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Bringing Backup Well Online May Be First Step in Solving the Problem

By Sharon Penny

March 24, 2014 (Descanso)-- Like all backcountry communities, the town of Descanso depends on groundwater for its water needs. A high level of uranium in the town’s main well has become a concern for many residents.  

For the last three quarters of a year, the water district’s Well No. 5 has exceeded what is considered a safe level of uranium, which the California Code of Regulations lists as 20 pCi/L. Fourth quarter readings are planned for April.

According to Descanso Community Water Board member Jeff Rozendal, even if the level goes down to 15 (below the threshold), the four quarter-averages will exceed the 20 minimum level overall for the year.

The board contends that this is naturally occurring uranium, though no geologist report has been provided.  Uranium is a radioactive element that has been associated with kidney problems when consumed in water. With long-term exposure over many years, there is also an increased cancer risk.  

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control,  “In most areas of the United States, low levels of uranium are found in the drinking water. Higher levels may be found in areas with elevated levels of naturally occurring uranium in rocks and soil. The chemical effects of uranium in drinking water are of greater concern than the possible effects of its radioactivity. Bathing and showering with water that contains uranium is not a health concern.” http://ephtracking.cdc.gov/showUraniumHealth.action

Although uranium is a naturally occurring element across the U.S., uranium contamination of drinking water can also be caused by other factors, such as phosphate fertilizers used in agriculture.

Rozendal said a first step to solving the problem could be for the district to use its capital improvement fund to bring the town’s backup well, Well No. 6, up to standards and take it online as the main water supply. He said this is part of a long-term water quality goal from a 2011 comprehensive planning study.

“Well No. 6 does not have uranium issues like Well No. 5, but does have higher readings of iron and manganese, which are secondary contaminants,” explained Rozendal. “Using our capital improvement fund to treat these secondary contaminants through a filtering system could make the most significant improvement in the quality of Descanso’s water ever, making it probably one of the cleanest in the county.”

The Descanso Community Water Board and the County Health Department must approve switching out the two wells.

Rozendal said taking this step now would not solve all of the problems facing Descanso’s water supply, but it would be a huge step in the process of having better quality water for the 300-plus households dependent upon the water district.

Dan DeMoss, the General Manager of the Descanso Community Water District said that bringing Well 6 online would be a short-term alternative to help with quality issues, but he cautions that it would be a stopgap measure

The town has other water issues, including replacing old pipelines, expanding pipelines to join wells, perhaps developing a third well, and treating Well 5 uranium issues (even if it becomes only a backup, the uranium levels must be addressed.)

“We have long-term issues that we must address, and we must follow guidelines and codes of the County Health Department,” said DeMoss. “We need to look at the big picture of fixing not only the quality of Descanso’s water, but also the quantity issues.”

The district is seeking grant and loan money from the state of California and other sources to tackle these issues.

Major Grant/Loan Request Currently Denied Due to Demographics

The water district had hopes pinned on a California Department of Health Services 80/20 grant/loan package of $1 million that would have provided the funds needed to address the water concerns of the community. Eighty percent of the monies would have been a grant while the remaining 20 percent would have been a non-interest loan. However, based on 2010 census records, the community’s medium household income is too high to qualify for that particular package.

The trouble with the census data, according to both Rozendal and DeMoss, is that it includes the entire community of Descanso, not just those within the water district. Many higher-income residents in town live outside the water district boundaries and have private wells on their properties. By surveying district members only, the residents in the affected area may qualify for the 80/20 grant/loan.

An income survey will be mailed to all district residents, which will require a 50 percent response rate. If that is not achieved, the independent agency hired by the state will conduct a door-to-door campaign to achieve that goal.

“I hope we will achieve a 50 percent or more return rate,” said Rozendal. “It’s in the best interest of district customers to complete the survey. I don’t know any resident who wouldn’t want to see our district receive the funds we need to make these major improvements to our water system.”

DeMoss concurred.

“It’s not a guarantee that we’ll get a lower MHI (medium household income) figure, but there have been several challenges throughout the state by smaller communities, and larger ones for that matter, in which they were quite successful in determining actual incomes. I strongly encourage all residents in the district to become involved in this issue by taking part in the survey.”

There are other options should that data also provide too high of a medium household income, but they would be not as cost effective to ratepayers. Descanso Water District rates are at the high end of the spectrum in comparison to other communities in San Diego County.

Descanso is not the only backcountry community to face uranium water woes in recent years.  Most notably, the Campo Hills development in Campo has been combatting uranium in its water supply: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2011/may/11/radar-uranium-water-campo...

See also:  Attorney sends public records request to Descanso Community Water District



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