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Angry Town Rejects Taint of Uranium

Health: Idyllwild residents worry that their drinking water has been contaminated by naturally occurring radiation.


IDYLLWILD — When local officials announced plans to boost this mountain town's drought-depleted water supply by tapping a well containing high concentrations of naturally occurring uranium, residents flew into a rage, circulating petitions in protest and packing water district board meetings.

Tempers got even hotter when residents discovered that millions of gallons from the well had already been flowing into the system--for more than a decade. Now, folks once fearful that radioactive water might someday trickle from their faucets wonder if they have been drinking it all along.

Last week, General Manager Tom Lovejoy of the Idyllwild Water District said in an interview that Idyllwild's 1,600 customers had not consumed any dangerous water. He acknowledged that water from the well--with uranium levels double the state limit--had routinely gone into a ground-water recharge basin, but said it had never been piped into the drinking system. He said surrounding wells remain within health limits, and state officials confirm that Idyllwild's drinking water remains safe.

But the town's 3,000 residents, who treasure their pristine scenery and the pure environment in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs, are still suspicious about the district's actions, and are angry to learn belatedly of the well's use.

"I feel betrayed," said Marsha Bronson, one of two sisters who have led the protest against use of the well. "It's a loss of confidence."

Idyllwild faces a serious and growing water crisis. Four consecutive years of drought have reduced the town's ground-water supply, forcing officials to impose increasingly stringent restrictions on use. This year was the driest since 1929, yielding just about a third of the average rainfall to date. As most of the district's wells dwindled to a trickle, the uranium-laden well remained strong, gushing more than twice as much water of most of the others. So in May, Lovejoy proposed using the well, arguing that it could augment the district's supply by 20%. By blending the water with that from cleaner wells, he said, the district could dilute the radioactivity to acceptable levels.

Minute amounts of uranium are found naturally in most water supplies, said Ron Churchill, a senior geologist with the California Geological Survey's mineral hazards program. In granitic rock like that in the mountains of Idyllwild, levels may be somewhat higher than normal. Unlike enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons or reactors, natural uranium is composed mainly of an isotope with low radioactivity. Nonetheless, many scientists believe there is no threshold below which radioactive material poses no risk.

Most water supplies in the county contain one to two picocuries of uranium per liter of water, experts say. The state Health Department's acceptable maximum is 20 picocuries. At times over the years, uranium levels in the Idyllwild well have reached 42 picocuries. But if the water is blended, officials say, the rate could fall below the state maximum.

The uranium levels in the Idyllwild well "are higher than we'd like to see, but wouldn't constitute a public health emergency," said Allan Hirsch, a spokesman for the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

In Idyllwild, however, the dam of public opinion had broken. Residents said any more radiation in their drinking water would be too much. "We talk about this in terms of small, minute amounts of radiation, but its cumulative effect can be very destructive," said a local activist, Jeff Smith, a former nuclear engineer.

When Bronson and Bonnie Wolf, sisters who own the local Rustic Theatre, gathered more than 300 signatures on a petition against the blending plan, Lovejoy announced that he would abandon it and explore ways to filter out the uranium instead. That's when local activists, including Smith, took a closer look at water district pumping records and found that millions of gallons from the well were already flowing into the recharge basin. A water board meeting June 18 erupted into a bitter exchange of shouts and recriminations.

Lovejoy said the water had been diverted into Foster Lake and had never entered the drinking water supply. But residents now worry that water in Foster Lake will eventually make its way into surrounding wells and leach into the aquifer. "They're using it to recharge ground-water basins, and that means that water could potentially enter the water table at some time in the future," said Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "Uranium has a half-life of 4.5 million years, so it's not like you're getting rid of the problem."

As residents worry about a loss of water quality, district officials worry about the loss of their most productive water source. On Monday, the district imposed its most stringent level of water restriction, banning all outdoor irrigation and sharply raising rates.

But using water from the well is no longer an option, officials concede. "It would fly in the face of public opinion," said Mel Goldfarb, a member of the Idyllwild Water District board. "So we're really between a rock and a hard place. We can't use the well that would help us tremendously."

Meanwhile, in this town where visitors stop by the roadside to fill jugs with fresh spring water, residents say the controversy has left a bitter taste. "People come to Idyllwild to live and visit because of our clean air," Bronson said, "and they expect clean water."

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