Despite its humble beginnings, the historic Old Big Bear Valley Dam still exists today. Originally pieced together with rock from surrounding hillsides and a single granite arch, the dam was created to provide water for agriculture farming in the area. Its historical significance to the region tells a story of strength, economic growth and water in the upper Santa Ana River Watershed.
A VALLEY OF BEARS
In the late 1800s, there wasn’t much in what is now known as Big Bear. At the time, the mountain still boasted a healthy population of its namesake grizzly bear population, which were eventually hunted into extinction by 1906, and even the Big Bear Lake that we recognize today was not in existence. The only lake in the area was Baldwin Lake, which is now located east of Big Bear Lake.
When a Riverside landowner inadvertently ended up in the San Bernardino mountains in hot pursuit of horse thieves, he named it Bear Valley due to the abundance of grizzly bears roaming the area.
After Benjamin Wilson blessed Big Bear with its name in 1845, the high mountain valley also entertained a steady stream of visitors when gold was discovered in 1855. But it was not until 1884, when a Redlands farmer, named Frank Brown, designed and built a dam that is now known as the Old Big Bear Valley Dam.
AN ENGINEERING TRIUMPH
The impetus behind the dam was to create a reservoir to irrigate citrus crops in the Redlands area. Brown designed a single-arch granite dam, which was initially dismissed by engineers who claimed there was no way it would hold. But the $75,000 dam was constructed over the marsh-covered meadows of Big Bear Valley and once the snowmelt poured in, it formed what was once the world’s largest man-made lake.
And when the dam held despite the engineer’s pessimism, they called it “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” This original dam held back about 25,000-acre feet of water. Today the old dam is dwarfed by its newer, and 20-foot taller neighbor to the west. The newer dam, which was commissioned by the Bear Valley Mutual Water Company (BVMWC), and built in 1912, can hold back roughly 73,000-acre feet of water. In 1924 the dam was topped with a bridge and turned into what is now State Route 18.
A SHRINKING LAKE
In the beginning large amounts of water were often released from Big Bear Lake for irrigation purposes. Since there were no regulations, the lake levels varied greatly. In 1996, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California agreed to preserve the lake water by providing irrigation from other sources. Today, lake levels have remained much more stable.
IRRIGATION OR RECREATION?
Although Big Bear Lake was originally created to supply water for the San Bernardino and Redlands farms, during the decade between the 1950s and 1960s the area became water battleground. The lake had dwindled down to what was described as “barely a puddle,” according to the BVMWC. Farmers wanted the water for their crops and locals wanted the water to prop up the recreational needs of Big Bear. In 1977, Big Bear Municipal Water District (BBMWD) acquired rights to the dam and the surface water to Big Bear Lake.
Regarding water rights? In short, BBMWD maintains water in the lake while irrigation interests are still met. Today, SBVMWC can determine the irrigation needs downstream and then estimate the demand to meet the water company’s needs. The BBMWD can then deem whether they need to supply the water from another source, such as the Upper Santa Ana Groundwater Basin or release it from Big Bear Lake. Water that flows downstream along the Santa Ana River can eventually seep into the groundwater supply and be used for drinking water.
Today, visitors to Big Bear enjoy a picturesque lake with boats, jet skis and literal happy campers excited to take advantage of Southern California’s mountains and watershed.
References: 1. Big Bear Municipal Water District: Lake History. http://www.bbmwd.com/lake-history/. Accessed January 27, 2019. 2. The Big Bear History Site: Big Bear’s Eastwood Dam; Album: Big Bear Lake Dam. http://www.bigbearhistorysite.com/big-bear-historical-articles/the-lake-the-dams/big-bear-lake-dam/. Accessed January 27, 2019. 3. Big Bear Valley Historical Society: Big Bear Valley Dams. https://bigbearhistory.org/big-bear-history/big-bear-valley-dams/. Accessed January 27, 2019. Big Bear Municipal Water District cannot guaranty the accuracy of text contained within the post.
A watershed is defined as an area of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas. However, an easier way to think of a watershed is by picturing it as all the land where rainfall that lands drains off of and into other streams of waters. According to the USGS Water Science School, “You’re standing, and everyone is standing, in a watershed. Watersheds can be as small as a footprint or large enough to encompass all the land that drains water into rivers that drain into Chesapeake Bay, where it enters the Atlantic Ocean.”
Watersheds may vary in size and location, but a variable that doesn’t change between one to the next is the necessity to keep them healthy. The natural water cycle depends on a viable environment to sustain the watersheds. Sadly, many watersheds are already polluted or at the risk of becoming polluted due to contaminants. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, commonly regarded as EPA, states that some of the pollution in watersheds is caused by ‘nonpoint source (NPS) pollution’ and NPS is caused when rainfall or snowmelt, moving over and through the ground, picks up and carries natural and human-made pollutants, depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and ground waters. Essentially, rainfall lands in contaminated watersheds, or land that drains into an outlet, and carries pollutants into water sources that make up our natural water cycle.
The EPA goes on to define a healthy watershed as providing “nutrient cycling, carbon storage, erosion/sedimentation control, increased biodiversity, soil formation, wildlife movement corridors, water storage, water filtration, flood control, food, timber and recreation, as well as reduced vulnerability to invasive species, the effects of climate change and other natural disasters.” We want to strive for healthy and unpolluted watersheds because the benefits that are derived from them are diverse and range from quality of life improvements, economic benefits, and beyond. The EPA notes a range of benefits including:
- Improved water quality
- Carbon storage opportunities
- Increased resilience in the face of climate change threats
- Reduced risk for invasive species colonization
- Protecting healthy watersheds can reduce capital costs for water treatment plants and reduce damages to property and infrastructure due to flooding, thereby avoiding future costs
- Reduced drinking water treatment and infrastructure costs
- Reduced flood mitigation costs
- Increased revenues and job opportunities
- Increased property values
These positive outcomes from healthy watersheds play a large role in our life. They allow us to participate in recreational outdoor activities, decrease treatment costs, increase the value of the land, all meanwhile keeping our watersheds free of pollutants. Protecting our watershed and maintaining healthy water supplies is important to the vitality of our communities and homes. There are many ways you can participate in keeping our watersheds clean! The Nature Conservancy shares some steps that individuals can take to participate in the effort of keeping watersheds pollutant free. These include:
- Don’t pour toxic household chemicals down the drain; take them to a hazardous waste center.
- Use hardy plants that require little or no watering, fertilizers or pesticides in your yard.
- Do not over apply fertilizers. Consider using organic or slow release fertilizers instead.
- Recycle yard waste in a compost pile & use a mulching mower.
- Use surfaces like wood, brick or gravel for decks & walkways; it allows rain to soak in & not run off.
- Never pour used oil or antifreeze into the storm drain or the street.
- Pick up after your dog and dispose of the waste in the toilet or the trash.
- Drive less—walk or bike; many pollutants in our waters come from car exhaust and car leaks.
Healthy watersheds are connected to various aspects of our life and by following the tips to maintain a clean watershed, YOU can make a direct impact in your community!
The scarcity of available drinking (potable) water has forced water agencies to look for innovated ways of finding new sources of drinking water for its customers. Because new water can’t be created, the concept of using recycled water is quickly becoming more common place. The California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative notes that recycled water projects have more than doubled since 1987 and continues to follow an upward trend. Identified and delivered by purple pipes, recycled water is often labeled with warnings of, “Do Not Drink” and “Non-Potable Water.” But if recycled water isn’t supposed to be for drinking, then how can recycled water be a source of clean drinking water?
Let’s start with the question of, “What exactly is recycled water and what purpose does it serve?” The answer comes from years of innovative thinking in hopes to find solutions for water-stressed regions. The California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA) defines recycled water as “municipal wastewater which, as a result of specified treatment, is suitable for a beneficial use.” Essentially, wastewater enters a treatment process that allows for it to be used again without going through the natural water cycle. Therefore, the volume of the treated wastewater is more predictable and available during a more immediate timeframe. According to CASA recycled water is, “One of the only reliable, sustainable and drought-proof sources of new water to meet California’s needs.” Recycled water essentially creates a new source of water. Can this water be used for drinking?
Implementing recycled water systems in service areas has had many challenges, including the public perceptions of its uses in relation to drinking water. One negative perception includes the idea that customers would be drinking recycled wastewater from their faucets. Although recycled water is used to benefit the population for outdoor irrigation uses, regulations in California do not permit direct consumption for potable use This means we can’t drink recycled water right after it leaves the treatment plant. More simply put, it cannot be used to for drinking, cooking, or showering purposes. Instead, it is currently approved for ‘non-potable’ uses, non-drinking/ human uses. But even for these uses, a high degree of treatment is conducted by local wastewater treatment agencies that must meet accepted state and federal water quality standards before delivery and use of recycled water.
The difference between potable and non-potable water is potable water has been designated for safe direct consumption by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among other agencies and requirements. However, the specifications do not exclude non-potable water (not intended for drinking) from serving water districts and its consumers in a positive manner. Instead, recycled water not intended for direct consumption can be used for “irrigation, such as turf and landscaping, agricultural uses, dust control and industrial cooling.” Crops using recycled water provide the much needed water resources to help harvests grow. Many of those crops are then used at some point for either animal or human consumptions, which are a byproduct of recycled waters use.
Another use of recycled water is to recharge groundwater aquifers and to prevent seawater intrusion into underground drinking supplies. Treatment levels of the recycled water vary from primary, secondary, and tertiary treatment methods. Recycled water that is used to supplement or recharge groundwater aquifers must employ greater levels of treatment to ensure its quality and safety. The indirect potable reuse of wastewater isn’t directly consumed by people. Instead, it is pumped to groundwater basins for recharge where it passes through yet another natural filtering process of treatment. That water will eventually make it’s way to wells used to deliver water for consumption. According to the California State Water Board, “regulations specify the percentage of recycled water that can be added, how long it must reside in a basin and the distance from adjoining potable well supplies before it can be merged with other natural groundwater sources used for drinking water.” Due to the nature of the process, this type of use of recycled water is considered indirect water consumption.
A large focus of many Southern California water agencies is to increase local water supply and to decrease its reliance on imported sources. Pursing these projects helps alleviate some of the challenges that California has experienced over the last years, The California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative outlines the benefits as:
- Reducing water pollutions
- Augmenting water supply
- Supporting healthy ecosystems; and
- Reducing water energy requirements and costs
Innovative solutions, such as using recycled water for indirect consumption, will continue to strengthen California’s water districts ability to deliver consistent, reliable, and safe water for its consumers.
Most people in California turn their faucet on and use water for drinking, washing, cooking, and other activities with confidence that the water they are using is safe. The institutions that provide the ever-needed resource at any time of the day are water agencies, and they serve the public daily through a wide variety of important roles. One of the primary roles of a water agency is to deliver high quality water with reliable service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Agencies employ water quality technicians and scientists that do the work to deliver dependable water on a consistent basis. Careers in water treatment and operations include inspecting water samples, analyzing findings, helping set standards for water integrity, as well as reliable delivery of water to their customers. Individuals who work at a water treatment plant operate and manage the distribution of water to homes and businesses. Operations staff also work in the field collecting water quality samples and working with labs to test for water quality. Both play a direct role in maintaining the vitality of their communities and environments by providing services that benefit public health.
Careers in water treatment and operations don’t just happen over night. Ernie Montelongo, Chief Plant Operator for West Valley Water District, has served in the water industry for over 34 years. He started his career as an entry-level water meter reader and worked his way up to play an integral role in water quality. Ernie is a knowledgeable and well-rounded individual, having worked in various roles from a maintenance employee to pump operator and now water treatment. He takes his job with serious regard and shares, “We are the first line of defense to protecting the people we serve.” Regarding water treatment as a first line of defense for the community is no exaggeration; after all, water can only sustain its surroundings if its useable.
Ernie has been a long-time mentor and leader in water quality for the Inland Empire. He encourages others to follow in his footsteps to pursue fulfilling careers in water treatment and operations. As the supervisor / chief operator for West Valley Water District’s water treatment facility, he oversees water quality testing on a daily basis among other operations. He and his team personally test for constituents (contaminants) in drinking water; these tests are called “grab samples.” Grab samples include testing for maximum contaminant levels, pH and total dissolved solids. At the end of every week, additional samples are sent to a nearby lab for testing. “Combined we conduct over 200 water quality tests on a weekly basis,” continues Ernie. “Every water quality test result is sent to the California Department of Drinking Water for reporting purposes.” This process gives the public an added assurance that the District takes accountability, and pride, in the water it serves.
Next time you turn your water faucet on, remember that there is a team of individuals working diligently around the clock to ensure that you and your family can drink, cook, and use the resource with a peace of mind.
Water quality and distribution are essential elements of the water industry that will continue to require dedicated professionals. For individuals considering technical and operational careers in water, the California State Water Resources Control Board provides information on certification programs to become a water treatment and distribution system operator.
The tap water at most California’s schools is considered safe while officials are working to ensure that older water systems are thoroughly tested.
A grueling game of tether ball. A competitive kickball session. Or maybe just one of those typical hot California fall days. Whether they’re filling their reusable bottles or slurping it straight from the fountain, water is a necessity for the school day. And with kids just heading back to the classroom, the last thing parents want to worry about is the safety of school water.
Mom and Dad might sleep a little easier now knowing that any public K-12 school built before 2010 will be required to test lead levels in all school drinking water sources by July 2019. But what about newer schools? Should we be concerned with those too? The mandate doesn’t include any site built after the 2010 cutoff, but a new state directive gives those officials the option to request testing.
Water: California style
Few people think of tap water without remembering the Flint, Michigan lead poisoning crisis of 2014. The contamination occurred when the city, looking to save money on utilities, began sourcing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron and the Detroit River. The water was not properly treated and lead from old pipes leached into the supply, poisoning the tap for more than 100,000 residents.
Thankfully, the Golden State’s water supply rarely contains lead. Yet there are some older buildings, homes and schools with pipes, fixtures, solder or other infrastructure that still contain lead. And even if the water is all derived from the same source, the plumbing fixtures that it runs through could contain lead and possibly cause contamination.
In response to this potential health hazard, the State’s Division of Drinking Water (DDW) and the California Department of Education have joined forces to begin testing public school’s water supply.
In 2017, the DDW amended the permits of at least 1,200 community water systems to enable school districts to receive assistance from their public water utility. The local water system must sample the school’s supply within 90 days of the request and will collect and analyze up to five water samples. If a high lead level is discovered, the school will receive support to deal with the issue and set up an action plan. Legislators went a step further with the passage of Assembly Bill 746, the bill requiring older schools to test lead levels by July 2019.
Schools are already sampling
Since California’s infrastructure tends to sit on the newer side, most of the state’s water supply is safe, yet there have been some incidents. In 2017, high levels of lead, copper and bacteria were discovered at two elementary schools and one middle school in the San Diego County-based San Ysidro School District. The issue was unearthed when discolored water began flowing from faucets during a routine pressure check. The schools immediately shut off all water and had the supply analyzed. Students were instructed to only drink bottled water supplied by the district and continued to do so until the end of the year.
Testing revealed that the water source wasn’t the issue, but instead old faucets were leaking lead into the tap water. The same issue occurred up in Sacramento in 2015 when Folsom Cordova Unified School District found elevated levels of lead in one of its schools that serves preschoolers and special needs students. Some of the District’s schools were built in the 1960s and have old piping. The District began testing all its facilities and is continuing to do so.
The serious health consequences of lead poisoning
Even at what is considered low levels, lead can cause a range of health issues including: learning disabilities, developmental delays, weight loss, abdominal pain and behavioral issues. The chemical can build up for months or years and is particularly dangerous in children younger than 6 since they are still developing. Although the requirement is only for schools eight years or older, many institutions that don’t fall under that umbrella are already testing. And the DDW encourages all public schools to take advantage of the program to ensure that their drinking water is safe.
If the lead in the tap water exceeds 15 parts per billion, then the school must conduct further testing to ensure that it’s safe for students to drink. Of the state’s nearly 13,000 public and private schools, a total of 3,444 public and 220 private institutions have tested the lead levels in their drinking water. A total of 16,781 sites reported lead levels of less than 15 parts per billion, 683 were in the middle range with levels between 5 parts per billion and 15 parts per billion, while 186 sites reported levels exceeding the regulatory cut-off.
Water agencies work diligently to ensure that tap water is safe for the public to consume anywhere, including schools. Regular tap water testing and monitoring is required to meet and exceed State and Federal water quality standards. The State Water Resources Control Board has created an interactive map for residents to check on the lead levels or current status of local schools. If you have concerns about the tap water at your child’s school, contact your district to find out more.