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An Idyll Interrupted

After a Hiker Noticed That a Local Creek Had Dried Up, He Suspected His Neighbor Was Operating a Commercial Spring-Water Business. And Then Things Got Ugly in Idyllwild.

August 01, 2004|Kenneth Miller | Kenneth Miller is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Although his behavior in other respects could be described as incendiary, Chuck Stroud has no desire to burn down the woods around Idyllwild. This stretch of the San Jacinto Mountains, desiccated by a record six-year drought, is at constant risk of conflagration. So as Stroud and his dog, Belle, take their morning stroll through Idyllwild Park, he stubs out his Marlboros on the sole of an Ugg boot and palms the butts, saving them for the ashtray of his battered economy car.

Belle is an aging border collie-shepherd mix, and Stroud, 55--wiry and shaggy, with a graying beard and an animated face--could pass for her human cousin. By profession, he is the pastoral associate at Idyllwild's Queen of Angels Catholic Church, and there is about him a touch of the mystic. You can see it in the Virgin of Medjugorje pendant, acquired on a pilgrimage to Bosnia-Herzegovina, that dangles over his bear-in-the-moonlight T-shirt. You can hear it in the way he speaks of the landscape he has made it his mission to protect: "A place of endless wonder. A cradle of life. An amazing, amazing world."

The son of a Hollywood producer, Stroud spent much of his boyhood in other high-country towns before moving to Idyllwild (elev. 5,400, pop. 3,500) as a newlywed in 1973. He and his wife have raised three children in this community of log cabins and million-dollar chalets, Bible camps and art colonies, dusty pickups and deluxe SUVs. And almost every day for the past 10 years, he has ambled to Idyllwild Park, hiking past stands of California black oak, incense cedar and ponderosa pine to a coyote-haunted meadow bordered by two streams. Idyllwild Creek, to the east, is a shallow, sluggish tributary, clogged with willows and grasses; Lily Creek, to the west, races down a steep hillside, its course strewn with boulders the size of mastodons. Both creeks would vanish during the fall dry season, but Lily invariably ran stronger and lasted longer. In August 1998, however, Stroud noticed something strange: Lily Creek ran dry before its counterpart. "It didn't add up," he says. Stroud had heard rumors of someone selling local spring water to bottlers, and he wondered whether that might explain the anomaly. One day he clambered half a mile up the rocks. There, just above State Highway 243, he found what he took to be the answer: a pipe that emerged from the slope, split in two, and ran down to a pair of steel tanks by the roadside.

Stroud had stumbled upon the site of Idyllwild Mountain Spring Waterworks, Inc. The discovery would launch him and his neighbors into a continuing conflict. There have been blockades, vandalism, threats of violence. One combatant served time for battery. And Idyllwild is not unique. In rustic retreats across the country, the spring water wars are boiling over.

During the past decade, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp., bottled water consumption in the U.S. has more than doubled, from almost 2.7 billion to nearly 6.4 billion gallons. California leads the nation, with 1.6 billion gallons downed annually. Last year, the product overtook coffee and milk to become the second-largest commercial beverage category on the market. Analysts credit the trend to several factors: a spate of municipal-water contamination scares in the early '90s, the gym craze--which made H20-to-go a fashion statement as well as a convenience--and the growing popularity of both "natural" and calorie-free comestibles.

This success has occasioned some grumbling. Although the Food and Drug Administration regulates the safety of bottled water, critics point out that enforcement can be spotty; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, "some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while some is treated less or not at all." (Bottled tap water, also known as "purified water," represents about 40% of U.S. sales; the best known labels are Coca-Cola's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina.) The coming edition of The World's Water--a survey published biennially by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security--lists 11 major bottled-water recalls and one warning since 1990, for problems ranging from chemical contamination to high fecal coliform counts.

In widely publicized taste tests, participants have shown either a preference for tap water or an inability to distinguish it from bottled spring water. Yet a liter of bottled water typically retails for 1,500 times the equivalent from your kitchen faucet.

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