The four-year drought that has heightened the fire danger in the San Bernardino Mountains and forced water restrictions on several mountain communities prompted county officials Tuesday to declare an emergency water shortage in the resort town of Wrightwood.
Water levels in underground wells and reservoirs in the mountains have dropped more than 20% in the past few weeks, forcing the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to adopt an emergency measure to haul county water by tanker truck to replenish a Wrightwood reservoir.
Other mountain communities that rely solely on underground water sources have also imposed restrictions in response to the worsening drought.
But county officials said Wrightwood’s shortage is so severe that they feared firefighters would be unable to douse a blaze in the surrounding tinder-dry woods.
As an extra measure, county fire officials are deploying an additional 2,000-gallon water tender truck to the Wrightwood fire station.
The utility company that serves Wrightwood also plans to ask the California Public Utilities Commission for permission to adopt a mandatory water conservation program that would penalize residents who exceed their ration.
Some business owners worry the shortage could hurt Wrightwood’s summer tourism, and others complain that water district officials have not done enough to prepare for the shortage.
Robin Floen, owner of the Yankee Peddler & Camp Store in Wrightwood, said she feared the shortage would prompt federal officials to ban campfires in the national forest and dry up tourism.
“That would definitely hurt us,” Floen said.
Kathleen Butler, president of the Wrightwood Chamber of Commerce, said the drought has been an ongoing problem in Wrightwood, even though residents are frugal with their water use and rely on native trees and shrubs for home landscaping.
“They have predicted a 10-year drought,” she said. “If that happens, we will be in big trouble.”
A similar shortage in Wrightwood in 2002 forced utility operators to truck water up the mountain for nearly six months to replenish the town’s million-gallon reservoir.
The U.S. Geological Survey this month predicted that the drought gripping the West could be the worst in 500 years.
The drought, which began in 1999, has weakened trees in the San Bernardino Mountains, making them vulnerable to an infestation of bark beetles.
Because of the deadly combination of drought and infestation, forest officials predict that half of all pine trees between Idyllwild and Lake Arrowhead will be dead or dying by this fall.
Though last fall’s wildfires destroyed thousands of acres of brush and hundreds of homes in San Bernardino County, they burned only 7% of the dead trees in the San Bernardino Mountains.
This year’s drought hit mountain communities especially hard when snowfall levels fell below normal and unusually high temperatures melted the snowpack too quickly to thoroughly replenish underground aquifers.
By mid-June, the amount of water produced by wells in Wrightwood dropped from 800 gallons per minute to 620 gallons per minute, according to county officials.
“We have not seen the recharging of our wells that we have seen in the past,” said James Gallagher, a vice president at the Southern California Water Co., which serves 2,630 homes in Wrightwood.
Gallagher said Southern California Water is digging a new well to serve Wrightwood and hopes the emergency measures are only temporary.
He said the company is also considering building a pipeline to deliver imported water to Wrightwood.
Gallagher said the water company would soon submit plans to the PUC to impose a mandatory conservation program that would charge penalties to customers who exceed a monthly allotment. He said the limits and the penalties have yet to be decided.
A public hearing on the water shortage is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Wrightwood Elementary School.
The drought is also drying up supplies in neighboring mountain communities.
The Big Bear Water District has imposed restrictions on the days and times that residents can water lawns and has prohibited homeowners from planting new turf or filling pools, ponds and fountains.
Next month, the Idyllwild Water District is expected to adopt similar restrictions on landscape watering. In addition, the Idyllwild district will impose higher rates for customers who exceed their water limits.