One California City’s Creative Drought Fix
The wine country town of Healdsburg is offering residents treated wastewater for their yards.,
HEALDSBURG — Take a drive through this picture-perfect wine country town and you’ll start to spot them, unsubtle symbols of our state’s extreme drought.
Peeking out from side yards of cottages and behind fences of grand multimillion-dollar homes are massive four-foot plastic cubes for storing water.
For the approximately 12,000 people who live here, the containers have become a prized commodity. And, for a city struggling with an extremely limited water supply, a solution.
“I definitely think that this is a success story,” Felicia Smith, a Healdsburg official, told me.
Healdsburg is in Sonoma County, one of the first places Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency this year due to a dwindling local water supply.
In an attempt to cut overall water usage by 40 percent, Healdsburg officials in June put a cap on each household’s water consumption and banned irrigation of yards.
But officials didn’t want the restrictions to kill trees and shrubs. So the city began offering deliveries of treated wastewater to residents to water their plants, as long as they have a container to store it.
On a dry 95-degree afternoon, Joan Voight walked me along the side of her terra cotta-colored bungalow, where she keeps her plastic water tank. She and her husband bought it on Amazon and installed a pump, she said.
But more important is what the water serves.
“Follow the hose,” Voight said as she led me into her backyard, home to her family’s pandemic project: a thriving vegetable garden.
On the plant stalks, some as tall as us, were glossy cherry tomatoes, globes of deep purple eggplant and sweet Italian peppers. She lifted a drooping stem to reveal a bulbous yellow pumpkin.
“This garden can’t go a full week without water,” Voight, 67, said.
The city’s water crunch pushed officials to take fuller advantage of ponds on the outskirts of town that store millions of gallons of treated wastewater, Smith said.
Wineries have long used the water — safe for crops but not drinkable — but most city residents didn’t know it existed nor did they have equipment to pick it up from the facility, she said.
So starting in late June, the city began delivering up to 500 gallons of recycled water to homes. As of Tuesday, 961 households were enrolled in the program, more than a quarter of the city’s residential water accounts, Smith said.
For now at least, the city is absorbing the roughly $150,000 monthly cost of the deliveries so they remain free for residents, she said.
“You can imagine we’re in a tough spot in that we’re prohibiting all irrigation,” Smith told me. “There needed to be an alternative solution.”
The city’s restrictions seem to have worked. Healdsburg’s water usage is down 48 percent compared with the same time last year, beyond the ambitious goal that officials had originally set.
For Voight, who has lived in Healdsburg for 34 years, conserving water is nothing new.
She keeps buckets in the shower to capture water that’s wasted as the tap turns from cold to hot. She saves the water from rinsing dishes and uses a special soap when she does laundry so she can repurpose the suds for her plants.
“We might as well get used to it,” she told me. “The drought makes you learn all this water stuff that you never cared about before.”
Over the past 18 months, as the pandemic and devastating wildfires kept Voight home, the backyard garden has been a rare joy, she said.
Not only can she cook delicious stir-fries and curries with the vegetables, but they also serve as currency around town. She likes to swap cherry tomatoes for baked goods and fruit.
And when she is invited over to people’s homes for dinner, she takes an armful of fresh-picked vegetables.
“It’s sort of like if you bring flowers or candies, we bring produce,” she told me.
Why does water seem so much scarcer in the northern part of the state? Perhaps even more than rainfall, it is money and infrastructure that dictate who has sufficient water, reports my colleague Thomas Fuller.
The United States, like most of the world, is becoming either drier or wetter, depending on where you live. These maps tell the story.
The rest of the news
President Biden to campaign for Newsom: Though some political activists had wondered whether the turmoil in Afghanistan would push Biden to back out of a planned trip to California, the president still plans to come here to campaign for Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Mismanaged federal relief funds: California took so long to distribute federal relief funds for homeless residents that local entities did not have access to much of the funding during the height of the pandemic, reports The Los Angeles Times.
How to help Afghan refugees: As tens of thousands of people are fleeing Afghanistan, organizations in California are looking for volunteers and donations to help newly arriving refugees. The Los Angeles Times has outlined ways to help them.
Nurse burnout: “It’s a little bit of a PTSD feeling, to be honest,” said Brenda Chavez, a registered nurse in Inglewood. As the Delta variant surges and California I.C.U. beds fill up, nurses are battling the virus and burnout all over again, Capital & Main reports.
Students stuck in Afghanistan: Almost two dozen students and their parents from San Diego County are trapped in Afghanistan after they traveled there this summer to visit their extended families.
South fire: A brush fire in San Bernardino County has burned at least 250 acres and was zero percent contained as of Wednesday afternoon, according to The Los Angeles Times.
San Diego Padres struggle: The San Diego Padres won, 4-3, against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday in what the team hopes will be part of a great comeback after many injuries and inconsistencies.
Los Angeles school outbreak: The first coronavirus outbreak for the Los Angeles Unified School District was confirmed at an elementary school in Hollywood and sent an entire classroom home, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Asian hate: Between anti-lockdown rallies and a restaurant catering to the unvaccinated, Orange County has seized the spotlight as a nexus for anti-Asian and anti-vaccine sentiments, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Projected rise in Covid cases: Hospital executives in Kern County worry they might not be able to staff enough beds to keep up with rising Covid-19 cases, according to The Bakersfield Californian.
Bennett fire: The Nevada County fire, which led to mandatory evacuations in Grass Valley, was 60 percent contained on Wednesday afternoon, The Sacramento Bee reports.
Toxic work environment: Former employees and executives of Valley Public Broadcasting Station say a revolving door of chief executive officers and staff members fleeing a “toxic work environment” have compromised the public media outlet, a Fresno Bee investigation has revealed.
Caldor fire: As the Caldor fire continues to spread toward the Lake Tahoe basin, officials are preparing for possible evacuations, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Michael Morgan: Michael Morgan, the music director and conductor of the Oakland Symphony, died on Aug. 20 at age 63. Martin was one of the few Black and openly gay conductors in the United States and his legacy includes boundary-pushing programming and a passion for education and outreach, KQED reports.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s California travel tip comes from Tracy Campbell, a reader who lives in El Dorado Hills. Tracy recommends visiting the Central Coast, including Cambria, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara:
Beautiful coastal gems with lots to do, healthy environments (hiking, biking, camping, water sports), wineries, good eateries and nice people!
Tell us about the best spots to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
Do you have questions about the upcoming recall election? Send them to me at CAtoday@nytimes.com and I’ll try to answer them in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
The bedroom of Brinkley Woodward, a Petaluma teenager, was transformed this summer into a “sophisticated soft pink dream with a whiff of Hollywood glam and sparkle,” reports The Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
The makeover was courtesy of the charitable branch of a Sonoma County design company. Woodward, 15, has a rare chromosomal mutation and wasn’t expected to live past age 1, yet is now entering high school.
The newspaper reports:
The focal point of the bedroom is an art photo of a palm tree-lined drive at sunset, emblematic of Hollywood, that sets the stage for a young star. The theme is fitting.
“My mom calls me Brinkle little star sometimes,” said the teen, a petite 4 feet 11 inches with platinum and rainbow-dyed hair and a flair for the dramatic.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Smthng mssng frm ths cl? (5 letters).
Steven Moity, Briana Scalia and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.