California drought: Beer helps tiny Wine Country town
Kevin Fagan | San Francisco Chronicle
Updated 7:36 am, Friday, January 31, 2014
If Cloverdale manages to dodge the drought disaster descending on it, it will be because of beer. And some conservation.
But largely because of beer.
In November, when it seemed clear that tough, dry times were setting in, the Bear Republic craft brewery gave $466,143 to the tiny Wine Country town to start drilling two new wells, which in turn would help the company expand beer operations. Without that money, the city wouldn't have been able to dig.
And without those new wells, the town's taps could run dry. State officials on Wednesday placed it on a list of 17 communities that are in danger of running out of water in 100 days.
"The whole water situation doesn't look good at all, no matter how you look at it anyway," said Cloverdale Vice Mayor Robert Cox, standing downtown Thursday in the unseasonably warm January sunshine. "The Russian River is where we get our water, and it's just about dry. There's no rain. About the only good news on the horizon is those new wells.
"We'd be in really bad shape without them."
At 8 million gallons a year, the craft brewery is one of the biggest water consumers in the area, but it's also ahead of the curve when it comes to conservation. It uses 3 1/2 gallons of water to make a gallon of beer, compared with the industry average of 6 to 1, and it's testing a recycling system that could cut usage by 10 percent.
Still, if it wants to expand beyond the 1 million cases of Racer 5 IPA and other beers it ships internationally every year, it needs more water. Hence, the wells.
"Everyone wins in this one," said Bear Republic co-owner Richard Norgrove Sr. "When we first went to the city and said we'd like to expand, they said they didn't have enough water to support that. So I said, 'What would it take?' And this is what we came up with."
By themselves, however, those wells won't see Cloverdale through what's shaping up as a dirt-dry year. City planners reckon that in May the water system could start falling short of supplying the 1.5 million gallons that Cloverdale's businesses and 8,500 residents soak up every day.
So last week, the City Council declared a mandatory 25 percent water conservation order for everyone and everything in town. The idea is to carry Cloverdale to July 1, when the wells will start supplying about 600,000 gallons a day. Bear Republic will use about 1.5 percent of that.
Even then, conservation will be necessary, unless the rains that have stubbornly avoided California suddenly materialize.
"Contrary to what the state says, I really don't believe we will entirely run out of water," said City Manager Paul Cayler. "Our focus right now is not panicking. It's telling people to conserve."
Under the cutback order, watering lawns is "strongly discouraged." Many residents such as Vice Mayor Cox have already had the sprinklers turned off so long their lawns are brown or near to it.
Hosing down driveways and walkways is prohibited, and restaurants can provide drinking water only upon request.
Penalties for those who don't cut back 25 percent will escalate from nasty letters from the city to disconnection of water service.
The downtown Eagles Nest Deli and Grill has taken the mandate one step further. It's offering only bottled water - nothing from the tap.
"It's hard for us, because we didn't use much water as it was," said waitress Denise Benner. "We only gave out 5 gallons a week to customers, and we use all recycled water in the dishwasher.
"I don't know what else we can do - tell people they can't flush the toilet? I sure don't want to smell that."
Stroll the charming downtown, with its hip new sculptures of abstracts and nudes, and there is little that immediately evokes a drought. For that, you have to go to the edges of the city.
There, the hills are a parched tan normally seen in August, the sheep and other farm critters are munching on trucked-in hay instead of homegrown grass, and many grape growers are cutting back buds on their vines to reduce crops.
The typically surging Russian River is a wide strip of rocks with a trickle running down the middle. Lake Mendocino, which sits 37 miles north and feeds the river, is at only 35 percent of average for this time of year.
Rain was little help
"It hasn't been this bad around here since 1976, '77, and probably even before that," said Jack Hiatt, taking his daily stroll across the First Street Bridge spanning the Russian, the river that doesn't really look like a river anymore. "That little bit of rain we had this week just brushed the dust off the weeds, so now they're even more of a fire danger than before."
Hiatt, a 67-year-old volunteer firefighter and retired vineyard owner, is a sixth-generation Cloverdale resident. He doesn't see much dribble at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.
"This kind of drought has never happened here before, as near as any of us can tell," he said. "It's all new. I don't know what's ahead, but it doesn't look good."