August 9, 2007

San Bernardino County in water crisis, officials say

A crackdown on unlicensed trucks left far-flung communities without water. The state has put several trucks into delivery service.

By Sara Lin

Los Angeles Times

San Bernardino County supervisors Wednesday asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a local state of emergency in Lucerne Valley after authorities impounded several unlicensed trucks that supplied much-needed water to far-flung desert communities.

A spokesman for the governor's office said that at least three replacement trucks had been ordered to begin providing water immediately and continuously.

The crisis began last week after state health officials and the California Highway Patrol impounded the trucks, saying that they were delivering non-potable water. Though some customers said they didn't mind using the water for showers, evaporative coolers and other non-consumption purposes, most had been purchasing it to drink.

The crackdown caught haulers by surprise and threw residents into a panic as water deliveries across eight desert communities ground to a halt. As a result, many customers shut off their coolers and stopped flushing toilets to save water.

"Whether they're licensed or not is irrelevant at this point," said Carl Kerns, publisher of the Mojave Desert News. "People need the water. The state didn't allow for the safety of the individuals of this community. What's more important: whether the truck is licensed or whether an 80-year-old woman can turn on her swamp cooler to keep cool?

"The California Department of Public Health stopped three water trucks during last week's sting, citing each for being unlicensed and unsanitary. Two of the trucks were impounded by CHP officers because their operators lacked the proper drivers' licenses and permits. The third was ordered out of service for mechanical reasons.

State health officials have said they will expedite applications from unlicensed haulers and allow them to resume deliveries as long as they are making an effort to come into compliance. But that message has been slow to circulate.

San Bernardino County Fire Department trucks on Wednesday began delivering non-potable water for residents' livestock. The county Department of Aging and Adult Services also started contacting elderly and disabled adults, delivering bottled water to at least five households.

"We're working to identify those who need assistance and encouraging water haulers to provide service to the area," said Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose district includes Lucerne Valley.