoff three days later.

“The good thing is, I checked this morning and our reservoir is still full,” she said Monday morning. Fort Bragg will probably dip into that reserve later this month, Miller added. Plans now are to take about five million of the nearly 15-million-plus gallons in the reservoir by the end of August, with another five million budgeted for September and October as well.

“The other thing that's happening is that water usage continues to drop, so people are responding,” she said. The town's weekly water use, she said, fell over the past few weeks from 750,000 to 710,000 gallons. Fort Bragg's water use usually peaks in July, and the hope is that the town will actually need to draw less than expected from its reservoir. It's possible, Miller said previously, that Fort Bragg could start selling water again in late summer or early fall.

She said she hopes Fort Bragg can remain at a Stage Three emergency until the rain comes. Stage Four would, among other stricter measures, trigger “allocations” of a certain amount of water per household - likely 55 gallons per person per day, similar to what Cloverdale and other communities along the Russian River are facing after the state imposed severe residential restrictions and ended deliveries to hundreds of farms and vineyards.

But Miller is pretty hopeful that Fort Bragg can conserve without stricter controls. Overall city water use started dropping after the last severe dry spell in 2015 and didn't start rising again until 2019, she said. But that increase was a blip: water use started falling again in 2020 and the decrease has continued since.

“People put new habits in place or they make changes,” she said. “They take out their lawns, or they finally buy water saving devices.”

Also on the agenda, slated for closed session: more discussion regarding the city's negotiations with Georgia-Pacific to buy the southern portion of the 430-acre former millsite. Miller said talks are continuing, but a specific deal has yet to take shape.

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