In The Depths Of A Drought, One Mayor Seeks Ways To Cope

Melissa Block speaks with Holly Madrigal, the mayor of Willits, Calif., about the ways her city is seeking to conserve water in the midst of the drought.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

No water at all. That situation could soon confront the small city of Willits in Northern California - population about 5,000. It's one of 17 towns and water districts the state says could run out of water within 100 days. Holly Madrigal is the mayor of Willits, and she says they did get some rain last week.

MAYOR HOLLY MADRIGAL: We got about an inch and hopefully it'll give a little bit of grass, but it wasn't able to fill up our reservoirs.

BLOCK: One inch of rain, enough to set aside fears of fire for a while. But as the mayor told me today, people in Willits are also taking precautions.

MADRIGAL: We are still moving forward with plans for an emergency water supply.

BLOCK: And what would those plans be?

MADRIGAL: So with the city of Willits, we've been very proactive and we're working on a well plan. We are basically going to be using groundwater from the Willits Valley, and we are fast-tracking that since it is an emergency necessity. And so, both of the wells are existing that we had previously used for irrigation of our parks and ball fields. But we basically just need to be treating that to drinking water standards and then we can put it into the system.

BLOCK: And how long would that take?

MADRIGAL: Well, our emergency plan was something that we needed to have done within 90 days because of our time crunch as far as our water supply. The community has really been amazing in cutting back. Businesses have cut back. They've really responded to the water restrictions, and so we have a little bit more breathing room on that. But we're trying to get this up and running, you know, within the next couple months.

BLOCK: So the idea is you would take water from these existing wells and treat it, purify it, so that it's safe for drinking?

MADRIGAL: Yes, and then it would basically be supplemental water. So we still have some water left in our reservoirs. We have about 300 acre-feet. The wells are going to allow us to make that water go farther.

BLOCK: You're in the highest phase of water restrictions right now, I think, there in Willits, phase five. What does that mean in practicality? What do people have to do or not do?

MADRIGAL: Yes. Well, phase five is a restriction to 150 gallons a day, and that's for a family of four. It's actually quite doable and the residents of our community have really stepped up and conserved. We had members of our elementary school writing into the newspaper with suggestions of how you can save water around the house. It's been really community-wide support.

BLOCK: And what happens if you go above the restrictions or you violate the restrictions? What happens then?

MADRIGAL: Well, you could be subjected to a $1,000 fine and it can be listed as a misdemeanor, although there is a certain amount of leeway at city hall to enforce that. What we've been doing is talking to the heavy water users, going around and reading meters. And if it seems like there's a lot of water being wasted, then we're communicating with the property owner to make sure that they don't have leaks that they're unaware of. So we're just - we're really working on communicating with people before being punitive.

BLOCK: So you're actually going door to door?

MADRIGAL: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Wow.

MADRIGAL: Every drop counts in this instance. And we've been working really proactively with our regional partners to make sure that we're meeting all the requirements to potentially get emergency funding or government drought assistance to help us pay for these improvements that we're making.

BLOCK: Well, as you talk to people there in Willits, I mean, how are they holding up? What do they tell you about how they feel about all this?

MADRIGAL: There's a certain amount of anxiety.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Yeah.

MADRIGAL: There's definitely rain dances happening.

BLOCK: Rain dances.

MADRIGAL: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Really? Figurative or literal?

MADRIGAL: Literal. I've heard of a number of events. I believe there's a community rain dance planned in Laytonville, which is just north of Willits.

BLOCK: Have you been dancing at all yourself?

MADRIGAL: I haven't been dancing but I've been studiously watching the clouds.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And what does it look like?

MADRIGAL: It looks pretty good. We think that we might get a little bit more this coming weekend. So I'm hopeful for that. And we also just used regular weather reports. So in addition to rain dancing, we also do read the weather reports, and it looks like we might have some more moisture coming our way. So we're all hopeful.

BLOCK: All right. Well, keep that thought. Mayor Madrigal, thanks for talking with us.

MADRIGAL: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's Holly Madrigal. She's the mayor of Willits, California. The water supply there is projected to run out in about three months. The mayor also happens to serve on the board of our Mendocino County member station KZYX.

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