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High desert water delivery halted

A state sting shuts down many haulers, alleging their cargo was non-potable. Some residents say they just want cheap deliveries.

August 08, 2007|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. -- Despite the 95-degree heat this week, Elsie Wenger has shut off her evaporative cooler, stopped flushing her toilets and forgone showers.

Wenger, 86, and others who live in remote high desert patches started saving water in a panic Friday after state health officials and the California Highway Patrol impounded several water trucks that supplied these far-flung homesteads with the precious resource.

Authorities said the trucks were delivering non-potable water. But some customers said they didn't mind -- the water was cheap.

"There's nothing wrong with the water. We got it tested years ago and it's good, clean water," Wenger said, her voice shaking. "All of us who live out of town depend on these water trucks. I don't know what to do."

The California Department of Public Health stopped three water trucks during a three-day sting, issuing three citations for unlicensed and unsanitary vehicles.

Two of the trucks were impounded by CHP officers because their operators didn't have drivers' licenses or permits. The third was cited for mechanical problems and ordered out of service, said CHP Sgt. Jim Fonseca.

As news of the sting spread Friday, water deliveries across eight desert communities were halted.

Residents have been conserving water ever since in Johnson Valley, Morongo Valley, Landers, Pioneertown, Wonder Valley, Lucerne Valley, Yucca Valley and Fairview Valley.

State health officials said their investigation was prompted by anonymous complaints.

"We are trying to make sure the water meets state and federal drinking water standards. You don't want the water contaminated by a dirty truck," said Lea Brooks, spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health.

But locals were puzzled by the sudden crackdown -- most local water-haulers have been operating for years without licenses. The state didn't complain, and residents said they didn't either.

Mary Lou Huffman, 50, of Lucerne Valley said it was no secret that most trucks delivered non-potable water. She uses the delivered water for her evaporative cooler, showers, toilets and laundry."We buy our drinking water," she said.Sharon Edwards of L&S Water Delivery in Johnson Valley even asks her clients to sign a waiver acknowledging that they're receiving non-potable water.

"We're delivering water to tanks that are old and aren't sanitized themselves. I think all my customers care about is getting water at a good price," she said.

Larry Edwards, Sharon's husband, was one of the drivers caught in last week's sting.

He got a call Thursday morning from state agents posing as a construction crew who said they were laying tile and needed water delivered. As soon as Edwards handed over a receipt for the delivery, two men in bulletproof vests came around the corner of the house, he said.

They cited him for allegedly putting non-potable water in a storage tank where someone could access it for drinking or food processing.

Upgrading his truck with a food-grade tank, hoses and fixtures to comply with state law for water-haulers will probably cost him $4,000, he said. And until he does that and applies for a state license his 60 customers are trying to make their water last.

State health officials on Monday announced that they would expedite applications from unlicensed haulers and allow them to resume their deliveries as long as they were making good-faith efforts to come into compliance.

But for some residents, it might be too late.

"We're coming up on one of the hottest months of the year and we don't have any alternatives," Wenger said.

She went to a restaurant for lunch Monday so she wouldn't have to wash any dishes.

Wenger lives in a wooden ranch-style home off a narrow dirt road three miles from the highway.

On Monday, she tried to hire Ron Caruso, a water carrier from Hesperia, but he refused to come to Lucerne Valley after he said he received death threats -- some residents believe he called state authorities to report the unlicensed water carriers, an allegation Caruso denies.

"I'm the only legal guy. I guess because I'm legal and they're not, I'm the jerk," he said.

Because he has to haul the water farther than the local carriers did, he charges twice as much.

"I'm on a fixed income. I can't afford that," Wenger said.

sara.lin@latimes.com

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