The residents of this sun-scorched city feel California’s endless drought when the dust lifts off the brown hills and flings grit into their living rooms. They see it when they drive past almond trees being ripped from the ground for lack of water and the new blinking sign at the corner of Elm and Cherry warning: “No watering front yard lawns.”
The fire chief noticed it when he tested hydrants in August — a rare occurrence as Coalinga desperately seeks to conserve water — and the first one shot out a foot-long block of compacted dirt. The second one ejected like a can of Axe body spray.
The schools superintendent could only think drought on the first day of school when a 4-year-old fell onto unwatered turf, breaking an arm; or when the chain saws dropped three coastal redwoods outside Henry F. Bishop Elementary that had withered and died. Superintendent Lori Villanueva even lost a portion of her own right lung last year from a drought-aggravated illness, valley fever, that’s caused by breathing soil fungus whipped up off the dry ground.
That looming threat has left city officials racing between meetings in Sacramento and phone calls to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation seeking to increase their water supply. Some residents have begun stockpiling five-gallon water jugs in their homes, while many expect major spikes in their water bills. If Coalinga can’t find relief, it would be forced to buy additional water on the open market at exorbitant prices that could swamp the city’s budget.