LAKE ARROWHEAD — A careful mother, Cher Fish refused to serve her infant daughter processed baby food for fear of additives.
But drinking water was another matter.
She had faith in the purity of the fresh water pumped from wells near her home on a ridge overlooking sparkling Lake Arrowhead.
Then, one morning in late February, Fish turned on her kitchen faucet and gasoline came out.
"It smelled like pure gasoline. It smelled so strong that I took a match to it to see if it would burn," she said. The gas-and-water mixture did not ignite, she said, but she immediately stopped drinking the tap water.
Tiny red bumps broke out on Fish's neck from a shower earlier that day. And a heavy rash developed on her daughter after washing.
When planning her baby's first diet two months before, Fish had called the water company. "They said, 'It's pure well water,' " she recalled.
"I really trusted people, trusted the system, so I let my little girl drink \o7 that\f7 water. I made her food with it," the young mother said recently as she packed for her family's move to a farm in Maine, a decision prompted by the tainted water.
"The first thing we'll do there," she said, "is test the well."
Arrowhead Villas, a cluster of 720 aging cabins and new chalets, is the latest California community to discover poisonous chemicals from underground storage tanks in its drinking water.
At least 50 wells in public water systems throughout the state have been contaminated by leaks from underground tanks. Another 160 private drinking-water wells, serving individual homes, have been polluted.
State health officials say that fuels and solvents from tanks do not usually pose health risks. However, the longer contaminated water is consumed, the greater the potential harm.
At Arrowhead Villas, no one knows for sure how long gasoline has been in the wells. A slick petroleum sheen was found on a creek next to the wells last summer, and some residents say they noticed an obnoxious taste and odor in their water as early as late February.
Although the villas' wells were not shut down until late April, health officials say that residents were not in danger--that pollution levels were generally too low and exposure too brief for harm.
Before the gasoline-water mixture began to pour from their tap, the Fishes--locksmith husband George, Cher and their baby--had lived happily for two years in Arrowhead Villas, a San Bernardino Mountains community one-half mile from the popular lake.
Once a retreat for silent-movie stars and bootleggers who made whiskey from its pure water, Arrowhead Villas is filled today with refugees from big cities who have moved to its 5,000-foot elevation for towering pine trees, clean air and, in many cases, the drinking water.
"I bought this place because Lake Arrowhead water was sparkling clean--fantastic," said the Fishes' neighbor, Nancy Reich, who stopped drinking tap water in early March after she and her 14-year-old daughter had suffered from headaches for three weeks.
"We had the highest-purity water found anywhere in Southern California," said John Traband, a former USC professor turned restaurateur. But in April, when Traband's customers "suddenly started complaining about the quality of their drinks," he detected a "petroleum taste" in the water.
Community Poisoned Itself
The pollution problem does not affect other Lake Arrowhead communities or the famous springs that produce Arrowhead bottled water.
The situation at Arrowhead Villas is even more painful because the community had, in effect, poisoned itself.
The villas' water company owns the two corroded tanks that leaked gasoline and diesel fuel through 20 small holes into its water supply. The tanks, estimated to be 40 years old, were buried within 50 feet of the two wells that provided all the community's water except during peak summer and holiday seasons.
Homeowners must pay costs that begin at about $70,000 to analyze the problem and to install a water-filtration system, community leaders say.
Soil must also be cleansed through aeration or vapor pumps, which may take years, or trucked away to a toxic dump, which in similar situations has cost about $100,000. In addition, homeowners have been forced to import water at several times the normal price from wells.
Emotional losses have mounted as well, residents agree. A feeling of security has been lost. And anger has built as residents have tried to find out why their wells were still in service two months after they say they first complained of foul tastes and odors.
"I'd personally like to sue somebody, but I think I'd end up suing myself," said Reich, who as a property owner is a shareholder in the water company.
Water company officials say perhaps 500 gallons of gas were lost from a 550-gallon tank after it was pressure-tested for leaks March 4. They now suspect that the inconclusive tests only widened existing holes.