This excellent video from Curiosity Quest explores how local water companies right here in Southern California make sure we all have clean, fresh water every day. It covers where our water comes from, how it is stored, and how it gets to our homes. It was created in response to a young girl named Fern from Pomona, California, who asked what would happen if people keep wasting Earth’s natural resources, like water.

The Water Education and Water Awareness Committee (WEWAC) partnered with the show’s producers to make this episode happen. The committee is a partnership between the following water agencies: the cities of Chino, Chino Hills, Glendora, La Verne, Pomona and Upland, the Cucamonga Valley Water District, Fontana Water Company, inland Empire Utilities Agency, Monte Vista Water District, Ontario Municipal Utilities Company, Rowland Water District, and Three Valleys Water District. To learn more about that partnership and about water conservation, go to usewaterwisely.com

Amy’s five kids with their baby cousin.

Keeping hydrated is more and more important as the summer heats up. While sugary soda and juice abound, kids may not be as enthusiastic as they should about drinking just plain water. Still, it’s important that they do so that they can stay hydrated without unnecessary sugar, which can lead to diseases like diabetes – not to mention exhausting sugar highs.

For tips on getting kids to choose water, we sat down with mother-of-five Amy Moreno:

Q: So, how do you get your kids to drink water over sugary stuff?

A: Well, I think the biggest thing to do is set an example. They want to drink what I’m drinking – a lot of times out of my glass. So if I’m drinking water, they are too.

Q: What about when they have their own cups?

A: They like to drink water cold, with plenty of ice. Most adults like it better that way too, so why should kids be any different? Especially when it’s hot outside.

Q: How do you get them to choose water at dinnertime?

A: Don’t forget to list it as an option!

We’ve also heard from a parent who gives their kids a choice between soda and desert (which makes sense, considering the amount of sugar can be the same). That also teaches kids to think about the two as having similar amounts of sugar, so that they can develop good habits as grow up.

Planting a Vineyard

“Our Grapes, Our Wine.” Cathi and Claude can now drink their own wine while they watch the next harvest grow – while saving water on landscaping.

About two years ago, Cathi and Claude Bibeau sat in their backyard contemplating what to do with “Satan’s Berm” – a part of their backyard that sloped upward to their wall. Nothing would grow on it and it was a giant eyesore. Then Cathi got the idea to terrace it and turn it into a vineyard. It is now the major focal point of a complete landscape redesign that has cut their water bill by one third to one half (depending on the time of year). They have joined a wine-making co-op, which provides them with cases of bottles every year. Now, as they sit in their backyard, they can drink wine made from grapes they grew themselves – and watch the next harvest grow.

To bring this vision to life, they consulted George Walker, leader of the Cucamonga Valley Vinters Co-op and owner of the business My Hope Vineyard. George’s mission is to repopulate the Southern California with grape vines and continue our long heritage of grape growing and wine making. He helped Cathi and Claude tame “Satan’s Berm” with terraces and plant it with vines. Later this year, Cathi will adopt three of George’s heritage vines – 90 year old vines that you can still find in abandoned vineyards in Rancho Cucamonga. They will be transplanted to her front yard – guaranteed to make her house different from every other on the street.

Terraced vineyards are the focal point of the couple’s water-wise backyard.

When we think “drought tolerant,” grapes tend not to be the first plant that comes to mind, but it turns out that this area has produced grapes without much watering for over two hundred years. Before Napa – and way before Temecula – there was the Inland Empire, at one time boasting 30,000 acres of continuous grape vines. One reason grapes were popular is that they do not need to be watered after the first couple of years of planting. A mature grape vine can send its roots down one hundred feet to tap groundwater, which makes them ideal for our area, which has a great deal of groundwater, but very little rain.

How far back does grape production go?

The “Mother Vineyard,” as it is called, was planted at the San Gabriel Mission. Grape production spread east over the century, and continued in this area throughout the prohibition because the wineries were licensed to make sacramental wine.

Bottling Day

Cathi shows us the finished product – a petit syrah from local grapes.

The festival atmosphere at George Walker’s house is undeniable. Members of his co-op have gathered here in mid-May to bottle this year’s harvest, and they will each take home several mixed cases of Cucamonga old vines Zinfandel, Cucamonga Co-Op Petite Sirah, Temecula Chardonnay, and a more youthful Northern San Diego County Zinfandel. A giant jump house is full of kids, laughing and screaming throughout the day. But it’s hard to tell who is having more fun – the kids in the jump house, or the adults, who are clustered under pop-up tents bottling and drinking their wine at the same time.

The process sounds a bit like a chemistry experiment – the ph and acid balance of the wine is especially important. Wine from the crushed grapes has been aging in steel canisters for eight months. Sitting in with the wine during this time were oak corkscrews that give it the taste of wine that has been aging in oak barrels – all that really matters is contact with the oak, and the corkscrew design gives it as much contact as possible.  A small plastic hose draws the wine from the barrel into a bottling machine that allows these wine enthusiasts to fill three bottles at a time. They won’t be ready to drink for at least another six months. The young wine has a lot of acidity, and the aging process mellows the taste and deepens the flavor. That doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying wine from previous harvests, though, and the amazing thing is that the wide variety of grapes available to the Co-Op was grown in the Santa Ana watershed – most from Rancho Cucamonga – and some from as far south as Temecula and San Diego.

To learn more about turning your yard into a vineyard, visit www.myhomevineyard.com

What’s Downstream? You Are!

What do you think about this video? It’s all about the use and re-use of one of the oldest and most enduring substances on the planet – water. It may be a little long, but it’s definitely thought-provoking.

This video was created by the folks at http://www.athirstyplanet.com/ and the WateReuse Association.

Mind-Blowing Points:

– We have always had the same amount of water on the planet and it has been used time and again. That means that the water we drank this morning may have once flown through the sap of a maple tree or have been drunk by the builders of the pyramids.

– The water molecule itself cannot be polluted, it can only be mixed with pollution – that means that it is possible to get pollution like viruses and bacteria out. Modern technology like reverse osmosis is helping us start to get smaller and smaller things out of our water.

– Our bodies at 62% water, so even the molecules inside us have been around the world.

SNOW MELT

Most of the water we drink is actually snowmelt from the Sierras and Rockies. Photo Credit: Chris Barton

When you turn on your kitchen faucet to fill up a pot for spaghetti dinner, it’s hard to imagine that the water you are using fell as snow at the top of America’s two largest mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps some of it spent the winter clinging to a pine tree or even a sequoia, nevertheless, most of the water we use in Southern California comes from snowmelt.

As spring arrives, melting snow from the Sierra Nevadas makes its way down the mountains and into the Bay Delta (up in the northern part of the state). Some of that snowmelt  it is sent south, pumped over the Tehachapi Mountains, purified, and finally sent to the homes of just about everyone living between Bakersfield and Santa Monica (to the east and west), and Santa Barbara and San Diego (to the north and south). Similarly, snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains travels to the Colorado River and the Hoover Dam, where it’s sent to people living in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada.

 

UNDERGROUND LAKES

Since they are underground, it’s impossible to take a picture of an aquifer. However, they are essentially lakes beneath out feet. Photo Credit: Joost J. Bakker

We don’t just rely on snowmelt from mountains, though. Many of us who live in the Inland Empire are lucky enough to have giant lakes of water underground that we can use during dry years. We pump up the water using wells, clean it, and then mix it with the water from the Sierras and the Rockies, and deliver it to homes and businesses.

Ground water is becoming more and more important in our plans to supply our area with water through dry years. Having underground aquifers means that we can store imported water during wet years for use during droughts – just like the way we save money in banks. Not all cities have access to ground water or the ability to store water underground, so they are completely dependant on rain water and imported water – which means that they are very vulnerable during droughts. Atlanta is one of those cities. In the past, it has had more rain than even Seattle, but since there are no natural underground aquifers, all of the rain water washes south to Alabama and Florida. That put Atlanta in the situation of nearly running out of water for the city a few years ago. That is why it is so important that we protect the our groundwater from pollution – we can count on needing it in the future.

 

SALT WATER

It’s now possible to take salt out of water, but it’s very expensive to do it. Photo Credit: Dubravko Sorić

The ocean isn’t the only place to find saltwater. Some of it can actually be found in our underground lakes in the Inland Empire. The technical term for this ground water is “brackish,” but we treat it just as we would ocean water.

It is now possible to take the salt out of water, and Australia is already doing it on a large scale to combat a decade of severe drought (imagine having a river the size of the Mississippi dry up – that’s what they’re facing). We use the same method – reverse osmosis – to take the salt out of our inland brackish ground water. The drawback of “desal,” as it’s called, is that it takes an enormous amount of energy, so doing it on a large scale like the Australians only makes sense if most other options literally dry up.

Desal is extremely expensive, so it is important to keep our groundwater from becoming too salty. That is why the five SAWPA member agencies pooled their resources to build and maintain the “brine line.” The brine line is a series of large pipes that take used water from industrial operations in the IE, extracts the excess salt and sends it out to sea.

Is bottled water really better than tap? According to one episode of ABC’s 20/20, it is neither healthier nor tastier. In fact, mostly what we pay for is the hype.

ABC’s 20/20 put the idea that bottled water tastes better than tap to the test, pitting tap water against:

  • Evian – one of the original ritzy French brands that started the bottled water craze
  • Aquafina – a bestselling brand by Pepsi, which is sourced from tap water
  • Poland Spring – a brand that does in fact come from a spring (in Poland, Maine)
  • Iceland Spring – flown to you all the way from Iceland!
  • K-Mart brand American Fare – which, being the cheapest brand, is also quite likely sourced from tap water

Who was the big winner? It turns out K-Mart finally beat out  its competition. Most people preferred American Fare, the cheapest brand. Aquafina came in second. It’s worth noting that both of those brands are more expensive versions of what comes out of your tap. Tap water itself tied with exotic (and expensive) Iceland Spring for third. Poland Spring came next. Who came in last? The most expensive French brand Evian, which one man said tasted like toilet water. It’s safe to say he wouldn’t shell out the $5 a gallon the water normally costs.[1]

Many of the people who took the 20/20 blind taste test regularly pay for bottled water, saying that they did not like the taste of tap. Even so, many rated it highly and were surprised (and embarrassed) to learn it came from the tap.


[1] Stossel, John. “Is Bottled Water Better Than Tap?” ABC’s 20/20. May 6, 2005. http://abcnews.go.com/2020/Health/story?id=728070&page=1

“I’ve got this little one staring me in the face every day, plus two more grandchildren. I give them tap water – unfiltered. We test our water constantly – I know it’s safe.” -Ken

A Sit-Down with Ken Marshall, the Lab Manager for Eastern Municipal Water District

Ken Marshall is responsible for monitoring the safety of tap water used by people who live between Box Springs State Park and Temecula. When I first meet him in the lab at Eastern Municipal Water District, it became clear that he is passionate about his job and he takes his responsibility to water customers very seriously.

On his desk is a picture of his eight month old granddaughter, whom he calls “Princess Fiona.” She and her parents both live with him and his wife.

“I’ve already given her tap water – little tiny drops from a straw. I drink it every day – unfiltered, at home and at work.”

Ken is in charge of testing drinking water before and after it is treated and before and after it is used. He sends results from EMWD’s 34 wells to the state every year, as required. He was deeply insulted when the Environmental Working Group reported that the water he sends to customers is unsafe.

A Strange Rule that Misleads Customers

The EMWD lab tests more than 50 samples a week. They test water before it’s treated and after to make sure that you get clean water.

“Most people don’t know that the State requires us to send them test results from water before it is treated – not after. We clean the water up, treat for any small amount of contaminants found and that is what customers get when they turns on their faucets.”

He was particularly upset when the Environmental Working Group told the people of Riverside County that those test results represented the water that they actually drink, “It’s just not true.”

Matters are made more complicated by the State’s rule that each water district must publish the reports about untreated water in their annual Consumer Confidence Report, but may not include lab results from the treated water. “I think it confuses people,” he says, “I’ve been trying to get them to let us also publish the lab results from clean water.”

In layman’s terms, it’s like water districts are only allowed to show us the “before” picture in a makeover, and not the “after.” That also means that the Environmental Working Group was passing off the “before” picture as the finished product.

So What’s the Difference?

Michelle Karras, nine months pregnant with her daughter Leah, shows us around the lab.

Good Housekeeping Magazine writer Rachel Moeller Gorman was horrified to find reports about E-coli in her annual Consumer Confidence Report – it would appear to most people, upon scrutinizing their report, that E-coli does show up, but again, that’s the “before” picture. Michelle Karras, a lab technician who works for Ken, talked to us about their constant testing for E-coli.

“I have never seen a sample come up positive in treated water – it hasn’t happened. That’s when all the alarms would go off. We would have to alert the authorities and issue ‘boil water’ notices to the public. But we expect to find it occasionally in untreated water from our wells, and we do. Treating the water kills E-coli.”

They get 55-59 samples every week from wells and from sampling stations throughout their network of pipes that deliver treated water to people’s homes. They test for coliforms (bacteria), E-coli specifically, and nitrates among other things on a mind-bogglingly long list.

“We mix Colilert [a creamy white power] into the sample and put it in an incubator,” she says. “if it turns yellow, that means there is bacteria in it, so then we put it under the UV light. If it glows, that means it has E-coli. I’ve never seen it glow.”

“When you are pregnant …you have to be careful about everything you put in your mouth – and tap water is safe, I drink it.”

We are talking to Michelle on the day of her baby shower – she is nine months pregnant with her daughter Leah. I ask her if she has continued to drink tap water throughout her pregnancy.

“Yes,” she says. “When you are pregnant, you are caring for someone who is living inside of you. You have to be careful about everything you put in your mouth – and I drink tap water, I know it’s safe. We do so much testing here.”

A Day Without Coffee

Michelle describes how technology has come a long way in recent years: “Equipment for testing emerging contaminants is so sensitive that when we gather samples, the guys have to completely suit up. They are not allowed to drink coffee; they can’t use lotions, cologne, or tobacco. Even the slightest trace will skew the results.”

Why are we likely to live longer than our great grandparents did? Modern medicine gets much of the credit for our longer life spans, but there is something else that deserves just as much credit: our modern water system.

This illustration was created to educate villagers in Europe about the need to seperate out houses and cesspits from wells.

Everyone knows that we didn’t always have indoor plumbing, but we rarely think about how much safer our water is when it comes out of our tap. We didn’t always have the ability to clean our water and test it to make sure that it is safe. Before the 20th century people died regularly from diseases like cholera, dysentery, and typhoid – often caused by tainted drinking water. All of these diseases infect the intestines and are caused by drinking water or eating food that has come into contact with the feces of an infected person. They thrive in places where waste is not properly separated from water. The old etching above was created to educate village people in Europe about how the disease spreads – if a well is located too close to an outhouse, it can become infected and the disease will spread through the population. These diseases are still found in developing countries around the world, where people do not have modern sewer and water systems, or they are not able to properly take care of them.

Why Do You Have a Sewer and Water Bill?

The answer to that question goes all the way back to the birth of the modern city. When people from the countryside started moving to cities in search of factory jobs during the Industrial Revolution, many brought their old ways of life with them. They dug wells and outhouses near their dwellings. Understandably, as more and more people started crowding into tighter spaces, disease started to spread rapidly. While some cities had rudimentary sewer systems (often built out of hollowed-out logs) they had no way of treating the water to ensure that it did not poison the drinking water supply.

In 1884, the citizens of Chicago were probably very proud of their modern sewer system. They had raised the level of the entire city 10 to 15 feet to allow sewer lines to flow down into the Chicago River, which at that time drained into Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, Late Michigan was their source of drinking water, and in 1885 an unusually bad storm flushed the contents of the sewers out past the intake lines for the city’s drinking water. A typhoid and cholera epidemic swept through the city killing between eleven and thirteen percent of the population.[1]

Later, Chicago’s citizens decided to build a Sanitary and Ship Canal, which essentially reversed the flow of the Chicago River. Sewage then flowed into the Mississippi River, polluting the drinking water of the City of St. Louis – more than 350 miles downstream.

The Clean Water Act now requires that we have sewage treatment plants to disinfect what we flush down the toilet. There are strict rules that limit the level of bacteria in the water that is allowed to go back into the environment, and agencies must test it regularly. Similarly, the Safe Drinking Water Act sets strict rules about what water agencies must do to make sure that our tap water is fit to drink – they are even stricter than the rules bottled water companies must follow.[2]

The centralized systems, with treating and testing both drinking water and wastewater (what you flush) is all covered by your water and sewer bills. Your water agencies work like a business in that they survive off of the proceeds from their service, but unlike private companies, they are not in business to make a profit. That allows them to focus the money you pay solely on providing the best possible service to their customers – you.


[1] Schladweiler, Jon C., Historian, Arizona Water Association, “Tracking Down the Roots of our Sanitary Sewers.” Found: http://www.sewerhistory.org/chronos/new_amer_roots.htm

[2] Schladweiler, Jon C., Historian, Arizona Water Association, “Tracking Down the Roots of our Sanitary Sewers.” Found: http://www.sewerhistory.org/chronos/new_amer_roots.htm