By Daniel Potter

Lake Shastina (Daniel Potter)
The city of Montague relies heavily on Lake Shastina, down 90 percent from normal this summer. (Daniel Potter/KQED)

All summer, Montague has been a town in trouble. The city sits half an hour south of the Oregon border, in a rugged patch of Northern California that offers little refuge from the scorching sun. For water, the roughly 1,500 people who live here depend on snow melting from the slopes of Mount Shasta, about 20 miles to the south. But the snowpack this past winter was, by all accounts, pitiful.

Standing on a hill near the edge of town at 8:30 in the morning, before the sun and the temperatures have had much time to climb, Chris Tyhurst looks toward the mountain and says, “I think I see two little spots of snow, about a square foot each.” Tyhurst, who has blue eyes and the calm demeanor of a recreational pilot, is joking, but in his nearly four decades as Montague’s water manager, he says this summer has been the toughest.

The city has been forced to cut water use drastically. Tyhurst says folks are using roughly one-third the amount they normally would this time of year. Nearly every lawn in town has turned a crispy blond, except for those belonging to a handful of residents who have their own wells. The city has imposed a monthly limit of 5,000 gallons per home, with fines for running over that. More than a hundred households have gone over the limit this summer. It’s hard not to, a sympathetic official tells me, if you have three kids at home. The worst offenders got letters from the Montague City Council.

Avoiding the ‘Nightmare Scenario’

The “nightmare scenario,” as Tyhurst puts it, would be having to truck in water just to keep Montague’s water system pressurized, at an expense of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tyhurst figures that would take a procession of some 30 trucks a day, each hauling 3,500 of gallons of water, rumbling from dawn to dusk every half-hour through the normally quiet neighborhood — a place where deer are a routine sight. Any scheduling hiccup could lead to trucks jamming the narrow unpaved road that leads to the town’s reservoir, which resembles a farm pond, complete with fish and turtles.

To keep from resorting to the water convoys, Tyhurst says he’s willing to try just about anything, including a measure that’s rarely been tried in California. It’s a fine, white powder Tyhurst has taken to sprinkling over the three-acre reservoir every few days, using a flour sifter on the end of a long pole. The powder readily dissolves and spreads across the surface, forming what’s called a “monolayer” between the water and the air, aimed at slowing evaporation to buy the town’s water supply a few extra days or weeks.

monolayer (Daniel Potter)
Using a modified flour sifter, Tyhurst sprinkles a powder across Montague’s small reservoir. The product, made from palm oil and hydrated lime, spreads to form a ‘monolayer’ across the surface, slowing evaporation and saving precious water for the town. (Daniel Potter/KQED)

This particular product, called WaterSavr, is made of hydrated lime, which is often used to treat water supplies, along with palm oil. Officials are also trying it out in drought-stricken Texas. Noting the product’s been approved for use by the National Sanitation Foundation, Tyhurst says so far no one’s complained about it to him, “But we didn’t really broadcast that we were starting to use it,” he adds. “We generally don’t with any of our treatment stuff. It’s NSF approved, and that’s all the health department looks at, so we’re good to go.”

‘Definitely Real Life’

At the town butcher shop, 26-year old Douglas Hamblin says he hears talk from ranchers of having to cash out their chips if the weather doesn’t start cooperating, and soon.

Hamblin is leaving town to do the shop laundry. Without water, he says, "life gets hectic pretty quickly." (Daniel Potter)
Douglas Hamblin says the family butcher shop has had to adjust to Montague’s severe water restrictions. Without water, he says, ‘Life gets hectic pretty quick.’ (Daniel Potter/KQED)

“It’s definitely real life,” he says. “It’s definitely water, and everybody needs water.” Without it, he says, “life gets hectic pretty quick.”

Hamblin has a tattoo of Jesus Christ on his arm, and big holes through his earlobes from the thick gauges he used to wear. Hamblin’s family only moved to Montague and started running the shop a couple years ago. While it’s equipped with a washing machine for aprons and rags, Hamblin says they haven’t been using it, because of the town’s limit on water use. Instead, his mother drives miles to another town each week to do laundry.

A new dad, Hamblin is quick to point out there are many people in the world with bigger problems than dead lawns, but says, “It’s kind of a bummer, you know. You have a six-month-old son, you want a little bit of a yard. You look like a jerk if you go ‘Okay, well, if I go over the 5,000 gallon-a-month limit I’ll just pay for it.’”

It’s a close-knit community, he explains: “Of course it’s frowned upon, because everybody has to look out for each other up here.”

Banking on a Pipeline

Near the base of Mount Shasta sits Lake Shastina, which in good years can hold more than 30,000 acre-feet of water. (An acre foot is about 325,000 gallons, or just enough water to cover an acre one foot deep.) This year, Tyhurst says, the lake started well below 10,000 acre feet, with little in the way of snow on the mountain to help refill it. By late July, parts of the lake seemed to be missing — a blue patch on a map might just turn out to be an empty green field. In one spot, a sign next to a dry, rocky slope advised against swimming or fishing. The lake, or what remained of it, looked to be something of a hike down the hill.

Water travels to Montague in what Tyhurst calls “deliveries.” Every few weeks, some 200 acre-feet are released into a 26-mile canal that was constructed with farm irrigation in mind. The unlined ditch is poorly suited to water conservation. Much of it is bare earth, which gulps down a lot of the water long before it reaches the town, to say nothing of what evaporates in transit.

Workers lower a segment of the new, more efficient pipeline next to where they’re carving a miles-long trench from the Shasta River to Montague’s reservoir. (Daniel Potter)
Workers lower a new segment of pipeline near where they’re carving a miles-long trench from the Shasta River to Montague’s reservoir. (Daniel Potter/KQED)

As an alternative, this summer Montague has hustled to finish an emergency pipeline, essentially a straw that stretches a few miles from the Shasta River to the town’s reservoir. Tyhurst says normally such a project, which is costing over a million drought emergency dollars from the State Water Board, would’ve taken years to win approval from the numerous government agencies involved. Tyhurst credits the governor’s January declaration of a drought emergency with helping slice through all that.

Even so, construction itself hasn’t been easy. The morning I visited, a giant yellow machine was devouring underbrush like a hungry dinosaur to clear a path for the pipeline’s trench. But before the pipe could be buried, its specifications required it to cool, Tyhurst says. “I think the specs call for 70 degrees…and with a hundred degrees during the day, you just cook out here.”

Even when the pipeline is ready, Montague officials told me, the town’s water woes won’t be completely over. Everyone’s hopes are riding on a wet winter.

Drought-Stricken California Town Struggles to Keep the Water Flowing 21 August,2014KQED Science

  • azaredaniel

    We need to Ban Fracking now. and implement a Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff, and terminate Nestle water contracts, to address our Water and Energy Problems here in California and Nationally

    Brenna Norton, Organizer for Food & Water Watch quoted in one of many print and TV stations that covered Wednesday’s release of how much water the oil and gas industry is wasting and permanently polluting in California.

    “In this time of drought, our water is just too precious,” Norton told CBS Los Angeles. “We can’t have two million gallons a day that can never reenter the water cycle.”

    The oil industry in CA is currently polluting over 2 million gallons of water each day due to fracking, acidizing and cyclic steam injection. By comparison, about 20,000 California homeowners use this much water in a day!

    3 -6 million gallons of drinkable water is used with Trade Secret Protected Toxic Chemicals for each well.

    Depleting a Precious Resource
    “Nestlé has two plants on the Colorado River Basin that take in water to bottle and sell under its Arrowhead and Pure Life brands. One is in Salida, Colorado, on the eastern edge of the Upper Basin; the other is in the San Gorgonio Pass, halfway between San Bernardino and Indio, Calif., on the western edge of the Lower Basin.

    According to annual reports filed up to 2009, Nestlé bottles between 595 and 1,366 acre-feet of water per year – enough to flood that many acres under a foot of water – from the California source.

    The company takes 200 additional acre-feet per year from the Colorado source. This means altogether Nestlé is draining the Colorado River Basin of anywhere from 250 million to 510 million gallons of water per year, according to the acre-feet-to-gallons conversion calculator.”

    “The Colorado River Basin is an especially critical water resource, responsible for supplying municipal water to 40 million Americans and irrigating 5.5 million acres of land. As the US Bureau of Reclamation has documented, 22 federally-recognized tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, and 11 national parks depend on the basin. In a new report by NASA and the University of California at Irvine, researchers discovered that between December of 2004 and November of 2013, the basin lost 53 million acre-feet of water. 41 million acre-feet, or 75 percent of that loss, came from groundwater sources, like those pumped by Nestlé.

    That’s more than twice the amount of water contained in Lake Mead, America’s largest freshwater reservoir. In the meantime, Nestlé, with 29 water bottling facilities across North America, pocketed $4 billion in revenue from bottled water sales in 2012 alone.” Carl Gibson

    Fracking and our Carbon emitting footprints.
    Here in California we emit 446 million tons of Carbon Dioxide a year, 1,222,000 Toxic Tons a Day, The California Public Utility Commission is thinking of replacing San Onofre and Hydro losses to generating with Natural Gas Power Plants condemning our kids and our planet to Heating UP and Burning UP, unless We start Changing and Fighting for real Sustainable Energy Policies.

    The state currently produces about 71% of the electricity it consumes, while it imports 8% from the Pacific Northwest and 21% from the Southwest.

    This is how we generate our electricity in 2011, natural gas was burned to make 45.3% of electrical power generated in-state. Nuclear power from Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County accounted for 9.15%, large hydropower 18.3%, Renewable 16.6% and coal 1.6%.

    There is 9% missing from San Onofre and with the current South Western drought, how long before the 18.3% hydro will be effected?

    We have to change how we generate our electricity, with are current drought conditions and using our clean water for Fracking, there has to be a better way to generate electricity, and there is, a proven stimulating policy.

    The Feed in Tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in Renewable Energy, the California FiT allows eligible customers generators to enter into 10- 15- 20- year contracts with their utility company to sell the electricity produced by renewable energy, and guarantees that anyone who generates electricity from R E source, whether Homeowner, small business, or large utility, is able to sell that electricity. It is mandated by the State to produce 33% R E by 2020.

    FIT policies can be implemented to support all renewable technologies including:
    Photovoltaics (PV)
    Solar thermal
    Fuel cells
    Tidal and wave power.

    There is currently 3 utilities using a Commercial Feed in Tariff in California Counties, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Sacramento, are paying their businesses 17 cents per kilowatt hour for the Renewable Energy they generate. We can get our Law makers and Regulators to implement a Residential Feed in Tariff, to help us weather Global Warming, insulate our communities from grid failures, generate a fair revenue stream for the Homeowners and protect our Water.

    The 17 cents per kilowatt hour allows the Commercial Business owner and the Utility to make a profit.

    Commercial Ca. rates are 17 – 24 cents per kilowatt hour.

    Implementing a Residential Feed in Tariff at 13 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 2,300 MW, and then allow no more than 3-5 cents reduction in kilowatt per hour, for the first tier Residential rate in you area and for the remaining capacity of Residential Solar, there is a built in Fee for the Utility for using the Grid. A game changer for the Hard Working, Voting, Tax Paying, Home Owner and a Fair Profit for The Utility, a win for our Children, Utilities, and Our Planet.

    We also need to change a current law, California law does not allow Homeowners to oversize their Renewable Energy systems.

    Campaign to allow Californian residents to sell electricity obtained by renewable energy for a fair pro-business market price. Will you read, sign, and share this petition?

    Roof top Solar is the new mantra for Solar Leasing Companies with Net-Metering which allows them to replace One Utility with Another, we need to change this policy with a Residential Feed in Tariff that will level the playing field and allow all of us to participate in the State mandated 33% Renewable Energy by 2020.

    This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State.

    Do not exchange One Utility for Another (Solar Leasing Companies) “Solar is absolutely great as long as you stay away from leases and PPAs. Prices for solar have dropped so dramatically in the past year, that leasing a solar system makes absolutely no sense in today’s market.

  • mattzweck

    time to get desalting plants going. desalt the ocean water so we can drink it
    time to start cloud seeding too. i don’t care what environmentalist say.


KQED Science

KQED Science brings you award-winning science and environment coverage from the Bay Area and beyond by the flagship Northern California PBS and NPR affiliate.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor