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Drought Forces Ensenada To Ration Water — And It’s Only Spring

Reported by Nicholas Mcvicker

Due to a severe water crisis, many of Ensenada’s 320,000 inhabitants now only get water from their taps two or three times a week. The governor has declared a state of emergency because of the shortage.

ENSENADA, Mexico -- Ruth Valenzuela lifts a plastic sheet off the top of a water barrel sitting on the dirt floor of her tiny back patio. It looks to hold about 50 gallons.

She fills it up — along with the washing machine — on the rare days that her taps flow.

“Maybe two days one week, two days the next,” she said in Spanish.

Water might only run for a few hours on those days, Valenzuela said, and pressure is often lacking.

“It’s usually a trickle,” she said. “We can’t even shower because there’s not enough pressure to trigger the hot water heater.”

Ensenada gets most of its water from wells in the city and nearby valleys. Those wells are drying up.

It also has one small reservoir, but it has lost so much water that authorities recently had to take its pumping station offline.

“Winter wasn’t winter,” said Arturo Alvarado González, who heads the state public utilities commission for Ensenada. “It wasn’t cold. It didn’t rain.”

In late January, Alvarado González had to put the entire city — around 320,000 residents — on rotating water rations. Most neighborhoods are supposed to get water at least three times a week, though Alvarado Gonzalez admits that the schedule isn’t always reliable.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Many Ensenada families are purchasing water storage tanks to deal with intermittent service. March 28, 2014.

“There are a lot of complaints, and with good reason,” he said in Spanish. “We understand that people are upset. They have a right to adequate service, 24 hours a day.”

The shortage is troubling, particularly considering that the city’s water supplies should be flush at this time of year. Instead, there’s only enough to provide each resident with about 43 gallons of water per day, according to the public utilities commission.

In comparison, San Diego County residents last year used 153 gallons per person per day.

Despite the hardship, Ensenada residents seem to be handling the shortage fairly well. There haven’t been any riots. No one’s calling for authorities to resign.

And, of course, scarcity means profit for some businesses.

At a large hardware store in Ensenada, manager Octavio Estrada showed off his stock of tinacos, large plastic water tanks that are used in parts of Mexico with unreliable water supply. (Until recently, they weren’t common in Ensenada.)

“We have to do big orders,” Estrada said in Spanish. “In just two months this year we sold what we used to sell in two years.”

Ensenada’s water problems could get a lot worse as the normally dry, hot summer approaches. But authorities are working on a plan.

The first step is to lay pipes and electricity to an untapped well in a canyon a few miles outside of the city. Alvarado González said the aquifer underneath the canyon could supply the city for the rest of the summer — enough to cancel the rationing system.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Ensenada authorities plan to tap this well to resolve the city's water shortages in the short term. March 28, 2014.

Longer-term solutions are more complicated and costly. Ensenada wants to build several desalination plants, and it wants to tap into the Colorado River water that currently supplies Mexicali, Tecate and Tijuana.

These plans have been on paper for years but Ensenada leaders hope the drought will help convert them into liquid reality. Baja California Gov. Francisco Vega de Lamadrid declared a state of emergency in March because of the water crisis, which lets authorities fast track projects to resolve it.

In the meantime, residents like Ruth Valenzuela are seeking out their own solutions.

Valenzuela says she and her husband plan to upgrade their water barrel to a bigger tinaco.

“I don’t know how much they cost, but it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We need it now.”


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