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At This Roadside Attraction, Nature's Cup Runneth Over : Water: People come from miles around to fill containers at Bay Tree Springs spigot. Free-flowing underground stream is one of several tapped by Forest Service for public use.


BANNING — They come from miles around, their vans, pickup trucks and sedans filled with five-gallon jugs, pilgrims in search of the water of Bay Tree Springs, an unpretentious spigot alongside a mountain highway between here and Idyllwild.

The water is better, aficionados and old-timers say, than you'll find on any grocery store shelf.

And so they make the pilgrimage to the small rock grotto alongside California 243, 12 miles up the grade from Banning.

A man from Palm Desert drives up every two weeks and says the water has medicinal qualities.

Mary Hamilton of Pasadena says it's the best water she can find too. "It's a cleaner, fresher taste than any other water," she announces, like a saleswoman for Mother Nature. She heard of Bay Tree Springs from a friend in Palm Springs who makes the trek here too.

"The water is sweet," said Siamee Siong, who comes up monthly with enough containers to cart away 40 gallons of water.

Soda Boutchaleune and his wife, Sond, showed up last week with their Nissan sports coupe filled to the headliner with 35 empty plastic bottles and jugs. He was relieved to find that he wouldn't have to wait more than an hour, like he did last time.

And Vang Chor has the routine down so well that he simply uncurls a 50-foot length of hose to get the water from the tap to the containers in his van.

What's the secret of the water?

There is none. It's simply one of only four artesian springs in Southern California that the U.S. Forest Service has literally tapped for domestic use.

Another one is a few miles away, in a remote campground. And two others are north of Ojai in Ventura County, alongside California 33 in the Los Padres National Forest.

The water of Bay Tree Springs filters down through a forest of Jeffrey pines at 7,000 feet, seeping into various cracks, seams and crevices of fractured granite and porous sandstone that bank the moisture for months. The water migrates down, beneath California black oaks, low mountain live oaks and manzanita and scrub oaks, staying always cool, always clean.

About 5,200 feet elevation, the water seeps out the side of the mountain. It is channeled by a small pipe to the roadside pullout, where it pours out of a rock fountain 24 hours a day. If no one is there to catch it, it splashes through a grate and flows beneath the highway to the forest lands below.

The water is tested regularly by the Riverside County Health Department, and it passes with flying clarity.

"Every time I drive by there, no matter what time it is, there's always at least three cars lined up, with people and containers, waiting to fill up," said Kathy Valenzuela, the natural resources officer for the Forest Service's San Jacinto District.

"In the past 11 years, I can only think of one time when it didn't pass the water quality test--and that's because the pipe got dirty," she said.

Decades ago, travelers had an easier time finding mountain spring water for the tapping, thanks in large part to spigots maintained by Caltrans. Among the most popular was a watering hole known as Mormon Springs, along California 18 near Crestline.

But that spring and others like it were sealed off, either because of the cost of continued maintenance of vandalized pipes or because the water quality worsened and became a public liability.

Forest Service lands are peppered with wells, primarily for use at campgrounds, and residents on forest land maintain their own private wells for domestic water use.

But foresters discourage campers, hikers and other visitors from simply dipping their canteens into streams. Despite outward appearances, the water may be full of microbes that will cause a host of intestinal problems.

The best water, then, is from free-flowing underground springs. Most of those sources are well off the beaten path, and improved only enough by rangers to make them functionally useful for deer, mountain lions, bobcats and other forest wildlife, Valenzuela said.

At Bay Tree Springs, the biggest problem is created by people who monopolize the spigot to tap hundreds of gallons of water at a time, while someone with one container waits for a turn, she said.

"I've heard of people who come up with trucks, and there's some suspicion that they're selling the water later, but that's something we can't regulate," Valenzuela said.

Indeed, one company--Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water Co.--does pump water out of wells in Waterman Canyon in the San Bernardino National Forest to bottle for commercial customers. Although it pays fees for access to forest land and to operate the attendant machinery, it does not pay for the water thanks to a longstanding federal policy that well water on federal land is free for the taking.

U.S. Forest Service officials are now reconsidering that policy.

"There's been a great dichotomy in how we manage our commodities," said Bernice Bigelow, a Forest Service resource officer assigned to Angeles National Forest. "We have leases and require royalties for the extraction of federal oil and gas, and I don't understand why there's not the same for water. . . .

"There have been long, heated discussions among my peers and counterparts on that, and the decision will be made at a political level," Bigelow said.

Although the Forest Service said it does not want to consider itself to be in the domestic water business, it will always have water available for personal consumption.

"Campers are always coming up to our spigot," said Robin Butler, a wildlife biologist at the Forest Service station at Big Bear. "They may not realize it, but it's tapped to city plumbing."

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