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Local town relies on neighbors to ease ongoing water shortage

The mountain community of Lake of the Woods, about an hour north of Los Angeles, remains vulnerable to the drought – even though the state has removed it from a list of mostly small and rural places critically in need of shoring up water supplies.

How the Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company has worked to accomplish that task points up potential future problems in larger communities who themselves may grapple with a California growing ever drier.

It’s not really a town, in the technical sense. Lake of the Woods is home to about a thousand people in a remote part of a national forest where L.A., Kern and Ventura counties meet. The mutual water company’s board is the closest thing the place has to local government.

Contractor Bob Stowell sits on that board. His day job is no picnic, but at least that workday ends. Solving the community’s water problems seems never ending.

“People asking all the time. I get emails. You know. All kinds of, 'Why is it taking so long? Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we buy this?'” Stowell says. “And you know, we don’t have unlimited funds to do it all. Sometimes it gets a little bit nasty.”

That’s maybe not a surprise. This year, just three of the five wells in Lake of the Woods are producing water, and they’ve slowed to a trickle.

“They aren’t producing a lot – 10, 15, 50 gallons a minute for a community of 400 homes,” says Dave Warner, a consultant for small and rural water services. I ask him how that compares to historic production levels. “For them? It was over 300 [gallons a minute] from all the supplies two years ago.”

Warner hikes into the hills of the Los Padres National Forest, off a hairpin turn, just above the community. He’s headed for a spring that was abandoned decades ago. The spring’s activity will help him form a better picture of what’s happening in Lake of the Woods; he’s also interested in seeing whether the spring can better serve the mountain towns below it.

Nobody’s been up here, not on official business, in a dozen or so years, but directions from old timers lead us to a squat 28-inch pipe sticking out of the ground. Warner snaps open a rusty Master lock on the metal lid covering the spring. He folds the lid back to reveal a mat of brown, thick willow roots 8 feet deep. It looks like Chewbacca’s hair.

Some spring water bubbles over. “This [spring’s] not being used, because as you can see there’s tree roots in it,” Warner says. “It’s considered a surface water supply. And you’re supposed to filter and chlorinate it. That’s the law.”

Warner says a longer drought might make disused springs more attractive. For now, until it rains or Lake of the Woods can find new sources of water locally, the community will continue to rely on its neighbors.

In February, officials in charge of California’s drinking water warned that 17 towns and areas could run out of water within 100 days. Lake of the Woods headed off that fate by bringing water in from the Lebec County Water District – at significant cost.

This year alone, the community’s water board has spent around $100,000 trucking in water 12 miles uphill from the town of Lebec, according to Bob Stowell. The water district there has enough surplus supplies to sell.

Just about every weekday, and sometimes twice a day this summer, Lebec’s wells pumped 3,200 gallons of water at a time into a stainless steel tanker truck that left the supplies in three storage tanks that feed Lake of the Woods.

William Hopper sits on Lebec’s water board. He says he was called a communist for agreeing to share the water.

“If the wells were in danger, I would be reluctant, I would limit the amount of water,” Hopper says. “But right now, we’re not hurting. So my neighbors need water, they’re going to get it, as far as I’m concerned.”

Lake of the Woods has been struggling with a chronic water shortage for more than two years.  Last year it bought some water from Frazier Park, a town next door. This year, the Frazier Park Public Utility District ended the deal.

Still, it’s the kind of cooperation California wants to see more of. So the state has given money to Frazier Park and Lake of the Woods to explore the possibility of a regional partnership.

In a community with a fierce independence streak, that idea can be a tough sell. “I think people get nervous,” says Alice Garcia, an operations manager with Frazier Park’s utility. “When I moved up here, we had very little to do with the government, the county.”

The severity of this drought has begun to evaporate that nervousness.

Frazier Park teamed up with Lake of the Woods and other public service agencies, including Lebec and the neighboring Krista Mutual Water Co. The Kern county communities together won a grant to encourage conservation.

Garcia points out hundreds of orange Home Depot buckets piled up at the district’s door. They’re conservation kits. In each bucket, there’s low-flow shower heads, faucet nozzles, and other low-flow devices.

“People are still coming in and picking ‘em up,” Garcia says, “and a lot of people are doing it, so that’s a beautiful thing as well.”

Lake of the Woods doesn’t have meters for each customer. So Rafael Molina Jr., the district’s operations manager, goes door to door to talk about the importance of conservation. He uses himself as example.

“Me and my wife take showers together now,” he says, shrugging his shoulders with a smile. “Conserve water.”

He says most people listen. But he’s not always sure everyone really understands the urgency of the drought.

“One lady, she spent $3,000 to put brand new sod in her house. And she said, I’m not going to stop watering, you guys can fine me, whatever. So we said, OK, we’ll just turn your water off, if it comes down to that,” Molina remembers. “And then her neighbors started getting on her and yelling at her. So she finally said, 'I don’t want to deal with it,' and let her grass dry.”

Dried-out yards aren’t attractive to vacationers. This year, more for sale signs are visible the moment you get off the freeway. With the federal and state money it’s won so far this year, Molina says, Lake of the Woods is planning to drill new wells.

The community has even consulted a water witch: a person who searches for water using a dowsing rod.  “He chose a spot, and that’s where we’re going to drill next,” Molina says. “And hopefully he’s right, but I doubt it.”

Lake of the Woods put the drilling job out for bid, but it didn’t get any takers the first go around. They’re seeking drilling crews again. But given the demand for new wells across the state, a driller’s wait list can be as long as a year.