The fire chief noticed it when he tested hydrants in August — a rare occurrence as Coalinga desperately seeks to conserve water — and the first one shot out a foot-long block of compacted dirt. The second one ejected like a can of Axe body spray.
The schools’ superintendent could only think drought on the first day of school when a 4-year-old fell onto unwatered turf, breaking an arm; or when the chain saws dropped three coastal redwoods outside Henry F. Bishop Elementary that had withered and died. Superintendent Lori Villanueva even lost a portion of her own right lung last year from a drought-aggravated illness, valley fever, that’s caused by breathing soil fungus whipped up off the dry ground.
But what lies ahead might be far worse for the 17,000 residents living amid the oil derricks and cattle farms on the western edge of the state’s Central Valley. Coalinga has only one source of water — a shrinking allotment from an aqueduct managed by the federal government — and officials are projecting the city will use up that amount before the end of the year.
That looming threat has left city officials racing between meetings in Sacramento and phone calls to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation seeking to increase their water supply. Some residents have begun stockpiling five-gallon water jugs in their homes, while many expect major spikes in their water bills. If Coalinga can’t find relief, it would be forced to buy additional water on the open market at exorbitant prices that could swamp the city’s budget.
That was the grim scenario facing Mayor Ron Ramsey when he rapped his knuckles on the table and cursed at a City Council meeting in early August. Everyone but Ramsey had just voted to ban watering front yards and to ramp up penalties on overuse — measures they conceded would not save nearly what was needed. But it was more than Ramsey could stomach.
“It’s too much. Too fast,” Ramsey told the room. On top of that, he said, it wasn’t fair.
“Go to the state capitol and they got green grass, don’t they?” he said. “They can do it, but why can’t we?”