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In Mariposa County, 3,200 People May Soon Run Out Of Water

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Credit Curtis Jerome Haynes
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Workers in Lake Don Pedro drill wells in an attempt to find groundwater

A California community that sits between two large reservoirs is running out of water. About 3,200 people in the Sierra Nevada foothill enclave of Lake Don Pedro rely on water from nearby Lake McClure. But the lake level is dangerously low. That’s forcing the community to find another supply. As Amy Quinton reports from Sacramento, so far it’s come up dry.

The Lake Don Pedro community is operating in emergency mode.  For the last several weeks, work crews have drilled well after well, hoping to find groundwater.

Pete Kampa: “We’re on our sixth test hole, and none of the other test holes yet have produced enough to be worthwhile to develop into permanent groundwater sources.”

Pete Kampa is General Manager of Lake Don Pedro Community Services District.

Kampa: “We’ve got a short period of time in which to pull a rabbit out of a hat as far as coming up with additional water supply.”

One look at Lake McClure makes the community’s predicament starkly clear. The reservoir holds just eight percent of its capacity. At one point, water levels were the lowest since the dam was built in the 1960’s. John Sweigard is General Manager of the Merced Irrigation District which operates the reservoir. He says farmers will get no surface water deliveries this year.

Sweigard: “I’ve spent a lot of time on this lake, but I’ve never been on the lake when it’s been this low, this is amazing. I’ve never seen that island in the middle before.”

More than 200 boats would normally be out on the lake on this 75 degree day. Most of them are in the parking lot now. Forty remain moored in the deepest part of the lake. But it’s so far away, owners have used paddleboats to get to them. Also out on the lake are floating pumps that carry water to the Lake Don Pedro community. Again, Pete Kampa.

Kampa: “Our emergency floating pumps have another 50 feet below them. Once that gets exhausted which right now we estimate gets to be sometime mid-summer, then it’s five miles to get to another location where the water exists.”

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Credit Curtis Jerome Haynes
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Boats normally in the water in Lake McClure now rest in a nearby parking lot.

Lake McClure depends entirely on rain and snow runoff from the Merced River watershed. The drought has taken a toll. The Merced Irrigation District is also required to release water downstream for fish. It has received a temporary reprieve, but increased flows could be required again by April. And that would put the community in a dire situation.

More than 200 people showed up at community meeting to learn the grim news: a ban on outdoor irrigation in place since December would continue, and now people must conserve half their water. To help, they were given five gallon orange buckets.

The buckets are also used to capture extra water in showers so it can be reused. Until now the community has been conserving 30 percent. Johnathon Oden, President of Lake Don Pedro Owners Association, says even that is difficult. 

Johnathon Oden: “You’re going to be filling a five gallon bucket until that water gets hot so you can take your shower. You’re going to get wet, shut it off, soap up, turn it back on, wash off, shut it off. Look at your water bill and cut back your water 30 percent, and then tell us what it’s like, 50 percent is going to be really hard.”
"We've got a short period of time in which to pull a rabbit out of a hat as far as coming up with additional water supply." - Pete Kampa

Other homeowners say the new restrictions will be a struggle but achievable. Chuck and Sheila Arndt have lived in Lake Don Pedro for 12 years. They’re both worried what the drought will mean for the community long term.

Chuck Arndy: “I think it’s horrible. It’s scary. Nature gave us this water. They’re not giving us any this year. What I think is criminal is all the water that has to be let out because of the fish.”
Shelia Arndt: “I’m a realtor and people aren’t going to move here. And the value of your homes are going to plummet when this type of thing happens especially when it’s such an unknown.”

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Credit Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio
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Capital Public Radio
Homeowner Hans Frei addresses the Lake Don Pedro Community Services District Board.

Some homeowners here have been hit particularly hard by the drought. One couple gave up their horse; another homeowner lost the family orchard. And everyone is worried about the prospect of a wildfire season with no water. Johnathon Oden says he – and everyone in the community – are doing their best to conserve. They just hope it’s enough.

Oden: “Everybody here is pitching together, to try to save as much water as we can because it’s a very very serious situation that’s going to affect the rest of California, we’re just first in line, we’re up here by the lake.”

The solution may require building a five mile overland pipeline to carry water from the deepest part of the lake to the district. That would likely cost more than six times the district’s annual budget. It’s asked the state for help. Otherwise even with mandatory conservation measures in place, the water could run out by August.

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