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Domestic wells contain worrisome levels of contaminants

March 31, 2009|Bettina Boxall; Louis Sahagun

More than a fifth of the private domestic wells tested nationally as part of a federal study had at least one contaminant at worrisome levels.

A sampling of water from private wells in 48 states including California by the U.S. Geological Survey found that most of the pollutants "of potential health concern" -- such as arsenic and radon -- were naturally occurring.

Nitrate -- associated with human activities such as fertilizer use, livestock operations and septic systems -- was the exception. It was found in elevated concentrations most commonly in agricultural regions, such as California's Central Valley and the Midwest Corn Belt.

Nationally, the USGS says about 43 million people draw water from private domestic wells, which are not regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act or by California. Some counties, including Los Angeles, do regulate them.

The State Water Resources Control Board estimates 1.2 million to 1.5 million Californians get their household water from private wells.

-- Bettina Boxall

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Sierra saga ends

When Congress created an additional 2 million acres of wilderness last week, it brought to a close one of California's more memorable conservation sagas: the fight over a chiseled High Sierra valley called Mineral King.

In the 1960s, Walt Disney Productions unveiled plans for a $35-million resort development in the valley, then a popular hiking area in the Sequoia National Forest. Disney called the valley and its surrounding alpine bowls one of the most beautiful spots he had ever seen. He just thought it could use a few things -- like a village of shops and hotels, gondolas, ski slopes and underground parking.

The U.S. Forest Service, which would have leased the land to Disney, approved the company's master plan in 1969. But in a move that would help shape strategy for the modern environmental movement, the Sierra Club that same year filed a lawsuit to block the development.

That was the beginning of what remains a favorite and often successful tactic for environmental groups: Go to court.

The lawsuit slowed the project enough so that it lost momentum. Its final death throes came in 1978, when Congress added Mineral King to nearby Sequoia National Park and specifically prohibited downhill ski facilities.

In the '60s, conservationists lobbied to make the scenic valley part of the country's new wilderness system. This week they finally got their wish. The 700,000 acres of California wilderness designated by the big lands bill headed for President Obama's desk includes Mineral King, part of the new John Krebs Wilderness, named for the former congressman who wrote the law transferring the valley to the National Park Service.

-- Bettina Boxall

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Campus restoration

Botanist Connie Vadheim and a few dozen recruits in grubby clothes and stout shoes will be pulling weeds and planting buckwheat and California sunflowers on April 12 along a seasonal creek just south of Parking Lot 7 at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

It's all part of Vadheim's campaign to restore as much of the campus as possible with shrubs and flowers that are native to the South Bay area and raised from local genetic stock: sunflowers, coyote bush, tidytips, gilias, California wild roses, willows and bunch grasses.

"We've restored two acres of land on campus over the past 3 1/2 years," said Vadheim, an adjunct professor of biology at the Carson campus. "That includes what we call the 'garden of dreams' near the children's center, a seasonal wetlands area and the seasonal creek at Parking Lot 7.

"That creek is going to be fabulous in a few years," she said. "We're even planning to put some tree frogs back in there."

There are many lessons to be learned from helping native plants put down roots in ground otherwise covered with weeds or monotonous, heavily irrigated landscaping.

"These native gardens are places of teaching about our natural heritage and the need to conserve water," Vadheim said. "I'm hoping they also inspire people to include some of these plants in their own yards.

"In fact," she added, "if we have some extras at the end of the day, I'll be giving them away."

The restoration effort is open to the public. Participants should bring sunscreen, a sun hat, gardening gloves, drinking water and a shovel.

-- Louis Sahagun

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For more coverage of the California environment, go to The Times' Greenspace blog at latimes.com/greenspace.

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