By Garin Vartanian and Ted Heyck
The United States Environmental Protection Agency study released in October 2023 EPA study has found that perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are in the Lake Arrowhead drinking water and Lake Arrowhead itself.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, compose a family of more than 5,000 man-made and mostly unregulated chemicals that have been produced since the 1950s. They are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because they are resistant to degradation in the environment and when degradation occurs, it results in the formation of additional PFAS compounds or constituents. They are toxic, mobile, persistent, and bioaccumulative. A 1979 private report for DuPont by Haskell Labs found that dogs who were exposed to a single dose of PFOA “died two days after ingestion.”
Based on current available peer-reviewed studies on laboratory animals and epidemiological evidence in human populations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the following statement: “These studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFAS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).”
The Lake Arrowhead Community Services District test results now show total PFAS levels of 26 parts per trillion where the soon to be adopted EPA safe levels are 4 parts per trillion.
In October of this year, the California Environmental Protection Agency published a comparison of Lake Arrowhead total PFAS concentration levels, defined in quantities of parts per trillion or nanograms per liter, to other areas, revealing in order of severity, contamination at the levels over the safe level of 4: Inglewood – 4.3; Redlands – 4.7; Torrance – 5.1; Calimesa – 9.8; San Bernardino City – 14; Lake Arrowhead – 26.
The High PFAS Levels Are Not A Surprise To LACSD
On July 9, 2020, the State Water Board ordered LACSD to begin monitoring and submit PFAS concentration levels from its Grass Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant which processes the sewer effluent from Lake Arrowhead and recycles water to irrigate the golf course at the Lake Arrowhead Country Club. The rationale was that publicly owned treatment works are potentially significant receivers of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances and have the potential to discharge these wastes into the environment. Despite the treatment of wastewater effluent, including reverse osmosis, there exists a real possibility that the contaminants were present in such concentration that they would be conveyed to surface water and/or into groundwater through the area’s percolation basins. The test results showed that the recycled effluent water exiting the plant after treatment was (15 times the safe levels – 59.4 PPT) on December 16, 2020 and (21 times the safe level – 83.9 PPT) on September 1, 2021.
An analysis of the district’s testing indicates that the recycled water used for irrigation at the Lake Arrowhead Country Club is probably percolating down into the lake as well as overflowing during rainstorms from the recycled water holding pond which lies 200 feet from Grass Valley Lake; thereafter Grass Valley Lake has an underground overflow pipe which feeds into Meadow Bay within Lake Arrowhead. This overflow is utilized when the water level at Grass Valley Lake endangers local homes. That anomaly, combined with our leaking sewage pipe system and the percolation of Lake Arrowhead Country Club recycled water, pollutes local streams and eventually sections of Lake Arrowhead.
How Did All Of This Happen?
There appear to be inadequacies in the recycled water filtration system. In the fall of 2002 Lake Arrowhead was down 19 feet. The Lake Arrowhead Community Services District Board sought to minimize the seriousness of the situation, asserting that the lake had a boundless ability to supply local water demands. At that time, the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District (LACSD) was drawing approximately 3,000-acre feet a year (978,000,000 gallons) including the 230-acre feet (205,000 gallons) used to irrigate the Lake Arrowhead Country Club annually from the lake. The late Ralph Wagner, a consulting engineer and former Arrowhead Lake Association board member, basing his calculation on 20 years of meticulous record keeping, estimated that 1,600-acre feet of water was needed annually to replenish the lake. In fact, in 2006, the State Water Resources Control Board used his research to set the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District’s annual water draw to 1,566-acre feet. However, earlier in 2004, the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District elicited the aid of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, Tom Dodson and Associates and Tetra Tech Engineering to devise a conservation program: first educating Lake Arrowhead Country Club on the value and safety of recycled water; second, educating the homeowners to use low flow toilets, which it supplied free of charge; and third, upgrading its sewage plant to produce recycled water through a “secondary and tertiary” filtration system, all to be paid for by a temporary supplemental water fee which after many reincarnations finally expired in 2018. The board was assured by the best experts available that all toxic impurities would be removed by a secondary and tertiary filtration system.
The Lake Arrowhead Community Services District Board of Directors, including one of the authors of this article, (Ted Heyck 2003-2007), believed that additional filtration would remove all harmful impurities, including perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, from the recycled water. Ralph Wagner, not on the board at that time, agreed that the proposed system would produce safe irrigation water. However, he wanted a more expensive process, reverse osmosis, which renders from effluent wastewater a purified product safe enough and palatable enough to drink. Unbeknownst to all or virtually all of those involved, from 2002 to 2020, the secondary/tertiary filtration system proposed and approved by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and hired consultants would not remove perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances from the water being processed.
In 2020, the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District learned that the current secondary/tertiary system not only does not remove PFAS, but it also actually increases them in the processed wastewater leaving the plant. The Big Bear Area Regional Wastewater Agency consisting of 14 employees, 25,000 sewer connections and a service area 4 times that of Lake Arrowhead, has also discovered that PFAS concentrations increase through sewage processing; and an explanation is that perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substance contaminants are produced by the use of heating, back flushing, consolidation and Teflon elements used in the sewage processing cycle. Big Bear Lake is contemplating the installation of a reverse osmosis system.
The Lake Arrowhead Community Services District/Lake Arrowhead Country Club recycled water system is now known to be dangerous. Nevertheless, local officials, including respected and responsible elected members of the Lake Arrowhead Community Services Board of Directors are having tremendous difficulty coming to terms with that reality. Experts in the field of hydrology and chemistry agree that the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District’s method of processing sewage does not eliminate PFAS. The effluent resulting from the preliminary processing of raw sewage while still containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (concentrations increase after processing) is sent either by pipeline to Hesperia, near the headwaters of the Mojave River for disposal, where it is spread over the ground or after additional special secondary and tertiary processing is sent with PFAS to the Arrowhead Country Club grounds where it is kept in a special holding pond approximately 200 feet away from Grass Valley Lake to be used for irrigation. From time to time, during storm events, some of this perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances-contaminated water overflows into Grass Valley Lake and ultimately through a pipeline into Lake Arrowhead.
The pipe from Grass Valley Lake to Lake Arrowhead is usually kept closed; but on various occasions it appears that personnel at the Grass Valley Park open the valves and the contaminated water from Grass Valley Lake pours into Lake Arrowhead. The rest of the contaminated effluent remains in the holding pond where pumps located at LACC distribute effluent containing PFAS through oscillating sprinklers at an average rate of 205,000 gallons a day on Lake Arrowhead Country Club’s Championship Golf Course of 18 greens. From there the PFAS-laden recycled water remains on surfaces where it comes into contact with Lake Arrowhead Country Club members, their family and children during golf and/or celebrations or it percolates down into the subsoil and potentially into the lake.
It was one thing when Lake Arrowhead Country Club’s enormous demand for lake water was contributing to the drainage of the lake, but it is an entirely different thing if it poisons people when the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District supplies Lake Arrowhead Country Club with contaminated water that travels down to Lake Arrowhead through percolation and/or spillage thereby posing a health hazard to all.
The Faulty Lake Arrowhead Sewer System
LACSD’S 100-year-old sewage system is full of cracks and leaking joints. In 2013 the Lahontan Water Board Issued a cease-and-desist order (CDO) Against LACSD for excessive infiltration and inflow (I/I) of the Lake Arrowhead sewer system. The lack of maintenance and upgrades of the existing sewer infrastructure has led to continued violations. On July 14, 2021 there was a 2,875 overflow of raw sewage from a manhole and down a hillside into Lake Arrowhead. On November 9, 2022 a 2-inch steel pipe located within a manhole broke and caused a spill of approximately 21,000 gallons of mixed secondary and tertiary treated effluent. The manhole is located approximately ¼-mile north of the Arrowhead Fish and Game Conservation Club. On March 15, 2023 and thereafter, March 15-27 and 29-30, the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District staff conducted a controlled discharge of a total of 10,096,275 gallons of tertiary treated and secondary treated wastewater containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances to an unnamed creek behind the plant that leads to Grass Valley Creek a quarter of a mile to the north. The controlled discharge came as a result of combined snow melt and significant rainfall. The capacity at the two storage ponds in the Grass Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant was exceeded. The storage holding pond and unused clarifiers at the Grass Valley Plant were also exceeded. Under normal operations, treated effluent is either discharged to the holding pond at the Grass Valley Plant for use at the Lake Arrowhead golf course or discharged to the percolation ponds at the Hesperia Effluent Management Site (Hesperia EMS).
In 2013 repeated instances of sewage spills and excessive inflow and infiltration of Lake Arrowhead sewer infrastructure caught the attention of the State Water Board and a cease-and-desist order (CDO) was enacted. The Lake Arrowhead Community Services District was placed under an ongoing state order to clean up its act with progress reporting up to 2025 when the issue would be reevaluated. Until that time, the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District believed that although there were cracks in the infrastructure, some order of magical Arrowhead reality existed in which no sewage flows out of the cracks when ground and rainwater is not flowing in. While the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District admits that from time-to-time thousands of gallons of excess rainwater runs into its sewer system through cracks making it necessary for the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District to dump sewage to relieve the system, the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District denies that any significant amount of raw sewage leaks out through the same cracks when rainwater is not rushing in. Rarely is this kind of magical thinking honored elsewhere.
Dangerous and significant leakage from old, cracked sewage lines is well known as inflow and infiltration (I/I). It is reasonable to assume that exfiltration would also be occurring where sewage material can escape through the same cracks that allow in thousands of gallons of ground and/or rain water. The district’s questionable logic with regard to the nature of one-way water leaks in the district’s sewer infrastructure (in, not out) has prevailed for years. That logic, however, has not sufficed with the Environmental Protection Agency or the State Water Board.
A Cover Up?
On November 14, 2023, information came to light which revealed the secret some public officials were hoping to keep under wraps during the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District’s regularly scheduled board meeting. Board members were asked a simple question – What is the source of the PFAS contamination? Framed with the question was the notation that the suspected source was a combination of recycled sewage water used for irrigation at the Country Club and infiltration/inflow from the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District’s leaking 100 year-old sewer infrastructure. Catherine Cerri, the district’s general manager, countered that the presence of toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substance chemicals is only a recent discovery. She said the source of the PFAS is currently unknown. She sought to emphasize that the contamination presence is minimal and is being thoroughly investigated. Furthermore, she said, rainwater might be the source.
Unconscious And/Or Uncaring?
Lake Arrowhead Community Service District General Manager Cerri admitted in her remarks that the PFAS levels were higher in various areas in the lake. Rain does not fall and remain in isolated areas around a small lake. Cerri’s suggestion that the perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances were finding their way into the lake by means of natural precipitation was deemed by many in attendance to be an intentionally misleading explanation, one which produced expected guffaws which escalated into outright laughter from the members of the public in attendance as well as the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District Board members. The Lake Arrowhead Community Services District Board later made a toast with Lake Arrowhead’s fine drinking water. Rudimentary research reveals that rainwater which begins as distilled water thereafter generally absorbs perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances from sea spray, a de minimis possibility at Lake Arrowhead.
Expectations that the board would be informed about the realities of PFAS are less realistic than that Cerri, who in 2022 was provided with a salary of $228,393.49, pay add-ons and perquisites of $13,492.20 along with benefits of $36,451.85 for a total annual compensation of $278,337.54 and whose 5% cost of living increase and an additional 10% retroactive bonus now has her being remunerated at a level exceeding $300,000 per year, would be up to speed with regard to their nature and the danger they represent. As the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District general manager, Cerri’s assignment is to be on top of all issues involving and impacting the district and keeping both the board and the public informed about the district’s activities, while simultaneously shepherding the various Lake Arrowhead Community Service District projects to completion, including the attempted takeover of the Arrowhead Woods Architectural Committee.
The November 14 Lake Arrowhead Community Service District, recorded for posterity on video, featured Cerri stammering through an attempt to maintain that district had no prior knowledge of local perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances contamination by first saying the district only recently learned about the PFAS problem and that if perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substance contaminants do exist, they are present only in very, very, very small amounts and they are higher in some places than others. PFAS don’t pose a problem, she claimed, and the district doesn’t definitively know where the perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances come from, with rainwater being a potential source. Thereafter, the board and Cerri adjourned into a closed meeting with District Counsel Jospeh Bryne of the Best, Best and Krieger La Firm in order to plan how the district might obtain millions of dollars for damages caused by PFAS, by either joining or opting out of existing lawsuits relating to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances contamination, including the nationwide class action lawsuit against 3M and DuPont for PFAS contamination, a Settlement Agreement Between Public Water Agencies and DuPont and 3M and City of Camden v. 3M.
Two days later LACSD issued a hasty press release disclosing the alleged “recent discovery of PFAS chemicals” in Lake Arrowhead and its tap water. That press release contained a dubious claim that residents can install a water filter to remove perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances from their household water, not mentioning that standard filtration is largely ineffective and that sufficient filtration can be achieved by a Reverse Osmosis System, which costs on the order of hundreds or thousands of dollars to install. Lake Arrowhead’s local newspaper, the Mountain News, followed up a few days later awith an article on the PFAS chemicals found at the lake.
A Simple Solution?
Transparency would be of assistance in the effort to develop sensible solutions. The district’s dilapidated sewer system has been long ignored. There are flaws in the district’s water recycling system. Ratepayer money is being diverted to the construction of new buildings, a protracted lawsuit with the City of Hesperia over LACSD’s development of a solar farm and inflated salaries of the district’s top echelon.
An appeal has gone out for local residents who have the time, willingness and morality to serve on the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District Board and run the district for the benefit of the ratepayers, local residents who are willing to step up and stop their water company from being used as a cash cow. Today, December 8 is the regular deadline for a local citizen to sign up with the San Bernardino Registrar of Voters to seek office in the upcoming March election. The period during which a write-in candidate can appeal for eligibility runs from January 8 to February 20, 2024.
Garin Vartanian is a 20-year resident of Lake Arrowhead. He has a juris doctorate and a contractor’s license and operates both a computer retail/services company and a plumbing company.
Ted Heyck, an attorney, formerly worked as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York and deputy city attorney for the City of Los Angeles. He was previously the president of the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District Board of Directors.