By Mark Gutglueck
The San Bernardino County Fire Department’s reflexive move to protect its firefighters in reaction to the discovery of well water contamination in Wonder Valley is raising the specter of a wider contamination hazard that represents a threat to the well-being of the community’s residents generally.
Indications are, however, that there is no county agency mandated with responsibility to safeguard residents and their drinking water supply in the face of the risk that has been identified.
Wonder Valley is an unincorporated community roughly 10 miles east of the City of Twentynine Palms and approximately 15 miles northeast of the east entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. The town lies south of the Sheep Hole Mountains and Bullion Mountains and north of the Pinto Mountains at an elevation range of 1,200 feet to 1,800 feet near the confluence of the higher-elevation Mojave Desert and the lower-elevation Colorado Desert. Both Amboy Road and State Route 62 run through Wonder Valley and exist as the community’s primary paved roads, with the vast majority of the community’s streets existing as dirt roads or ones that have been oiled and impacted. Wonder Valley boasts a population of some 650; some 3,000 recreational cabins and more permanent living structures built by homesteaders under the Small Tract Act, also known as the “Baby Homestead Act,” between 1938 and the mid-1960s, once dotted the landscape in the 150-square-mile area, though hundreds were demolished and removed as part of a clean-up effort over the last two decades. Most of these remaining structures, sometimes called “jackrabbit homesteads,” are vacant or abandoned. Wonder Valley lies within the county’s Third Supervisorial District, currently overseen by supervisor James Ramos.
Until 2005 the rural community managed on its own, with the augmentation funding due it from the state and county. For more than half of a century it fended for itself with regard to the provision of basic fire protection service, utilizing a paid call firefighting staff working out of its traditional Wonder Valley Fire Station. After the community voted to become a special county fire district tax zone, the volunteer fire department was subsumed by the county fire department a little more than a decade ago. The San Bernardino County Fire Department operated Station 45, located at 80526 Amboy Road, manned with both on-call firefighters and volunteers along with two professional, full-time firefighters, serving under the command of a county fire division commander, in this case Captain Mike Bilheimer, who was formerly a senior officer with the San Bernardino City Fire Department until that entity was annexed into the county fire division in 2015. Earlier this year, there was some concern that the county, as part of its budget for 2017-18, was going to close out the Wonder Valley Fire Station. When the first version of the county budget was released in May, it did not include funding for the Wonder Valley fire station. But county supervisors elected to maintain budgeting for the station after it was demonstrated that the call volume there justified its continuing operation.
In September, an analysis was done on water drawn from the well Station 45 uses. It was discovered that the water was contaminated with arsenic, hexavalent chromium and fluoride at levels approaching or exceeding 1,000 times the threshold deemed safe for human use and consumption. On September 22, the county shut the fire station down, relocating the crew, which at that time included battalion chief Mike Snow, to the Twentynine Palms fire station. The reason given was the threat to the health of the firefighters.
Reliable sources have indicated that testing done on other wells in Wonder Valley showed contamination levels consistent with that in the well used by the fire station for its water supply. The county fire division is said to be looking at how to redress the water contamination issue pertaining to the well utilized by Station 45, including putting a water filtering system into place at the fire station. It has not been established, however, that such a system will reduce the contaminant level sufficiently to render the water safe. At this point, a solution to the problem has eluded the county fire division and the fire station remains closed.
San Bernardino County Fire Department Public Information Officer Tracey Martinez told the Sentinel on Wednesday, “The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District relocated its Wonder Valley Fire Crew to a fire station in Twentynine Palms while the water hazards are being evaluated. This is due to the safety concern for the fire crew. If and when the water concern is mitigated, county fire will re-evaluate the use of Station 45 in Wonder Valley. Until such time, the fire crew will continue responding to calls for service in the Wonder Valley area from Twentynine Palms.”
The Sentinel learned on Wednesday that the situation with regard to water in Wonder Valley had been brought to the attention of a county special districts division manager as well as Jeff Rigney, the director of San Bernardino County Special Districts, which is the closest approximation to a governmental authority for the area, though the special districts division is not responsible for the water supply in Wonder Valley.
Information available to the Sentinel is that the water sample drawn from the well serving Fire Station 45, in addition to being contaminated with hexavalent chromium, fluoride and arsenic, was also contaminated with at least ten other toxic chemicals or elements.
In the face of the swift reaction of county officials in protecting the firefighters at Station 45, some Wonder Valley residents took umbrage in considering that the county made no provisions to protect residents at large, who are using the same water supply. After pointing that reality out, residents asked why the county could not merely disconnect the station’s water piping system from the well, transport one of the several water tanks the county owns to the grounds of Station 45, fill it periodically with imported water and connect it to the firehouse’s piping system, pressurize it and have the firefighters use it. Residents tell the Sentinel that option was kiboshed by Mark Lundquist, one of Third District County Supervisor James Ramos’ field representatives, who said that Ramos and his board colleagues had passed an ordinance last year prohibiting just such importations of water going forward. The same ordinance, Lundquist said, proscribed Wonder Valley residents from constructing their own tanks to similarly ensure the safety of their own water supply. Lundquist did make clear, however, the Sentinel is told, that those who had water tanks which preexisted the ordinance were given license under a “grandfather clause” to store and use imported water.
Lundquist’s reported statements were contradicted by the county’s official spokesperson, David Wert, who told the Sentinel on Wednesday that “there is no county ordinance addressing hauled water, much less anything enacted earlier this year. The county has a long-standing practice of not permitting hauled water as a water source for new residential construction due to the risk of contamination. But that was superseded by a pair of 2016 state laws that prohibit the use of hauled water as a source of water for new single residential construction. People who used hauled water prior to the state laws (and the county’s practice) are grandfathered in.”
Wert went on to say, “The county does not provide water service to Wonder Valley. Actually, there are very few places in the county where the county is responsible for water service. Water is not a service counties or cities are required to provide to their residents. All but a relative few county residents are served by private water companies, independent water districts, or private wells. All properties in Wonder Valley are served by individual wells, and requirements for testing are very limited. It is essentially the responsibility of each well/property owner to monitor and ensure water quality.”
There is no county agency mandated to monitor water quality and ensure its safety on an ongoing basis, county officials said, and both well owners and those consuming the water drawn from those wells are on their own.
Felisa Cardona, the county’s assistant public information officer on Thursday said, “I was able to confirm that [the county’s] environmental health [department] has to inspect and permit newly dug wells but after that it is up to the property owner to have their well tested. At the time of drilling a new well, the San Bernardino County Department of Environmental Health Services does provide property owners with information about testing and/or treating their water, but again it is up to the property owner to have their water tested and/or treated.”
By Mark Gutglueck