Ruth Valenzuela lifts a plastic sheet off the top of a small water barrel on her tiny back patio. She fills it up — along with the washing machine when possible — on the rare days that her taps flow.
She says the family has running water maybe two days a week. And when there is water, it’s usually just a trickle, not even enough for a shower.
Valenzuela lives in the port city of Ensenada in the Mexican state of Baja California. It’s a fast-growing place that’s popular with tourists and American retirees.
But since January, the entire city has been rationing water. Each neighborhood is supposed to get water two to three days a week. But some say it’s more like once a week, and maybe for just a few hours.
The reason is the same as what’s plaguing much of California: a serious drought.
“Winter wasn’t winter,” says Arturo Alvarado, who runs the city’s water system. “It wasn’t cold. It didn’t rain.”
Alvarado is standing at a pumping station below the city’s only reservoir. The pumps have been shut off because there’s not enough water in the reservoir.
Alvarado says this is the first time the dam has had so little water.
Ensenada gets most of its water from wells and nearby valleys. But those are drying up. The scariest thing is that this is the time of year when the city’s water supplies should be flush.
Instead, there’s only enough to give each resident about 43 gallons a day. By comparison, residents of San Diego — less than a hundred miles to the north and with the same climate — used more than three times as much water each day last year.
“I’m really concerned,” Alvarado says. “But we’re working to resolve the problem.”
In fact, the state’s governor has promised the rationing will stop by the end of this month.
The region’s public utilities commission is touting its solution online, with a video showing tractors heading to a new well site and stacks of blue water pipes ready to be laid.
Ensenada recently got money from the state to pump water from this new watershed just outside the city. But it’s a pretty thin straw. Authorities say there’s enough groundwater here to get Ensenada’s taps running normally again, but only for the summer.
Beyond that, there’s a big gap until the next promised solution comes along.
"Desalination is the future,” says Alvarado. “That and reuse."
Alvarado says the first of several planned desalination plants should come on line in two years. The city also hopes eventually to recycle wastewater and tap into the Colorado River water that currently supplies Baja California’s other major cities.
Climatologists say this kind of diversification will be a key to adapting, as climate change leads to more serious droughts in this part of the world.
But desalination is expensive, and the Colorado River is already overtaxed.
So for now, residents like Valenzuela are left to do the best they can with what little water they can get. Valenzuela says she and her husband plan to buy a tinaco, a big water tank popular elsewhere in Mexico. They’re expensive, though, and they don’t do anything to solve the big picture water problem.
But they at least help folks like Valenzuela hold onto some water when it does make it to their tap.