As water prices skyrocket in California, this city paid $1.1 million to keep faucets running until March


Miles of brittle, uprooted almond trees lie dead on parched farmland in Coalinga, California, as intensifying drought, new restrictions and skyrocketing water prices force farmers to sacrifice their crops. Roadside signs warn against watering lawns before watering as residents brace for higher water bills as the precious resource dwindles.

This is what a city on the verge of running out of water looks like.

“We can’t go on like this. It’s not sustainable for our community,” Coalinga City Councilman Adam Adkisson told CNN.

Coalinga usually gets its water through an aqueduct that runs from the San Luis Dam, about 70 miles northwest of the city. But as the western megadrought pushes reservoir levels to precarious new lows, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has cut the amount of water Coalinga could withdraw from the reservoir by 80% this year, city officials told CNN.

The restrictions left Coalinga with a 600-acre water shortage by March 2023, which is nearly 200 million gallons and the equivalent of about 300 Olympic swimming pools.

With the city set to run out of water in mid-to-late November, officials turned to the increasingly expensive open market to make up the difference. Last week they completed the purchase from the California Public Irrigation District.

The city’s price for the most basic necessities of life was roughly $1.1 million. Adkisson tells CNN that the same amount of water cost $114,000.

The Nasdaq Veles California Water Index, which tracks water transactions in the state, showed the price has risen from about $200 in 2019 to more than $1,000 today for the amount of water it would take to fill half an Olympic-size swimming pool.

“I was just floored,” Adkisson said of their water purchase. “I couldn’t believe they could sell water at that price – but it was actually a cheap rate, that’s the cheapest rate we could find.”

Residents of Coalinga are most concerned. It is water that residents use for basic life activities; bathing, cooking and cleaning. The city announced Monday that the state has approved a grant application to help offset a million dollar water bill, which is likely to lower costs for residents.

“We’re a very poor community,” Adkisson said. “These people that you see here walking by and driving by, they can’t afford a 1,000% increase in their water bills.”

This is the first time Coalinga has had to buy water on the open market. But as the climate crisis intensifies droughts in the West and rainy winters become less frequent, local leaders fear they are heading for a financially unsustainable future where water can be sold to the highest bidder.

“Sure, there’s supply and demand,” Adkisson said. “But for people’s basic needs, we need water to be affordable.”

A sign from the city of Coalinga warns residents against watering their lawns amid the drought.
Farmers are frustrated as the price of water in California is skyrocketing, threatening their food crops.

Rising water prices in California are also putting pressure on farmers around Coalinga. Many of them leave farmland fallow to conserve water, which has become unavailable.

Farmers Deedee and Tom Gruber told CNN their water allotments have dwindled to less than enough to grow their 11 crops, which include thirsty walnuts and almonds. The Grubers estimate that the water needed to grow just one of their crops next season — walnuts — would cost them $40,000.

“It would cost us more in water than in walnuts,” Deedee Gruber told CNN.

California farmers say water shortages, tightening water restrictions and now skyrocketing water prices are making it impossible for farmers to grow crops at all. The Grubers believe this will come to a head in two ways: bankrupt farmers and higher food prices in the nation’s grocery.

From protests at California’s state capitol this week to a living room full of worried farmers, California State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat who represents part of California’s South Central Valley, has listened to farmers’ stories about how drought and high water prices have caused them. it affected them.

In an August letter, Hurtado and a bipartisan group of California lawmakers urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate “potential drought profits.” Hurtado suspects there could be price cuts in drought-stricken western states.

In an email response to Hurtado’s letter, the Justice Department said in October that the complaint had been “forwarded to appropriate legal personnel for further review.” The agency declined to comment to CNN about what investigative steps it might take.

“People are making money on less water availability,” Hurtado told CNN. “And that hurts real people — real farmers and real communities.”


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