December 2, 2019

Pioneertown residents now have clean tap water — for the first time in decades

Kenneth Gentry, of Yucca Valley, who also owns property in Pioneertown, smiles as he feels water moving through pipes at a well site in Yucca Valley on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

San Bernardino Sun

Gay Smith started getting clean tap water to her home in Pioneertown nearly three months ago. Still, the retired teacher said she walks over to a jug of water from the county to fill a pot for boiling potatoes.

“You don’t realize the habits you get into until you don’t have to do those habits anymore,” Smith said.

For three years, residents of the unincorporated San Bernardino County desert town have used twice-a-month shipments of bottled water because local wells were no longer meeting state standards for drinking water. The water was too high in naturally occurring arsenic, uranium and fluoride, which can cause health problems over time.

The shipments were a temporary solution to decades of water quality problems. That changed in September, when work finished on a new pipeline that pulls clean water from a well 4 miles away in Yucca Valley. The new pipeline also boosted water supply, addressing a longtime water shortage in the town that was built in 1946 as an Old West film set.

“Even back in the film days, a lot of people bought (property) thinking they were going to go out there and retire,” David Miller, a Pioneertown resident and Friends of Pioneertown board member. “By the time these people retired there was no water.”

Pioneertown was founded by Hollywood investors, including Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, in 1946. It became home to film and TV productions, such as “The Cisco Kid,” and “The Gene Autry Show” and is still used for music videos, print and commercial work.

No water, no growth

Like any old western town, it’s all about water, Miller said.

The town hasn’t had enough water to support large development or much home building, which has limited growth in the 1-square-mile town.

When Smith and her husband, John, bought the Desert Willow Ranch in 1969 there wasn’t water, Smith said. They connected to a water system controlled by Benton Lefton, an Ohio developer who bought Pioneertown with plans to turn it into a master-planned community called The California Golden Empire. There wasn’t enough water to support Lefton’s dream, so ultimately, the water system fell into residents’ hands.

In 1980, residents voted to give that responsibility to the county.

In November 1999, the county placed a moratorium on new construction because of the small water supply and quality concerns, said Steve Samaras, division manager with the county’s special district’s department, water and sanitation division.

Around that time, county officials began notifying residents that their water violated drinking water standards, particularly for arsenic. The state lowered the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in the water, which put some of Pioneertown’s wells out of commission, Samaras said.

The violation didn’t trigger an outright ban on drinking the water, but county officials still had to let residents know of the potential health risk. Elevated fluoride levels, however, made the water unsafe for children under 9 years old, so they were told not to drink it.

“It’s not something you’re going to drink today and you’re going to have a problem tomorrow,” Samaras said. “It’s over the course of your life time and the certain amount you consume, the risk is greater.”

Residents continued to drink from the troubled water system while county officials worked to tap into a new well. In September 2016, the county started delivering bottled water to residents so they didn’t have to use their taps.

Smith’s situation was eased by having a reverse osmosis filter, but she still worried about using tap water for cooking and feeding her dogs. Out of concern from her doctor that the water was causing skin issues, she emptied a jacuzzi on her property and sold it.

“I”m laying out there one night enjoying the stars in 104-degree water,” she said, “and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the heck are you doing? Are you out of your mind?’”

Reverse osmosis wasn’t an option for the town’s system because it requires the loss of water to produce clean water. There just wasn’t water to spare.

County officials reached an agreement with the Hi-Desert Water District to connect to a well the district was no longer using in Yucca Valley.

“For them that well, as high output as it is, would have just been just a piece of what would have helped their town,” Miller said. “For us, it’s everything and then some.”

A system from ‘Star Wars’

In contrast to the town’s Old West style, its new water system is pretty high tech.

Miller called it “Star Wars.”

The $5.4 million project, funded mostly by state grant money, included rehabilitation of the well and construction of a new system with pumps, tanks, and more pipeline than existed inside the town.

A station halfway between the well and the town, was built mostly underground to avoid harming the hillside views. County water officials can control the system remotely and numerous safety features ensure it’s not tampered with.

At 180 gallons per minute, the new well pumps two and a half times more water than all the wells in Pioneertown, Samaras said.

The water now exceeds all standards and is only treated with a small amount of chlorine as a precaution, he said.

Crews with Sukut Construction worked through spring and summer to get the project done. They excavated rock to install the pipeline, causing some traffic delays, but nothing serious, Miller said.

“It all went so smoothly that people now have just all good things to say about this,” Miller said. “That was healing up 35 years of scarring. It was an amazing thing to watch.”

More water, more growth

The new pipeline will open up the town to some new construction, but not too much.

Today, there are 120 water meters in Pioneertown, serving a little more than 400 people.

While the county works to determine the maximum number of connections that can be safely served by the new system, nine property owners with meters were told they can build and another 42 may soon get permission to connect to the water source, Samaras said.

Still, residents want their Old West town to stay small.

“People have been fighting to keep it exactly the way it is now,” said Kenneth Gentry, who wrote a book about Pioneertown’s history.


Founded: 1946

Founders: Hollywood investors, including Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry

Location: About 4 miles northwest of Yucca Valley, in San Bernardino County

Notable filming: “The Cisco Kid,” “The Gene Autry Show,” “Annie Oakley,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Ingrid Goes West,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Funnel of Love” music video

Attractions: Mane Street, where many original Old West buildings stand; film museum; Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, which serves barbecue and hosts concerts, including a surprise show from Sir Paul McCartney in 2016; Pioneertown Motel, built in 1946 as lodging for western film stars; nearby Joshua Tree National Park