Follow the H2O

  • Post published:August 1, 2023

With new technology, more storage capacity, smarter conservation, and a promising first-of-its-kind desalination pilot project on its way, Fort Bragg works to assure a sustainable water supply.

Story by Zida Borcich and Joe Bridgman
with reporting by Geri Morisky and Teri Barber

Newman Gulch, with its homely, charming little dock and small dam (not shown in this view), sits below the Summers Lane reservoir, an idyllic setting that contributes water to the Fort Bragg ‘water portfolio.’ Photo by Zida Borcich.

You turn on the faucet and water comes out.
It’s the simplest thing in the world, right? Umm …not so very simple: In Fort Bragg, the clean, clear, nearly tasteless water that flows into your glass, onto your garden, and splashes you any time you want a shower, has been on an elaborate expedition. Collected from two gulches and a river in local watersheds, then carefully tended along a labyrinth of reservoirs, miles of pipes, analytical facilities, filtration and purification units, and finally pumped into enormous storage tanks that feed to homes and businesses, today Fort Bragg’s H2O is flowing to meet and exceed the community’s current needs.
Two years ago, in summer 2021, it was a different story: headlines were full of unpromising prognoses about the future of water on the coast—and in the world. “Drought: Dozens of California Communities Are at Risk,” proclaimed one. The drought felt endless as lawns dried up and smoke from wildfires choked the state, casting a morose, nervous mood over the community. Higher water bills and a campaign in Fort Bragg to gain residents’ buy-in to “Save Our Water!” helped reduce water usage and waste by end users. People started putting in water-saving shower heads, replacing lawns with drought-tolerant flora, and watering gardens less frequently, and it all helped bring usage down. But the worst water worry at that time was that king tides were flowing up the drought-besieged Noyo River, the largest of the city’s three surface water sources, all the way to Madsen Hole, where much of our drinking water has traditionally been drawn, making it brackish, or salty, and therefore undrinkable.
Water crews were depending on the other two, much smaller sources, Newman Gulch and Waterfall Gulch, to supply water to the approximately 2,900 customer connections in the city limits, which in wetter times received more than 600,000 gallons a day. The foresight and skill of the crew of unsung heroes at Fort Bragg’s water treatment plant—with support from municipal government and last winter’s big storms—have safely delivered the town from a near-disastrous water crisis and, with barely any fanfare, brought know-how and practical experience to the task of building a more robust and modern system.
“Fort Bragg has a very complex water system that depends solely on surface water from the surrounding streams,” explained Heath Daniels, Operations Manager for the city of Fort Bragg. “There are no aquifers on the coastal side of the county to drill a water well with enough capacity to replace any one of the water sources.” City of Fort Bragg water staff focused on how to fix the immediate shortage while at the same time, knew they had to prepare for ever-increasing drought conditions due to global warming amid a paradoxical push for future growth of the area. The all-hands-on-deck emergency measures worked and, although the drought is not over and the need to conserve the life-sustaining stuff is, and forever will be, absolutely still in effect, today, there is a brighter story to tell.
By October, Fort Bragg’s water treatment staff had received unanimous support from Fort Bragg City Council, taken advantage of grants from the state of California, and applied their cumulative experience and technical know-how to buy and install a $325,000 reverse osmosis desalination unit that, when the flow gets too low, takes the brackishness out of the Noyo supply and can produce up to 144,000 gallons of drinkable water a day. (That unit cannot desalinate ocean water, though, and that is another story we’ll touch on later.) The entire invoice for the desal unit was picked up by California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) and the unit was approved and installed next to the plant in record time, a matter of only a few months. The State Water Board is funding 100 percent of Fort Bragg’s total grant request of $691,796 to help fund other water-related projects, as well.

Operator Merle Larson describes the route water takes on its purification trip through the water treatment facility. These pipes mix in meticulously measured amounts of sodium hypochlorite on the way to the filtering tanks up the stairs, making Fort Bragg’s drinking water exceptionally pure and almost tasteless. Photo by Zida Borcich.

Capacity, Capacity, Capacity
After the recent dry spell, it’s easy to forget that California had suffered an even worse period of drought—its longest in history—from 2011 to 2017. In response, the city of Fort Bragg, in 2016, took a big leap forward in drought-proofing its populace by constructing a raw water reservoir on Summers Lane near Highway 20, which is fed from the small nearby watershed of Waterfall Gulch. The term “reservoir” makes it sound a lot bigger than it is; with a surface area of about three acres, “large pond” is probably a better descriptor. Nonetheless, when full, the reservoir holds an impressive forty-five acre-feet of water, which is about 14.7 million gallons. It’s an earthen containment, over nineteen feet deep, lined with polyethylene, and protected from evaporation and contamination by a carpet of thousands of small floating black plastic “shade balls.”
To build on this success and increase Fort Bragg’s water storage capacity three-fold, the city is moving ahead with plans to install three more ponds in the vicinity of the first one. They would each be roughly the same size and capacity as their predecessor, and situated on 582 acres along Summers Lane purchased by the city this year. The plan takes into consideration fragile natural habitat and includes adding solar arrays to the ponds and providing walking trails for the public to enjoy through the thickly forested remainder of the land.
This year’s vaunted “atmospheric rivers” (they used to be called “storms”) brought unprecedented amounts of water to California, though much of it was not captured but sloshed over pavements and drought-hardened soils, then headed out to sea. Nonetheless, river and creek flows have greatly increased and the city’s innovations have ensured that the Fort Bragg water supply is no longer in dire danger.
With all that, there is no guarantee that El Nino, the occasional current in the Pacific that brings big storms to California, which is visiting us this year, will again initiate a cycle of wet weather this far north. No guarantee that another wildfire season won’t enshroud us or that heat waves and wildfires won’t besiege our county again. Everyone must continue to be conscientious about personal water usage. A movement to install water catchment systems to collect and store rainwater from roofs, and gray water systems, too, will surely benefit our communities’ farms and gardens while taking pressure off the municipal system.
It’s been well established that there is, indeed, a huge global water crisis. To illustrate the seriousness of the crisis, in March of this year, at the United Nations Water Conference, Secretary-General António Guterres stressed that water is a human right and critical to development that will shape a better global future. “But water is in deep trouble,” he warned. “We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global heating. We’ve broken the water cycle, destroyed ecosystems, and contaminated groundwater.” Here on the north coast, we are very lucky to have access to local watersheds that insulate us from the wider crisis, and luckier still that a more severe water crisis has been mitigated by smart, innovative, collaborative measures.

While some watersheds are relatively small, others encompass thousands of square miles and may contain streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and underlying groundwater that are hundreds of miles inland. Shown here: an aerial view of Drakes Bay, part of California’s Tomales-Drake watershed. Credit: Brian Cluer, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, California Coastal Office.

What’s a Watershed?
Let’s step back a minute and follow the H2O in order to understand the complex journey water takes on the way to your house, starting with a watershed. What are these oh-so–crucial, ubiquitous things called watersheds, anyway, and what do they have to do with our drinking water? Why do we need to pay attention to them now more than ever?
Every living organism in the world belongs to a watershed, including you, me, every tree and plant, bird, fish, animal, fungus, and bug. The United States Geological Survey offers this simple definition: “A watershed is a precipitation collector… If you are standing on ground right now, just look down. You’re standing, and everyone is standing, in a watershed.” National Geographic Magazine says, it’s “an area of land that drains water into a common body of water, like a stream, river, lake, or ocean. It is the land that water flows across or under on its way to the lowest point. Every body of water has a watershed, and all watersheds are connected across the landscape.” Watersheds are the source of all the water we ultimately get from our kitchen faucets and garden hoses.

Mendocino County’s biggest watersheds. There are dozens of smaller watersheds on the coast that feed into these.

Divided from one another by a succession of mountain ridges, coastal Mendocino County has a lot of watersheds. They gather and drain their accumulated waters to the sea and are strung together by Highway 1 bridges along the picturesque coast. A partial list includes Usal Creek, Rockport/Ten Mile River, Abalobadiah Creek, MacKerricher State Park/Virgin Creek, Pudding Creek-Frontal Pacific Ocean Watershed, Noyo River Watershed, Hare Creek, Mitchell Creek, Caspar Headlands, Big River Watershed, Albion River, Salmon Creek, Navarro River, Garcia River, and Gualala River. Up and down the west coast, there are hundreds more. No matter whether it is the Noyo, the Big or Little rivers, Navarro, Eel, Russian, Klamath, or Mississippi, in a cycle that moves from sea to cloud to rain to mountain to the circuitous route back down to its source, watersheds are where our personal water supplies begin.

When flows are low on the Noyo River, this machine will kick in to provide 144,000 gallons of salt-free water a day. This $325,000 desalination unit was installed at the water treatment plant by the operators and engineers on the staff. Photo by Zida Borcich.

Then what?
From rain falling on mountaintops, and snow melting, water moves downward through the arteries of rivers and their tributaries toward the sea. It passes through forests, lakes, amber waves of grain, towns full of businesses and industries, and these all take a percentage of the tumbling flow. People, like fish and wildlife, crops, and all living things, depend on watersheds. When you hear the phrase, “Water is Life,” it isn’t just an old cliche. It’s the truth. Without water, there is no life.
So in “following the H2O,” we imagine these bodies of water coursing over the land. We won’t go into every nook and cranny where it flows, nor the waterfalls it somersaults over, nor the places it gets waylaid by a dam or an illegal pot farm, nor any of its many other untold adventures. We will assume it had a lot of fun on the way down.
When natural flow is diverted to a populated area, things get complicated. People, farms, and towns need water. Hotels and restaurants, car washes and dirty laundry all put in requests for the precious stuff, and in towns of any size, somebody has to be in charge of its protection, its gathering, its purification, and its final distribution. In this instance, in this little coastal town in Mendocino County, this “somebody” is the Fort Bragg Department of Public Works, which operates the city’s water system. We won’t talk about New York or Los Angeles here, but our system represents a microcosm of water systems that must be maintained, no matter how big or small the enclave.
The coast’s rural residents have their own water sources, and in the smaller villages strung along the coast, every house or business has its own well. In the last years, wells have dried up and people have had water brought in by tank trucks, at great expense. But the larger population of the incorporated town of Fort Bragg has a municipal water district and water officials who watch over our water supply like mother hens. During the worst parts of the drought, the Fort Bragg system even treated water brought over from Ukiah by haulers to replenish dried up wells. The water itself cost only about five cents a gallon, but the shipping charges caused the price for delivered water to skyrocket.
The service provided by the city’s water delivery system, of course, has its costs, and in recent years, costs have risen in response to the increasing scarcity of water. People and businesses are being charged more on their water bills, but as Merle Larson, an operator at the treatment plant, says, “Even if we have to spend a little more right now, it’s for the future, for your kids and grandkids. If we build it today we’ll have it tomorrow. It’s for a sustainable future.”

An enormous ‘yardstick’ tells operators how full the newest ceramic-coated storage tank is. Photo by Zida Borcich.

At the End of the Journey: Drinking Water for You
Back to our tour of H2O: When the waters have meandered their way down the rivers, creeks, streams, lakes, and gulches and arrive in the purview of the water treatment district, water from the three watersheds is captured and stored in a system of raw water reservoirs, then run through pipes to the treatment plant. It then must be cleaned and treated to the exacting quality the EPA and State Water Resources Control Board deem adequate. Inside the bright, clean building, the sound of trickling water is everywhere and the walls are festooned with monitors and screens displaying rows and columns of numbers that meticulously record a plethora of information that is monitored constantly. Massive pipes take raw, untreated water through a complex process of purification, then to the three towering 1.5 million gallon storage tanks at the plant. All of it is overseen by the skilled staff of managers, engineers, and six other operators.
Under their watch, the city of Fort Bragg has researched dozens of ideas for new water sources and has invested in innovative treatment processes, trimmed water losses from leaks and evaporation, improved pump efficiencies, incorporated water recycling, and most recently upgraded its meters for greater accuracy and precision in keeping track of usage. In one example of their commitment to the future of our town, they are training a young, local intern. What’s more, they apply their ingenuity and expertise to save the city money at every turn.
For instance, they were able to figure out how to assemble and install the Noyo desalination unit next to the plant without having to hire outside contractors. In yet another innovative move, instead of paying for shipping liquid chlorine (heavy and expensive to transport), they created a system that takes salt, water, and electricity to make a 0.8 percent bleach solution for disinfection, right on the premises.
By staying on top of where funding exists for water improvements, the staff at city hall and the city council were able to find and approve financing from the state for the new technology that now accounts for the city’s much improved water quality and storage capacity, and worked with speed in the process to buy the Summers Lane property. Without the help from the state of California, Fort Bragg would not have been able to swing the costs of these advances.

Fort Bragg has received a $1.5 million grant from the California State Water Board to install a wave-powered raft-like ocean water desalination ‘iceberg buoy’ that will be similar to the one in this photo. The pilot project is expected place the unit about a mile off the Noyo Headlands where it will treat seawater and push salt-free water back to shore via a flexible pipe on the ocean floor. Photo by Well/Good Productions/Oneka Technologies.

The state-of-the-art system now in place, the enthusiastic response by the community to the water-saving campaign during the droughts that lessened water usage across the population, the collaborative attitude that exists at city hall, and the exponential increase in storage capacity have given Fort Bragg confidence in the future of its water supply.
Even more exciting, the green-lighting of a first-of-its-kind ocean desalination pilot project, now moving forward, puts Fort Bragg in the forefront of the search for solutions to the local and, by extension, the global water shortage. The city applied for and received a $1.5 million grant through the California Department of Water Resources to cover the costs of the pilot project, including permitting and regulatory expenses. The department declared on its website that the money will be used to “install an innovative, wave-powered, seawater desalination ‘iceberg buoy’ to provide potable water to residents. The project will diversify the city’s water supply portfolio, create a locally controlled, sustainable, and carbon-free potable water supply, produce water without grid electricity, and strengthen water resiliency during future droughts.” Oneka Technologies, a company based in Quebec, Canada, will install the floating, raft-like unit, which holds equipment that will draw in water, pressurize it and force it through reverse-osmosis membranes, then send it back to shore in a flexible pipe on the ocean floor.”
The company’s website ( describes it this way: “We combine the ocean’s seawater with its own wave energy to provide freshwater to coastal populations and industries without compromising the environment. Our solution increases resilience to climate change while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water costs.” Public Works Director John Smith told the Press Democrat that Fort Bragg will start with a single, sixteen-foot by twenty-six-foot unit to be anchored about a mile off the Noyo Headlands.
Sarah McCormick, Special Projects Manager for the city of Fort Bragg, is enthusiastic about this next-level enterprise. Our small, out-of-the-mainstream town is leading the way toward its future water security, not just for its own residents, visitors, and businesses, but as a model the rest of the world can look to: “The city’s partnership with Oneka Technologies is an exciting outcome of our strategic approach to position the coastal region in and around Fort Bragg for Blue Economy investment—an innovative sector addressing some of our most urgent issues,” she said. (The Blue Economy refers to Fort Bragg’s creation of a unique partnership uniting the city of Fort Bragg, Noyo Harbor District, Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo, Mendocino College, West Business Development Center, and Noyo Center for Marine Science to participate in the New Blue Economy. For context, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has described the New Blue Economy as “a knowledge-based economy, looking to the sea not just for extraction of material goods, but for data and information to address societal challenges and inspire their solutions.” Look for a story about the exciting Blue Economy in this magazine in the next few months.)
Fort Bragg is a model in other ways too: The collaborative, cooperative interactions between city hall and other agencies that resulted in coming to these decisions puts an even more positive spin on this story. Everybody is onboard, willing to make room for differences and talk them through in order to come to a consensus that is for the greater good. Fort Bragg is proof that, during one of the most politically divided moments in our country’s history, major work can get done peaceably when leaders are dedicated to working together sensibly and practically.
If the new technology works as expected, it certainly bodes well for the rest of this thirsty world. We wait with bated breath for the results of this bold experiment, and in the meantime, we can rest assured that the H2O that splashes into our water system is in the hands of capable, committed local neighbors who deeply care about this place, these watersheds, the labyrinthine system they oversee, and the health and safety of this very lucky community.

You turn on the faucet and water comes out.

The nineteen-foot-deep Summers Lane reservoir, constructed in 2016, added an additional 14.7 million gallons of raw water storage. It’s lined with a protector of thick, white polyethelene and covered by thousands of floating black plastic shade spheres that reduce contamination from above and evaporation from below. Photo by Zida Borcich.