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One of America's hottest cities is down to one water well. What happens if the taps go dry?

Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

A housing survey found that 55% of the residents are on some form of welfare assistance. There isn’t a grocery market in town, though a well-stocked liquor store has a few aisles for canned goods and frozen food. A handful of cannabis dispensaries and shuttered 1950s-era motels cluster around the main drag, the historic Route 66.

The city’s economy and its tax revenue are hurt by its proximity to Arizona, which is right across the Colorado River, and Nevada. On a recent day, gasoline was selling in Needles for $5.19 a gallon, but across the bridge it was under $2.90. A Walmart is 12 miles up Highway 95 in Bullhead City, Ariz.

Many of the highly paid in Needles live in Nevada or Arizona, spending their California income out of state. BNSF railroad has a crew station in Needles with about 500 employees, but the vast majority live in Nevada or Arizona, city officials say. Indeed, nearly all cars in the BNSF employee parking lot have Arizona or Nevada license plates.

Calling Needles “remote” would be an understatement. The city is more than 200 miles from the county seat, San Bernardino. Its state senator lives farther away in the Central Valley. The nearest major California city is Barstow, 140 miles away. Las Vegas is 100 miles away. It isn’t clear what friends it would have in an emergency.

Even now, after begging for intervention, the city hasn’t gotten much help. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state legislators and its congressional representative either didn’t respond to letters or don’t offer much, according to Needles officials.

“We need help,” said Rainie Torrance, a city utility manager.

 

A nonprofit coalition of labor unions and contractors, known as Rebuild SoCal Partnership, has taken up the city’s cause. It has helped contact state officials and prepare grant requests. Marci Stanage, the group’s director for water and environmental relations, said she is surprised that nobody has responded to the city’s problems or her group’s efforts.

After visiting Needles to advise them on a new well, Dave Sorem, an engineer on the group’s board and vice president of a Baldwin Park construction firm, said: “The city is in more trouble than it realizes. California has a $76-billion budget surplus, but it can’t help out for a million-and-a-half-dollar well? Come on.”

The city’s single pump could fail for any number of reasons. Water wells have intake pipes at their bottoms, with screens to allow the water to flow into the pipe. The screens can collapse and plug the well, according to Bryan Hickstein, the city’s chief water operator. The steel well casings can collapse, he said, or the motor can burn out, as it did last year. The city had a spare motor, and a contractor rushed out from Anaheim with a crane.

The city’s problems began last November when the water board put the city on notice that three of its wells showed manganese levels above the maximum allowable level of 50 micrograms per liter. Then in May, the water board issued a citation, requiring a corrective action plan by the end of 2023.

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