September 4, 2005

Drought, natural erosion taint supply

Water woes halt construction in tiny Pioneertown, which can't afford fixes

Eblstan Lim / The Press-Enterprise
Scott Pasby, 47, of Pioneertown, had to install an expensive water filtering system after his dogs got sick and his skin started cracking from high levels of arsenic in the water from the town's wells.

The Press-Enterprise [Riverside, CA]

Soon after Scott Pasby moved to Pioneertown, his skin became scaly and his dogs got sick.

He learned that the water in the High Desert outpost has high levels of arsenic, so he promptly installed a filter system.

"The dogs are fine, the skin doesn't crack anymore," said Pasby, 47, as he petted one of his four pooches.

Pioneertown is awash in problems with its water, which is not only polluted, but also in short supply. A virtual building freeze is keeping the remote water district too small to finance expensive fixes, such as building a 5.5-mile pipeline to import water. Attempts to get money through grants so far have failed.

"We're caught in this Catch-22," said Jack Dugan, 58, president of the Pioneertown Property Owners Association.

It all started in the late 1990s. The town's wells dropped as much as 200 feet and tests showed that naturally occurring arsenic, a carcinogen, was above the recommended health levels, said Bill Stone, water operations manager for the San Bernardino County Water and Sanitation Division, which oversees Pioneertown.

The deeper the wells sink, the more concentrated the arsenic appears to be.

Stone and residents suspect the culprits are a prolonged drought and the 1992 Landers earthquake, which may have shifted rocks and changed the water flow.

Officials stopped hooking up new customers to the water system -- making it almost impossible to construct new homes -- and began mandating that residents conserve water.

Arsenic, a metal, is created through erosion. Exposure to it has been linked to skin abnormalities and, in the long term, cancer of the lungs, bladder, skin, liver and kidneys, according to the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

The state and federal limit for arsenic is 50 parts per billion. Two of Pioneertown's six wells exceed the maximum -- one has registered at more than twice the limit, Stone said.

Uranium also is a concern because its levels are borderline acceptable, he said.

The 110 households connected to the water system regularly receive letters that recommend using bottled water for cooking and drinking.

"Some of them are upset, and you can't blame them," Stone said.

Pasby is one of them. He said he wasn't told about the arsenic when he moved from Desert Hot Springs in 2002.

The artist still doesn't use his filtered water for everything. "If I boil Brussels sprouts, I use that," he said, pointing to the water cooler in his kitchen.

Not everyone in Pioneertown is so cautious. Jim McAlpine, 79, drinks the water straight from the tap because he says the arsenic concentration on the town's west side is low.

Come January, Pioneertown will have to get used to new standards for arsenic. Federal guidelines will set the level at 10 parts per billion, which the state is expected to follow or make even stricter, Stone said.

State and local regulatory agencies are taking a wait-and-see approach until the standards are official, said Joan Mulcare, program manager for the county Environmental Health Services Division.

"We'll have to do something," Mulcare said, adding that options could include hauling in water.

Water delivery is a lifeline for Jake and Carol Flowers. The couple had to find their own water source when they moved to Pioneertown five years ago. They installed two 4,000-gallon tanks for their home and their six horses.

"We've had quite a few times where we got down real low," Jake Flowers, 50, said. "You're scared to flush the toilet."

But he's optimistic that a pipeline will replace his tanks one day.

Previous efforts to find a solution frustrated officials. In 1997, a newly drilled well spouted little water and later contained high arsenic levels, Stone said. Drilling elsewhere in the area would not have produced enough water to replace the contaminated wells.

A treatment plant would be too costly and squander precious water in the process, he said.

Now officials are considering building the 5.5-mile pipeline from Landers to Pioneertown via the Yucca Valley area, said Lisa Manning, deputy chief of administration for the county Special Districts Department, which includes Pioneertown.

But the project's estimated $1.7 million cost would be too high to pass on to customers, she said. "Grant money is the only solution."

So far none has come through, but Pioneertown could know by year's end whether it qualifies for any new funding, Manning said. The pipeline would take about a year to construct, she said.

It may not be a cheap fix, said Bruce Davis, field representative to Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, whose district includes Pioneertown.

"It always gets down to the same thing, it's going to cost a lot of money for water in Pioneertown," Davis said.

Despite the quandary, residents appear not to have lost their sense of humor.

"There's a running joke in town," Pasby said, "'Everybody is a drunk because you can't drink the water.'"