A small Orange County water district allowed a water-ski school to operate illegally for nine years in a canyon reservoir, possibly jeopardizing the health of Villa Park residents who drink the water, state health officials said last week.
The activity was discovered last month when organizers of a triathlon sought permission from the Serrano Water District to use Irvine Lake for swimming.
The water-ski school has been shut down while its case is reviewed by the state Department of Health Services.
Heather Collins, a state health official, said the ban on swimming and water-skiing "protects drinking water customers from water-borne diseases."
"I know if I lived in Villa Park, I would be upset about this," Collins said.
District officials said they were unaware that the Cutting Edge Water Ski School had been violating state health codes that prohibit swimming and water-skiing in a reservoir where water is stored for residential use.
It was the water district's understanding that, if the skiers wore wetsuits, the activity was not in violation of state law, said Dave Noyes, the district's general manager, in an April 25 letter to the state health department.
State health officials said there was no exemption for wetsuits.
They said they did not know that a water-ski school had been operating at Irvine Lake.
"It was our understanding they only had fishing and boating," said Collins, a regional manager who oversees drinking water standards for the state health department. "They know the statute for not allowing full body contact [with the water]. They should have been aware it was illegal."
Serrano Water District manages recreational activity in the lake and provides drinking water to 6,500 Villa Park residents.
Both the triathlon organizers and owners of the water-skiing company said the district gave them permission to use the lake. Since state health officials stepped in, triathlon organizers said they lost $65,000 because they were forced to switch their event to a bike-run race.
The water-skiing operators said they were losing $500 a day.
"It's really sad," said Dorina Graeff, who co-owns the school with her husband, Mark. "I'm in tears right now. It's a family business. I wish this whole thing would just go away."
Mark Graeff said their business generated about $100,000 in annual revenue, 15% of which went to the water district.
State health officials said they became aware of the water-ski school in mid-April when triathlon organizers applied for a one-time waiver that would allow competitors to swim with wetsuits in Irvine Lake. Health officials declined the request. A week later, state health officials informed the water district that the Irvine Lake ski school violated state health codes.
In his reply letter, Noyes said health officials had known of the ski school's existence since 1997 and had never objected.
But Collins said a health department employee photographed a water-skier on Irvine Lake in 2004 and asked the district for an explanation.
"A Serrano employee said that the water-skiing was a demonstration," Collins said. "That it was a one-time thing."
Villa Park Councilman W. Richard Ulmer said he was aware of the controversy involving the water-ski school, but had no comment. Mayor Patricia L. Bortle also declined to comment.
State health officials said they had no plans to issue sanctions against Serrano.
Reservoirs with advanced water treatment plants can be exempted from the law that prohibits reservoir swimming.
State health officials said Irvine Lake must update its water treatment system by 2012.
The district has had previous permit problems. In 2001, the district allowed a motocross track to be built in a dry corner of the lakebed without the proper county permits.
County officials closed the track a few days after it opened and allowed it to reopen about two months later.