LAKE OF THE WOODS, Calif. — On Fir Drive, in this tiny mountain town in Kern County in the usually lush Los Padres National Forest, there were no signs of lawns.
Sharon McGinley washed her truck with Windex and paper towels, while her 5-year-old grandson, Jacob, insisted on playing on a dusty lot crawling with ants.
“We can’t water, we can’t wash our cars,” she said. “I’ve never seen it this bad — ever.”
That is saying a lot, coming from a 30-year-plus resident of this unincorporated community that attracts retirees, vacationers and anyone eager to escape the smog and traffic of Los Angeles, about 75 miles south.
Lake of the Woods is running out of water. Caught in a statewide water emergency in the third year of what is fast becoming a historic drought, it is one of seven small areas in California with a dubious distinction — it could run out of potable water by summer. That has made living here difficult, and coping with a dire shortage has forced residents to make difficult choices, which a much larger swath of California could also face if the drought worsens.
The district relies on groundwater pumped by wells, but the levels are getting so low that new sources have to be found.
Things have been bad since last summer, and winter has brought no relief. Only three of five wells are pumping water at a rate of 100 gallons per minute. Residents who were asked to limit outdoor washing and watering to every other day now face a total ban.
“Last summer, we drilled three test holes and came up with nothing,” said Bob Stowell, president of the water district (an unpaid position) and head of his own construction company. “We have enough right now to maintain levels that we need at this time.”
But that might change. Prospects of a protracted drought as summer nears have residents scrambling for new sources of water. The only good to come out of this emergency is that it has brought state funds to the community: two grants totaling $750,000. The cash infusion was quickly put to work. “We hired an engineer who in turn hired a geologist to do mapping and studies,” Stowell said.
But nothing is simple in a time of drought here. In a community that sits along the San Andreas Fault, drilling and where to drill is a delicate task because of the risk of creating fractures that could trigger an earthquake. The studies identified three areas suitable for drilling. “We’re waiting on permits,” said Stowell, who hopes drilling can start within a month. “There’s got to be water down there, but nobody can say for sure. We just have to go deeper, but the deeper you go, the higher the risk of water with fluoride and uranium that may not be acceptable.”
So other desperate measures have had to be taken. Lake of the Woods spent $10,000 a month to truck in water from neighboring Frazier Park, but that source dried up when Frazier Park began to worry about its own supply.