Women in Water with Brenda Meyer, Principal Engineer at Western Municipal

Brenda Meyer, water scientist at Western Municipal Water District.

Brenda Meyer, water scientist at Western Municipal Water District. Photo courtesy of WMWD.

This was a question Brenda Meyer, principal engineer for Western Municipal Water District, never thought about growing up. Her childhood was spent on a small farm in rural Idaho. “We had a well and all of our drinking water was untreated groundwater,” she recalled. “We would never have conceived of buying water in a bottle.”

Brenda says her parents would be confused by America’s bottled water craze. “Water comes from the tap and it’s perfectly safe. Why would you buy a small bottle if it’s no better that what you get from the tap and you pay so much more for it?”

Now, she’s in charge of ensuring that tap water meets all state and national safety standards at Western Municipal Water District, which supplies water in concert with the cities and agencies within its 527-square mile territory for nearly 1 million customers in western Riverside County. Water safety is her sole focus.

Before coming to Western, Brenda worked in the private sector, installing hundreds of groundwater monitoring wells and performing investigations of hazardous waste in soil and groundwater. Your SoCal Tap Water sat down with her for a discussion on the safety of tap vs. bottled.

Tap water is tested constantly to ensure safety.

Tap water is tested constantly to ensure safety. Photo courtesy of WMWD.

SoCalTap: What’s the difference between the safety of tap vs. the safety of bottled?

Brenda Meyer: I don’t think bottled water is “unsafe”, but I know from all of the laboratory testing and field monitoring potable water systems perform that tap water is safe and well regulated.

Tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and bottled water by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Municipal water agencies like Western must test our water weekly and daily and report our findings on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. We’re regularly inspected for our compliance with regulations by the Division of Drinking Water, and we must send water quality reports to our customers every year.

SCT: What about bottled water?

Meyer: California is one of the more tightly regulated bottled water markets. Bottled water companies must test for bacteriological contamination once weekly. We test many times weekly and some daily and have many other kinds of tests as well.

Photo Credit: Liz West, Flickr Creative Commons, edited: http://tinyurl.com/lvcogsa

Photo Credit: Liz West, Flickr Creative Commons, edited: words added.

SCT: Is there anything special about the sources that bottlers use that’s different from the sources of tap water?

Meyer: There are bottlers that simply draw water from municipal sources, put it through their own process and sell it at a much higher price. If you see “PWS” on the back of the bottle, it means it comes from a “Public Water Source” – it was drawn from the same water mains as your tap water.

SCT: What do you drink?

Meyer: I have been known to buy a bottle of water for convenience when I am out and about.  In the office or at home, it’s only tap water. I give tap to my cats, and they thrive on it. One of them, China, is 20 years old!

Photo Credit: scott1346, Flicker Creative Commons, edited: http://tinyurl.com/nj3e3a6

Photo Credit: scott1346, Flicker Creative Commons, edited: words added.

SCT: Do you have any particular reason for “tap only” at home?

Meyer: It’s safe, economical and much easier on our environment that the mounds of bottles that are wasted from bottled water. What really bothers me personally is the amount of unnecessary waste generated by plastic bottles. For example, in the Grand Canyon alone, disposable plastic bottles are an estimated 20 percent of the waste stream and 30 percent of the park’s recyclables. That’s huge.

SCT: What would you say to someone who didn’t drink tap because they thought it was less safe than bottled water?

Meyer: Read the label on the bottled water – where does that water come from?  Ask your bottler for his water quality data then compare it to the tap water data.  Check for yourself.

When you stop at a gas station and go inside to buy a bottle of water, some of the labels you see make a big deal out of the water’s origin. Evian and Arrowhead have pictures of pristine mountains on them. Perrier is a “Product of France.” Fiji water comes from “artisanal wells” in Fiji. Nestle Pure Life, Aquafina, and Dasani, on the other had, try hard not to make it obvious that they bought their water for less than a penny per gallon from whatever city is close to their nearest bottling plant.

Most people picture a pure mountain stream, but water was really made in space! Credit: "Creek" by Derek Hatfield - Cropped - Flickr CC - http://tinyurl.com/la3yntv

Most people picture a pure mountain stream, but water was really made in space! Credit: “Creek” by Derek Hatfield – Cropped – Flickr CC – http://tinyurl.com/la3yntv

But all that is not really where the water was made – it’s just where they happened to find it.

Water is made in space.

Yes, space.

All of the water on Earth – all of the lakes, oceans, rivers, and even the 5.5 gallons that each of us carry around in our bodies – all of it – was created in space. It was delivered to Earth between 4.3 and 4.5 billion years ago. How? Scientists do not yet agree on that – the “debate” over it has reduced distinguished researchers to shouting matches (which make us wonder if some of those scenes from The Big Bang Theory are all that much of a stretch).

The Water Story by Konstantin Stepanov - Flickr CC, altered http://tinyurl.com/n6gp96y

The Water Story by Konstantin Stepanov – Flickr CC, altered http://tinyurl.com/n6gp96y

How is water made?

Journalist Charles Fishman describes the process in his book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.

The nearest water factory is the tip of Orion's sword. "Orion over Arches UT" by Daniel Schwen - CC - http://tinyurl.com/qhcqvsa & “Orion Constellation Hevelius” By Johannes Hevelius, 1690 http://tinyurl.com/plod6o5

The nearest water factory is the tip of Orion’s sword. “Orion over Arches UT” by Daniel Schwen – CC – http://tinyurl.com/qhcqvsa & “Orion Constellation Hevelius”
By Johannes Hevelius, 1690 http://tinyurl.com/plod6o5

The H2O molecule is forged out in space amidst the heat and cosmic energy that accompanies the birth of stars. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms are slammed together by shock waves created by the explosions that are a part of a star’s creation. The nearest “star nursery” and thus “water factory” is actually visible to the naked eye. In fact, if you’ve ever looked at the constellation Orion, you’ve seen it. It is on his sword. What looks like a star is really a great many of them being created – and in the process, whole “Earth” amounts of water are made, one molecule at a time, every twenty minutes.

A New Relationship With Water

Water has been in every living thing on Earth since life started. "Go Green" by wishvam http://tinyurl.com/nd7y3rc

Water has been in every living thing on Earth since life started. “Go Green” by wishvam http://tinyurl.com/nd7y3rc

Water cannot be created or destroyed here on Earth. We got one delivery over four billion years ago and all living things that have called our planet “home” have been using it ever since. Every drop each of us uses – no matter where we find it – has been around the world more times than we can count. It has travelled from the depths of the oceans to the tops of the clouds. It has been inside volcanoes, elephants, and maybe even a T-Rex. It has floated in swamps and been inside the bloom of a rose. No matter what we do to it, water itself will be fine. When it is contaminated, it can become clean again. When we waste it, it simply goes somewhere else.

As Fishman says, we do not clean and conserve water for its sake – we do it for our own sake. While water is older than we can imagine, while it is endlessly recyclable, it is not always in a place where we can find it and use it to build cities and businesses and families. Our future and our way of life depends on our ability to manage water well.

Speeding Up the Cleaning Process

More and more cities are using top-notch technology to speed the cleaning process up to create a new source of clean water out of water we have already used. Much of that technology was created in Orange County, where the Groundwater Replenishment System has already produced over 150 billion gallons of clean water. Once the water has gone through the system, it is so pure, they have to add minerals back into it. Learn more about how that process works here.

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How does the age of water influence how you think about it? Please let us know on our Facebook Page.

The Big Thirst

The above story was part of a series of anecdotes that appear in the book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman. Fishman is a journalist who travelled the world to learn about how the worldwide water crisis plays out in different locales. One thing that he learned is that while the problem is global, solutions are local, and they need to begin with people learning to think and talk differently about water and how it is used.

PicMonkey Collage - Big Thirst

The book, which we highly recommend, can be purchased online and at your favorite bookstore. Click here to learn more about the book and where you can secure your own copy: http://www.thebigthirst.com/the-book/

At 10am every Saturday and Sunday morning, kayakers and nature lovers from all over Southern California gather at the Newport Aquatic Center for a guided tour of Newport’s ecological reserve.

Newport Bay Estuary

A critical part of the Santa Ana Watershed, the reserve is on the Pacific Flyway, a kind of Route 66 for birds migrating with the seasons. It is the best place in SoCal to see birds from as far away as the Artic Circle, and is an important link in our global ecosystem. If you want to get up close and personal with nature and watch your kids faces light up as pelicans the size of a Labrador retriever circle overhead and dive into the water 10 feet away from you, this is the trip to take.

Hunter spots a huge bird flying past us.

Hunter spots a huge bird flying past us.

 

You can explore this natural wonder in the midst of the city on a two hour guided tour with a naturalist leaving each weekend morning hosted by the Newport Bay Conservancy.

Part of a Global Ecosystem

Emily and Hunter already had an introduction to kayaking at Big Bear Lake, which is at the very top, or “headwaters,” of the Santa Ana River watershed, so it was appropriate that we go now to the outlet, where freshwater from upstream meets the Pacific Ocean in the Newport Bay Estuary.

A brown pelican searches for its breakfast.

A brown pelican searches for its breakfast.

Estuaries are home to an amazing diversity of life, as they are a unique place where fresh and saltwater mix. It’s especially crucial that this estuary and others like it are protected by water safety laws put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency. Just as the EPA ensures the safety of the tap water we drink, the water we release back into the environment must be cleaned and meet strict safety standards so as not to harm human health, or that of the natural world.

What You’ll See

The advantage of kayaking is that birds are not afraid of you, so you can get very close. While they are on the lookout for land predators and humans approaching on the shore, kayaks and their inhabitants aren’t given a second thought. Here are some of the coolest birds we saw.

Newport 31

The Brown Pelican

The first thing you notice about the brown pelican is its size – they are almost four and a half feet long with a wingspan of six and a half feet. They are the only species of pelicans that dive for their food – and what a show! As Hunter and I paddled through the tall grasses, pelicans flew past us only a few yards away, circled high in the air and dove into the water with an incredible splash. It was enough to impress even a 14 year old. As one coasted by, wings spread wide, Hunter exclaimed, “That’s majestic!”

A brown pelican dives into the water about six yards from our boat!

A brown pelican dives into the water about six yards from our boat!

The brown pelican is one of the Endangered Species Act’s success stories. Put on the list in 1970 due to DDT poisoning, it has since recovered and was taken off the list in 2009. Browns summer in Mexico and two of the five Channel Islands, where they nest and raise their young.

Newport 26

Buffalo Heads

“Those ones just got here from the Arctic Circle three days ago,” said Portia, a volunteer naturalist who had just retired as an OC Parks ranger. She was pointing to three compact black and white birds with large heads for their tiny bodies (thus given the name “buffalo heads.”) These relatively small birds, just over a foot long with almost a two-foot wingspan, don’t look like they are meant to travel very fair. However, they came the farthest of all of the species in the estuary – almost 3,000 miles.

This buffalo head (a small duck) just arrived from the Arctic Circle to winter in Newport.

This buffalo head (a small duck) just arrived from the Arctic Circle to winter in Newport.

Buffleheads (or buffalo heads) are really a small duck. In the winter, they can be seen in the Gulf Coast and in Mexico. In Southern California, the Newport Bay Ecological Reserve is one of the few places with enough undeveloped estuary to provide a good habitat.

Newport Bay Aquatic Center

The Newport Bay Aquatic Center is a non-profit organization where locals come to train for rowing, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding. The Center hosts the Newport Bay Conservancy’s guided tours from their boat dock, and much of the cost of the tour goes back to caring for the nature preserve.

The tour leaves from the Newport Bay Aquatic Center.

The tour leaves from the Newport Bay Aquatic Center.

Cost: $25 per person
To Book: Call the Newport Bay Conservancy at (949) 923-2269 from Monday – Friday, 10am-4pm. The people who answer the phone are extremely nice and helpful.
Be Sure to Bring: Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen (even in winter), shoes that can get wet, extra change of clothes, including underwear (just in case), camera, watertight protection for your phone if you bring it with you.

One wonderful thing about the Newport Aquatic Center is that it has beautiful, spacious, newly-renovated bathrooms and locker rooms that you and your kids can change in, should it be necessary. Emily, Hunter, and I all needed to change afterward.

Newport Bay Estuary

Emily tests the water’s depth.

 

Lunch at the Crab Cooker

The birds we saw on the morning tour eat fish, so it makes sense to visit one of SoCal’s most iconic seafood restaurants for lunch: the Crab Cooker in Newport Beach.

Emily & Hunter at the Crab Cooker

Only a ten-minute drive away, the Crab Cooker has proudly been serving Orange County since 1951. While they don’t have a kids menu, your little ones are sure to find something they like – from grilled shrimp to “the world’s best clam chowder.” With a casual atmosphere, it really is one of the best places to go when you are wearing exercise clothes look a little windblown. There are even adult beverages for those wanting to soothe sore muscles. One word of caution: there is likely to be a line.

Crab Cooker: 2200 Newport Blvd, Newport Beach, CA 92663. 949-673-0100

You’ll find many amazing things at the Disneyland Resort: Mickey Mouse, dragons, princesses, and awesome thrill rides. One thing you won’t find a lot of is grass. Disneyland Resort boasts plants of varying descriptions that help tell the story of each land and ride in the Magic Kingdom – the breadth of plant life is truly amazing, and many of them can be grown with very little water in your own front yard.

Your first glimpse of Disney Magic as you arrive on the tram.

Your first glimpse of Disney Magic as you arrive on the tram. Photo courtesy Disneyland Resort.

We got the chance to talk with the two people behind Disney’s magical plant palette: Adam Schwerner, director of horticulture and Chris Barnhill, manager of Horticulture. Schwerner and Barnhill are both self-described “plant nerds” and their enthusiasm for their jobs comes through as they describe their work at the park.

Olive trees create a Mediterranean look, appropriate for SoCal's Mediterranean Climate.

Olive trees create a Mediterranean look, appropriate for SoCal’s Mediterranean Climate. Photo courtesy Disneyland Resort.

“We use plants to tell the story of each setting,” says Barnhill. Plants support the environment, from jungle, to the Old West, to the edible gardens of the future. Among those plants are quite a few “water smart” varieties that you can plant in your own yard and significantly cut down your water use.

“Dry gardens are not just about cacti,” says Schwerner. “In Southern California we have a Mediterranean climate, similar to the climate found in South Africa, Australia, Chile, and of course the Mediterranean Sea. So there are lots of amazing plants to choose from.”

The Disneyland Resort, which includes Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, is located in the Santa Ana River Watershed, which encompasses part of the Inland Empire and Orange County – running from Big Bear to Huntington Beach. Many different plants can be grown in our gorgeous Mediterranean climate.

“The question is ‘What does the homeowner want the garden to look like?’” says Barnhill. “You can have a desert garden, an Italian villa, grasses from South Africa – you can have a lot of different looks from plants made for this climate.”

Disneyland Park

Disneyland Resort recently transitioned Autopia to tell the story of a freewheeling road trip while using more “water savvy” plants. Here, you’ll find carpenteria californica – a large shrub that seasonally grows beautiful white flowers. Native to Southern California’s chaparral ecosystem, this bush is even cultivated in Britain for its lightly scented, glistening white flowers (about 2-3 inches across).

Carpenteria californica at Autopia (Credit: The Disneyland Resort), Carpenteria californica flowering (Credit - The Marmot, Flickr Creative Commons)

Carpenteria californica at Autopia (Credit: The Disneyland Resort), Carpenteria californica flowering (Credit – The Marmot, Flickr Creative Commons)

Another spectacular specimen in Autopia is banksia – a flowering shrub that hails from Australia. “It’s well known in the cut flower trade,” says Schwerner. Guests driving through Autopia will also pass grevillea, which boasts unique pink and green blooms.

Banksia in bloom (Credit: Jean-Michel Moullec, Flickr Creative Commons), Grevillea (Credit: The Disneyland Resort)

Banksia in bloom (Credit: Jean-Michel Moullec, Flickr Creative Commons), Grevillea (Credit: The Disneyland Resort)

Disney California Adventure Park

In Cars Land, plants help bring the “Route 66” vibe of the movie Cars to life in Disney California Adventure Park. Framing the colorful “Welcome to Cars Land” sign are Green Palos Verde trees, also found across from Radiator Springs Racers. They evoke a definite “desert” look with a shock of green against any backdrop. Bright yellow flowers bloom among delicate, lacey leaves.

Green Palos Verde near Radiator Springs Racers. Photo courtesy The Disneyland Resort.

Green Palos Verde near Radiator Springs Racers. Photo courtesy Disneyland Resort.

Schwerner’s favorite plant in Cars Land is California Buckwheat, which can be found while standing in line for Radiator Springs Racers. He’s planted some in his own backyard. Also found here are pinyon pine trees.

Pinyon Pine at Radiator Springs Racers and Olive Tree at Luigi's Flying Tires. Photos courtesy the Disneyland Resort.

Pinyon Pine at Radiator Springs Racers and Olive Tree at Luigi’s Flying Tires. Photos courtesy the Disneyland Resort.

“The pinyon pine is one of the more drought-tolerant conifers, where pinyon nuts come from,” says Barnhill. It grows wild in the American Southwest, particularly near the “Four Corners” region. With a wide canopy, it can provide a great deal of shade in your yard on hot days without much impact on your water budget.

California Buckwheat. Photo courtesy the Disneyland Resort.

California Buckwheat. Photo courtesy the Disneyland Resort.

While visiting Luigi’s Flying Tires, you can see water savvy plants that evoke a definite look of an Italian villa – olive trees. Olive trees also grow across from Cars Land, outside of Wine Country Trattoria restaurant. Many people are surprised to learn that fruitless olives require very little water, and when combined with Italian cypress, structural hedges, and plants like lavender and rosemary, can bring a bit of Tuscany to your own backyard.

Adding on to the Tuscany theme, planting a vineyard like the one outside the Wine Country Trattoria can be a water-wise choice. Vineyards were grown without much irrigation in the Santa Ana Watershed throughout much of the 20th century – today, you can taste that part of local history yourself at one of the last remaining local vineyards – the Galleano Winery.

Arriving at the Disneyland Resort

Most people catch their first glimpse of the magic of Disneyland when they arrive on the tram from the Mickey & Friends parking structure. Schwerner notes that this is the one place where there is no specific theme, so “the story is exposing our guests to the wonder of the botanical world.” Barnhill adds, “It’s where we get to geek out!”

The fantastical garden at the center of the Tram Turnaround is meant to introduce visitors to the wonder of the botanical world.

The fantastical garden at the center of the Tram Turnaround is meant to introduce visitors to the wonder of the botanical world. Photo courtesy Disneyland Resort.

What they’ve created is pure Disney magic, with an amazing variety of aloes and Kalanchoe beharensis that assume impossible shapes. They would look spectacular bordering any yard.

What you don’t see in the Magic Kingdom is a great deal of is grass. There is a twofold reason for that. First of all, according to Barnhill, “We can tell the story better through shrubs and trees – there’s no complexity with turf, it’s merely functional.” Secondly, according to Schwerner, “Where we can, we want to reduce the amount of turf because it consumes more water than other plants.” He does note that they use turf for places where people will be walking over a large area – like the Rose Court Garden, a wedding venue at Disneyland Hotel.

Photo Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

Photo Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

 

Where Do Disney’s Plant Experts Look for Inspiration?

Schwerner and Barnhill highly recommend going to Southern California’s botanic gardens and plant societies to get inspiration and guidance when upgrading your own yard. They include:

Fullerton Arboretum
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (has a nursery)
California Native Plant Society
Mediterranean Garden Society
Armstrong Nursery, which is great for California Lilacs

Dr. Andy Eaton, Technical Director at Eurofins Lab

Dr. Andy Eaton, Technical Director at Eurofins Lab

Meet Dr. Andy Eaton, the Technical Director at Eurofins Lab. He’s working on a nation-wide effort to test tap water to learn if there are trace amounts of substances that we don’t yet include in the day-to-day testing all tap water must undergo.

While the U.S. has some of the safest tap water in the world, our ability to find trace amounts of chemicals and other elements in water has increased significantly. As a result, the U.S. EPA runs several rounds of testing every fews years to look for new trace elements that may potentially have an impact on our health. It’s part of a proactive approach to ensuring that the water we drink and use everyday is safe.

SoCalTap: You are working on a national effort to test the safety of tap water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What is the UCMR 3 round of testing?

Dr. Eaton: About every 5 years the EPA tests our nation’s water systems, looking for up to 30 contaminants that are not currently regulated. The tests are called “Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR.” UCMR3 is the 3rd round of that type of testing and occurs from 2013-2015. Our lab, Eurofins, is one of a handful of labs in the U.S. that is certified to test for trace amounts of these contaminants.    

Eurofins Lab is testing tap water all for cities over the United States and for the US EPA. LA Sunset: Pedro Szekely http://tinyurl.com/LASunset,3 Golden Gate: Sam Virgi http://tinyurl.com/GoldenGate4, NYC Skyline: joiseyshowaa http://tinyurl.com/NYCSky14, Small Town NC: Gerry Dincher http://tinyurl.com/SmallTownNC

Eurofins Lab is testing tap water all for cities over the United States and for the US EPA. LA Sunset: Pedro Szekely http://tinyurl.com/LASunset,3 Golden Gate: Sam Virgi http://tinyurl.com/GoldenGate4, NYC Skyline: joiseyshowaa http://tinyurl.com/NYCSky14, Small Town NC: Gerry Dincher http://tinyurl.com/SmallTownNC

SCT: You are testing samples locally and from around the country. Can you name off a few locations? 

Dr. Eaton: Our more than 400 UCMR3 clients touch all parts of the country – New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, San Antonio plus we are testing a large number of small systems – in smaller towns – directly for the EPA.   We just recently checked the EPA public database for UCMR3 and realized that we account for nearly 40% of the data in that database.

SCT: Before we get into the details of testing, can you tell us – do you and your family drink tap water?   

Dr. Eaton: We drink both tap water and bottled water.  Bottled water is a great alternative to soda when we are traveling and want convenience.   Even with the UCMR3 detections we are finding, I consider tap water to be extraordinarily safe. 

SCT: This round of testing – the third round – is a bit different than the first two. How so?

Dr. Eaton: This time, we are testing down to much lower levels, based on analytical method capabilities. In the past few decades, technology has advanced so far that we can find smaller and smaller traces of elements than ever before. In the last two rounds, testing levels were based on Health Reference Levels, which means we looked for these elements at levels that we know could be unhealthy. This time, we are looking for them at even smaller concentrations to help the EPA understand what’s in the nation’s water supplies.   

What this means is that we are more likely to detect compounds. As an example, we have detected strontium in 100% of water supplies under UCMR3, but in some cases the concentrations are a thousand times lower than the health reference level – the level scientists believe could be harmful.   This type of data will present a challenge to utilities because they have to report that these elements have been detected in their consumer confidence reports, and customers may well be concerned with large numbers of elements detected, even at such low levels.

New testing technology has advanced so quickly that we can find smaller amounts of compounds than we used to - meaning we are finding new things in tap water.

New testing technology has advanced so quickly that we can find smaller amounts of compounds than we used to – meaning we are finding new things in tap water. Photo courtesy of Eurofins.

SCT: Why would EPA require testing for compounds at these levels if they are not a health risk?

Dr. Eaton: In UCMR1 and UCMR2 when they were basing levels on health risks, there were very few detects – or compounds detected – and there were a few cases where EPA lowered the health reference level during the course of the monitoring. However, they had no data for those revised levels, so the EPA now decided to put detection technology to the test to see what was really there. If they do have to lower the threshold for a health risk, they will know where compounds show up around the country.

The problem (for water agencies) is that trace amounts of chemicals are showing up all over the place, and that could scare consumers unnecessarily.

Eurofins lab8

Eurofins Lab Equipment. Photo courtesy of Eurofins.

SCT: Why do the EPA and local water agencies care about looking for contaminants that aren’t regulated?  

Dr. Eaton: The EPA and water agencies are pushing detection technology’s limits to protect the public’s health. It’s possible that these compounds could be regulated in the future because they may have an impact on our health. However, there is also value in deciding not to regulate something if it does not show up in testing results.   Or conversely something we did not expect to find could show up frequently at significant levels, so we should regulate it and require water agencies to find a way to remove it from tap water.   Compounds that we are looking for in the UCMR3 round of testing are supposed to be ones that could have health significance.

SCT: Which among the 28 compounds and 2 viruses you are testing for might the average person recognize? What impact might they have on human health?    

Dr. Eaton: In California, people will recognize hexavalent chromium, PFOS and PFOA from the list. PFOS and PFOA are used in Teflon and now in firefighting foams. It’s impossible to go back 50 years and find someone who doesn’t have them in their blood. Both 3M and Dupont phased out PFOS and PFOA in the early 2000s. For the most part, they are found at less than 50 parts per trillion. They are found worldwide – not just in America.

Chrom-6 often occurs naturally, for example, Hawaii has above average levels of Chom-6 in its water due to volcanic activity. Credits: Road Closed: Eli Duke https://flic.kr/p/88hSwG Red hot Lava: {Sara Ann} https://flic.kr/p/4FrgBm

Chrom-6 often occurs naturally, for example, Hawaii has above average levels of Chom-6 in its water due to volcanic activity. Credits: Road Closed: Eli Duke https://flic.kr/p/88hSwG Red hot Lava: {Sara Ann} https://flic.kr/p/4FrgBm

Most people will recognize hexavalent chromium (aka chrome-6) from the movie Erin Brokovich. In Hinkley, California, irresponsible disposal allowed chrome-6 to leach into the town’s water supplies at levels above even current regulations for total chromium. However, throughout the U.S. most chrome-6 in water occurs naturally in small amounts (it has been found in nearly 90% of public water supplies in UCMR3) and we know that it does not cause cancer until it reaches incredibly high levels. For example, we found it in concentrations of between below 1 part per billion and 9.7 parts per billion in Hawaii – that comes from volcanic activity. It’s also almost always below California’s new limit of 10 parts per billion (which equals ten drops in an Olympic sized swimming pool). The amount of chrome-6 found in Hinkley’s water supply, by contrast, was around 2,000 parts per billion.

 SCT: Are there any chemicals that look like they should be regulated?

Dr. Eaton: In looking at the results we have so far, the compounds that I think are of concern are 1,4-dioxane, which is known as an issue in some parts of California, but seems to be a true nationwide issue, with a lot of samples well over California’s notification level, and chlorate, a disinfection byproduct, which is already regulated by the World Health Organization, but not by USEPA.

Eurofins labOverview

Eurofins Lab Equipment. Photo courtesy of Eurofins.

SCT: What is -1,4 dioxane?

Dr. Eaton: It’s a solvent stabilizer, found in dyes and other solvents. We’re finding it in North Carolina at close to 10 ppb. In California the reference level is 0.35 ppb (in California we occasionally see it above that level). In North Carolina it’s from the textile mills. They aren’t seeing a lot of it in groundwater, but it is mostly in surface water, like rivers. We’ve found it in 20% of water supplies nationwide. That indicates potential health concern and the high frequencies of detection would argue for regulation sooner rather than later.

SCT: Is there something you’ve found at much lower levels than expected?

Dr. Eaton: We are really not seeing a lot of the other organics that we are monitoring for, which is good news. We are generally not seeing hormones, and we’re looking for them at really low levels (less than a part per trillion). One part per trillion is about one drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Some hormones are very sensitive to chlorine and are likely destroyed during the tap water purification process. Out of the seven hormones we’re testing for, we’ve not seen five hardly at all. For the other two – testosterone and androsteene dione, we’ve only seen them in 0.5% of samples, and at the .3 – .4 parts per trillion range.  Unfortunately for the few utilities that did find them, they will have to explain them to their customers, because we know the public is extremely concerned about issues such as pharmaceuticals in drinking water.

 

Eurofins volatileslab

Eurofins Lab Equipment. Photo courtesy of Eurofins.

SCT: Where do you think testing at such low levels will lead?

Dr. Eaton: It’s about protecting public health and ensuring that the tap water we drink is safe. The EPA is getting ready to regulate new compounds (like -1,4 dioxane and chlorate) and need to know how much of those chemicals are out there and where they are geographically to estimate the cost of any regulation.   Also, some compounds (like hormones) don’t already have health reference levels, and depending on what we find, the EPA will decide whether or not to create them for those compounds.

SCT: Thank you for your time.

Dr. Eaton: You are welcome!

One of the best ways to see the Santa Ana River up close is on the back of a horse. The Santa Ana is the spine of a watershed that reaches from Big Bear to Huntington Beach, and you can show your kids one of the best up-close views of its natural beauty while riding the horse trails in Norco.

Our tour follows along the Santa Ana River in Norco.

Our tour follows along the Santa Ana River in Norco.

I took my niece Emily (11) and nephew Hunter (13) to “kid test” horseback riding in the Santa Ana River basin. Western Trails Horseback Riding takes tours in the basin three times a day, seven days a week, for an incredibly reasonable price:

Weekday Rides: $25/person

Weekend Rides: $35/person

Full Moon Rides: $45/person

Saddle Up – No Need for Nerves!

If your kids are a little afraid of horses, don’t fear. Emily was excited but increasingly nervous as it came time to saddle up – especially when she saw just how big the horses were. Alex, the trail guide, was great with her – as soon as she was up, he took her around the paddock and showed her how to get her horse to go, stop, and turn left and right.

Alex, our trail guide, helped Emily get over a case of jitters.

Alex, our trail guide, helped Emily get over a case of jitters.

It turns out her horse, Fedencio, didn’t need a whole lot of direction. The “kid horses” as they call them, are extremely docile and follow their leader without much question. Some of the adult horses require a firmer hand, which makes for a more interesting ride.

Ten minutes into the trip, Emily declared that riding horses is “the best thing ever!” This introduction to the world of horses may become expensive for her parents.

Exploring the River

Horseback Santa Ana River Norco

Hunter reaches the river’s edge.

Despite being the second largest river in our area, many people don’t know much about the Santa Ana or have had a chance to really see it up close. When driving by on the 15 Freeway, you are more likely to see the trees that grow up around it than the water itself. The Santa Ana is a seasonal river that has a large basin to handle occasional floods. However, it still provides water for more than four million people living in the Inland Empire and Orange County.

The first clear view you get of its sparkling water is during the approach from Corona Ave. A wide sweep of shallow water is banked by cottonwoods, mustard plants, and bamboo forests. As our horses moved down into the basin, we crossed large deposits of soft sand created by the river’s winding journey from mountain to ocean. The sand itself could have once been rock in the San Bernardino Mountains, carried all the way to Norco by the snow-fed river.

Horseback 8

We ride through the shady woods along the banks of the Santa Ana River.

California is known for our microclimates, and it’s easy to see them when you move from the hot flats above to a cool and shady world growing up around the river banks. While bamboo is not native, it is fed by the river water and offers relief from the sun. Your kids can learn how cottonwoods get their name when the white puffs of seeds float around them. You can also explain that the yellow flowered plants they see are a legacy from Father Serra’s walk to establish the California missions. As he moved north, he threw mustard seeds on the ground to help other settlers follow the trail.

The ride lasts about an hour, which is just enough time for first-time riders and fidgety children.

At the end of the ride, you can take a picture with your horse!

At the end of the ride, you can take a picture with your horse!

The “Famous 6th Street Deli”

One of the most popular lunch eateries we found was the 6th Street Deli, located in Old Town Norco. Belly up to the counter and choose from an extensive list of sandwiches, deli salads, and grill items. The deviled eggs are not to be missed at $2 for a plate of four. They were so popular I ended up ordering another half plate.

Splurge on the deviled eggs - they were extremely popular!

Splurge on the deviled eggs – they were extremely popular!

The atmosphere of the 6th Street Deli gives you a window into life at Norco. It’s a bit of a trip back in time – they have a friendly staff, red check tablecloths, a lot of warmth, and zero pretentions. A community announcement wall is lined with posters for riding lessons, grooming services, and horse vets. It can provide great entertainment for kids while they wait for their food – but they might be too tired to do more than sit and sip a cold drink!

The Other California Innovation That Went Global

When most people think about technology being exported from California, we think about Silicon Valley – Google, Apple, and Facebook. But it’s a rather non-descript group of buildings in Orange County that are attracting world attention. A steady stream of scientists, engineers, and politicians from drought-stricken places like Australia and Israel visit regularly to learn what is going on within these concrete walls. What attracts them? A new, clean source of water that can quench the thirst of growing populations, even during drought.

OCWD's Groundwater Replenishment System is a drought-resilient source of water for the northern section of Orange County.

OCWD’s Groundwater Replenishment System is a drought-resilient source of water for the northern section of Orange County.

Necessity: the Mother of Invention

In the 1970s, Orange County had a serious problem with their water supply. Water from the beautiful Pacific that we all love so much was seeping into the groundwater we drink and use every day. The solution that the Orange County Water District engineered set them up for creating a drought-resilient water supply that is helping us cope with less rainfall.

Mehul Patel started as an intern at OCWD and now heads the Groundwater Replenishment System.

Mehul Patel started as an intern at OCWD and now heads the Groundwater Replenishment System.

Mehul Patel is one of the engineers at the Orange County Water District (OCWD) in charge of protecting Orange County’s groundwater basin from seawater intrusion, and he outlines the problem quite simply: “To prevent seawater from entering the aquifer, fresh water is injected underground 24 hours a day to act as a ‘wall’ between the Pacific and our groundwater. In the 1970s, the water used for injection was largely imported from Northern California or the Colorado River. Unfortunately, it was becoming more expensive and less reliable.”

To solve the problem, engineers at OCWD found a way to purify used water (or wastewater) and inject it into the barrier, so that the more expensive imported water could be reserved for drinking water supplies. The plant that created this water source was called Water Factory 21.

More people require more infrastructure.

More people require more infrastructure. Photo Credits: Anaheim Staduim – Jerry Reuss, Surfer – Pedro Szekely, OC Subdivisions – Raymond Shobe.

However, as Orange County became what it is today, more and more water was needed to serve the population, especially during California’s cyclical droughts. At that time Mehul Patel, now in charge of the Groundwater Replenishment System, was an intern with OCWD. He says that OCWD’s demand was fast outstripping supply, “We could only pump up to 15 million gallons a day from Water Factory 21 into the region’s underground aquifer to prevent seawater intrusion, but we needed 30 million gallons to meet the demands of the seawater intrusion barrier due to more families moving into the area.”

At the same time, the Orange County Sanitation District had a problem: as farmland turned into housing divisions, the pipes needed to prevent flooding during rain storms were no longer large enough.

At this point, the leaders of both districts had a choice – they could ask taxpayers and ratepayers to fund two separate projects to solve the problems, or they could work together to make money go farther. They chose Option 2. Says Patel: “OCWD leaders supported the Groundwater Replenishment System because it provided reliable, high quality water at a reasonable price.”

From that decision came one of California’s best-unsung innovations that has made its way across the globe, especially to places where water is in short supply because of drought. OCWD takes the Sanitation District’s treated used water and puts it through a three step process that purifies it into some of the cleanest water you’ll find. After the water is purified, it is pumped back in the groundwater basin for later use.

Option Two: Purify Used Water to Near Distilled Quality

Water is one of the oldest substances on earth. It has been used and reused more times that we can imagine or count. The water found in your morning cup of coffee could have been in the body of a T-Rex or a wooly mammoth – or drunk by someone in Paris a few years ago. Recycled water is the way of the world, and OCWD’s Groundwater Replenishment System simply speeds up the process. Says Patel, “Our three step process purifies the water so well that we have to add minerals back into it.”

Step 1: Microfiltration

Microfiltration: Water is forced through holes in these tiny straws that are 300 times finer than a human hair.

Microfiltration: Water is forced through holes in these tiny straws that are 300 times finer than a human hair.

Pre-treated wastewater is put through pipes filled with fine white straws with holes 300 times smaller than a human hair. Walking through the plant sounds a bit like being surrounded by giant washing machines – except they are actually washing water.

Step 2: Reverse Osmosis

Reverse Osmosis: Water is forced through membranes 1,000 times smaller than a human hair, filtering out bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants.

Reverse Osmosis: Water is forced through membranes 1,000 times smaller than a human hair, filtering out bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants.

Reverse osmosis is the second step in which water is pushed through membranes 1,000 times smaller than a human hair. These membranes filter out bacteria, viruses, pharmaceuticals and anything that managed to make it through microfiltration.

Step 3: UV with H202

UV Exposure - Water is exposed to a UV light - much like what you would see on a tanning bed (but more powerful). Tanning bed photo credit: WhatsHerName: http://ow.ly/x1I5t

UV Exposure – Water is exposed to a UV light – much like what you would see on a tanning bed (but more powerful). Tanning bed photo credit: WhatsHerName: http://ow.ly/x1I5t

As an extra layer of protection, water is exposed to high-intensity ultraviolet (UV) light with hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) to disinfect and to destroy any trace organic compounds that may have passed through the reverse osmosis membranes. The UV light is similar to the lights used in tanning beds.

The Result:

The result of this process is water that is so pure, minerals must be added back into it. Sure, it’s clean – but how does it taste before minerals are added? You can try a glass at the end of a tour of the GRWS plant and it’s flat – like nothing at all. It tastes like water!

P1010608 - cropped

The result is water so pure that minerals must be added back into it.

The purified water is then pumped back underground to protect the aquifer from seawater intrusion and to serve the needs of the surrounding community. OCWD is currently expanding the GRWS plant to ensure a reliable water supply for Orange County, even through natural disasters like drought.

Advanced Water Purification Goes Global

OCWD’s Groundwater Replenishment System and Mehul Patel receive visitors from around the world who want to build similar plants in their own communities. When asked if OCWD’s was the first plant, he says no – “Singapore and Brisbane, Australia were the first two groups to catch on to this solution. They worked with us and used the technology we were developing to build their plants before ours was completed.” He explains that each city was experiencing a water shortage so severe, they had to act extremely fast.

Singapore’s issue was similar to Orange County’s in that their population was booming and it was difficult to keep up with new demand. It rains quite a bit in Singapore. Unfortunately, they have no way to capture that water. They sent engineers and scientists to Orange County throughout the 1990s and implemented the system OCWD created before the Groundwater Replenishment System was built.

Singapore & Australia implemented Orange County's systems quickly due to severe water shortages. Photo Credits: Temple - William Cho, Hang gliding - the magnetic west, Singapore skyline - Jimmy McIntyre, Trees - the magnetic west.

Singapore & Australia implemented Orange County’s systems quickly due to severe water shortages. Photo Credits: Temple – William Cho, Hang gliding – the magnetic west, Singapore skyline – Jimmy McIntyre, Trees – the magnetic west.

Brisbane had the opposite problem. It simply stopped raining in Queensland, Australia – the drought was so bad and prolonged, it severely dried up the great Murray River (Australia’s answer to America’s Mississippi). Patel notes that “reservoirs were running dangerously low, so the Queensland Government adopted our system, believing that if it was good enough to satisfy California’s strict rules for water quality, it would work for them.” They built four different plants within three to four years.

Today, Patel says that many groups come from the Middle East and from Asia, as well as from industrial interests like computer chip manufacturers and dye makers, who want to figure out how to make their water budget go farther.

A steady supply of clean water is a basic requirement for a healthy economy and a healthy population. As water budgets shrink, populations grow, and the climate changes, cities all over the world need to find ways to increase their water supply. OCWD’s innovations in purifying used water fulfill an international need, as well as addressing drought and seawater intrusion right here at home.

We sat down with Randall Lewis of the Lewis Group of Companies, which is one of the nation’s largest real estate development companies, to talk about the role that water plays in the building industry. Since 1955, the Lewis Group has built over 56,000 homes and currently owns 8,000 apartment homes and 30 shopping centers.

Randall Lewis Pic

Randall Lewis of the Lewis Group of Companies is a leader in the building & development industry.

SoCalTap: What role does water supply play in getting housing developments built?

Randall Lewis: Before you can develop land, you have to have a “Will Serve” letter from the district that supplies water to that area. The State of California requires that we ensure there is a supply of water before homes can be built.

In the real estate business, water is key. We cannot develop without a steady supply of water. With the other materials we need, we can always find a replacement. Say, we couldn’t get carpet flooring – we could substitute hardwood. But there is no replacement for water. That’s why the real estate industry is so committed to conservation and reclamation.

SCT: What is the real estate industry doing to stretch Southern California’s water supply?

RL: Well, there are two types of people at work in this equation: developers and builders. Sometimes a company does both, but not always.

Developers are the first people involved. They get a land ready to be built. They get permission for building, ensure there is a water supply, lay the pipes for water, electricity, and sewer, and sometimes do the master landscaping. If they are doing master landscaping, they might look at how to use less water, which means reducing the amount of turf grass that is put into the landscape. 

Entry to a Lewis complex - Mediterranean, drought-tolerant landscape is used to save water.

Entry to a Lewis complex – Mediterranean, drought-tolerant landscaping is used to save water.

Builders actually construct the houses, so they are looking at what goes into the inside of the buildings – are the appliances efficient? Are we using low-flow toilets? Does the dishwasher use as little water as possible?

Then we look at consumer education – we tell occupants how to save water in their new homes. A few years ago, we partnered with the Metropolitan Water District to do an education program to show residents how to save water.

I’ve changed by personal habits after working on these programs. When I shave and brush my teeth, I turn off the water. Through all this education and through what I’ve read, I came to realize how truly important it is to conserve what we have.

SCT: Have you made any other changes?

RL: I’ll tell you a funny story. My wife and I went to see a demonstration garden at the IEUA. That’s where they show you what kinds of plants are appropriate for our climate. We really liked the look of it. That weekend, I went on a business trip, and when I came home, our lawn was gone! I thought, ‘What kind of weird practical joke is this?’ But when I asked my wife what had happened, she said she liked the garden so much, she decided to redo our yard. She did a beautiful job. I think it looks way better – like a Tuscan or Mediterranean landscape.

Lawns need a lot of water, so the Lewis Group only installs it where people will walk or children will play. Photo credit: Gilberto Taccari, Flickr Creative Commons

Lawns need a lot of water, so the Lewis Group only installs it where people will walk or children will play. Photo credit: Gilberto Taccari, Flickr Creative Commons

SCT: What has the Lewis Group of Companies done in the properties it manages?

RL: We’ve worked to eliminate or minimize turf in all our new developments. We only plant grass where people will walk or children will play, it’s no longer decorative. We work to select the right plants, ones that are water efficient. We don’t do exclusively native plants because there are a lot of beautiful plants from all over the world that use very little water.

We also make sure to put in appliances that use less water. That’s particularly important for our apartment homes, because it helps the renters save money on their bills.

We’ve changed the way we maintain properties as well. We ask employees to use brooms for sweeping sidewalks rather than hoses. We have 8,000 apartment homes, 30 shopping centers, and several planned communities, so we try to be among the leaders in the industry.

Water-efficient appliances save money as well as conserve water.

Water-efficient appliances save money as well as conserve water.

SCL: Why have you worked so hard to change the way you do business?

RL: Our reasons for doing these things are both altruistic and also in our self interest. It’s altruistic because I think it’s the right thing to do, but it’s in our self interest because we need a reliable water supply for the future of our business. Between climate change reducing our supply and California’s growing population creating more demand, we need to do something to ensure that stable supply so that we can continue to grow and we want to do our part to address the problem.

SCL: We’ve talked about how water is key to the building industry, but how does the building industry influence Southern California’s overall economy?

RL: The building industry has been a significant driver of the overall economy. It has a double whammy effect. During construction, we’re creating jobs, but after people buy homes there is a very predictable impact on the economy. When they buy homes, they will buy furniture, they will fix up the home a bit, plant trees, improve the landscape, and then a few years down the road they will do more repairs and improvements – all of this puts money into the economy.

Unfortunately, the business is cyclical and the housing industry magnifies the business cycle for good or bad. However, California is experiencing a growth in population, which requires a growth in housing.

Water, construction, and housing impact the wider economy. Credit Chris RubberDragon - Flickr Creative Commons

Water, construction, and housing impact the wider economy. Credit Chris RubberDragon – Flickr Creative Commons

SCT: In your opinion, how does water supply have in impact on the overall economy?

RL: The water industry has the potential for an enormous impact on the economy. There are water uses we don’t even think about where water is connected to jobs – especially in industry. And in the water industry itself, there is an aging workforce, so it is crucial they build a pipeline for people to enter those jobs as people retire. Real estate people know how crucial water is not only for our business, but for the economy as a whole.

SCT: Thank you so much for your time!

RL: It’s been a pleasure.

Entertainment Patio Concept at a Lewis property. Notice the water-smart landscaping.

Entertainment patio concept for a new a Lewis property. Notice the water-smart landscaping in the background.

Drought Busting Edible Garden

Real California Cuisine – with California Natives Plants

Have you ever wondered what our native plants taste like? You can find out by attending a Native Edibles workshop and tasting at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and by planting some beautiful edible natives in your own yard! One of the best ways to save water during our drought is to grow plants that thrive with less irrigation.

Western Elderberry

Photo Courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Antonio Sanchez, the nursery manager at the Gardens, teaches the class with an emphasis on fun and humor. He introduces you to his “A-List” of native edibles, which include plants that are attractive, tasty, easy to grow, and easy to find.

The “A-Listers”

When looking for these plants at nurseries, it’s important to use the scientific names to make sure that you are getting the same plants described below. Sometimes different plants have the same common name. Scientific names, on the other hand, act as bar codes so you don’t get anything mixed up.

Hummingbird sage tea

Salvia clevelandii and Hybrids – Cleveland Sage and Hybrids

Cleveland Sage is the main ingredient in the sage pesto recipe – it replaces basil found in pesto from Italy. It is very similar to the “Common Sage” found in the Mediterranean and can be used interchangeably. Southern California’s climate is very similar to that of the Mediterranean, so plants that are popular in Italy, Spain, and the South of France tend to do well here.

Cleveland Sage has beautiful purple flowers that will add color to your garden. Usually, you can water it deeply once or twice a month. Like lavender and rosemary, sage’s fragrance will be stronger if it’s watered less.

Single Leaf Onion

Photo Courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Allium unifolium – Single Leaf Onion

Single leaf onion is a bulb plant, but instead of resting in the winter like bulbs on the East Coast, this plant rests in the summer and grows in the winter. You can use it like you would chives, eat the bulbs, or even eat the flowers that show up in the spring. It is also an ingredient in the sage pesto recipe.

They can taste spicy or mild, depending on how much sun you give it. Plant single leaf onions in the sun for a spicy flavor and in the shade for a more mild taste.

Hummingbird sage tea

Salvia spathacea – Hummingbird Sage

Some plants only flower for a few weeks a year, but Hummingbird sage will gift you with flowers for 6-7 months (if you continue to remove dying blooms). It works well in a container. If you live near the ocean, give it full sun, if you live inland, partial shade is best. In addition to providing blooms half the year, it makes a lovely tea.

Vitis Rogers Red Grape

Photo Courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Vitis ‘Roger’s Red – Roger’s Red Wild Grape

Would you like to have beautiful red autumn color? Than Roger’s Red Grape is for you! It is a cross between a native grape and a domesticated grape from Sonoma County. You can train it on a trellis to grow against a wall. If you let it grow freely, it will look a bit like a shapeless shrub. It grows well in varying conditions, dealing well with sun vs. shade and lots of water vs. little water. It will need to be cut back every year.

The grapes have a strong flavor, like Concord grapes. If you cut off half of the grape clusters when they start forming, the plant will send all of its sugar into the remaining grapes, making them sweeter. The grapes do very well in jams and jellies. The leaves can be used for dolmas (grape leaves wrapped around rice and other fillers). They need to be cooked down for a substantial amount of time, though, because they are very tough.

Saturegia douglasii – Indian Mint

The strong minty flavor of this plant is similar to spearmint. It looks very good in a hanging basket and prefers partial shade. Use it for teas, ice cream, and as a garnish on deserts.

Barberry Preserves 2

Berberis species – Barberry species & Oregon Grapes

Barberry is a very large berry-producing shrub. The barberry bush produces a sweet yellow berry and the Oregon Grape bush produces a tart purple berry that is best served in preserves.

Miners Lettuce

Photo Courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Claytonia perfoliata – Miner’s Lettuce

Miner’s lettuce is a mild lettuce that has the same consistency as bib lettuce. Some farmer’s markets are now selling them. It’s best to plant from a seed and will live 2-3 months. The leaves are mild enough that you can use them in a salad.

Sambucus Mexicana – Western Elderberry

Western Elderberry is a native tree. The berries and flowers are edible, but the stems are poisonous, so be sure to remove them before eating the fruit of the tree. This is a great tree to have to attract wildlife to your garden. Elderberry can be made into juice, wine, and preserves.

Saltbush

Atriplex lentiformis – Saltbush

California has no native grain, but saltbush can be used as one. The plant itself is related to both quinoa and spinach and it’s a good salt substitute for people with high blood pressure. As for the plant itself, it can be grown as a hedge in your yard. The leaves are a grayish color.

Saltbush is easy to clean and use. Simply take the seeds off the plant (they grow in clusters) and soak them in water. You can toast them or grind them and put lemon on them. Like popcorn and French fries, saltbush needs to be eaten hot and fresh – it does not make for good leftovers.  Anthony has used them as dolma fillers with Roger’s Red grape leaves and said it was excellent. You can also use leaves from the middle of the bush – ones that don’t get much light – in a salad. The leaves have a very strong flavor, so it’s best to use it as part of a mixed salad rather than as the entire thing.

Want to Learn more About California Natives?

If you want to learn more about our native environment and about cool things to do with native plants, check out the website of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens, including the Calendar section. You may also purchase some of these plants at RSABG’s Grow Native Nursery – if you want a specific plant listed here, please call ahead to check availability.

If you’re looking for a twist on a 5k or 10k event, or simply want and chance to explore mountain trails in the wintertime, Snowshoe the Bear might just be for you. Every February, Southern California’s snowshoe event draws people out into mountain trails above Big Bear Lake.

Snowshoe the Bear aims to draw people up to trails during the winter. Photo courtesy of the Big Bear Valley Event Resource Office.

Snowshoe the Bear aims to draw people up to trails during the winter. Photo courtesy of the Big Bear Valley Event Resource Office.

First timers shouldn’t be intimidated – the Snowshoe the Bear is open to families, babies, dogs and rookies. “If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” says Karen Lundgren, founder of the event.

Experience SoCal’s Winter Wonderland:

Lundgren started Snowshoe the Bear six years ago because she noticed that a lot of people would hike in the summer, but very few would venture out in the winter. “I just wanted to get people out onto the trails and in the forest in the winter and share how beautiful it can be,” says Lundgren.

You never know what conditions Mother Nature will bring on race day. Photo courtesy of the Big Bear Valley Event Resource Office.

You never know what conditions Mother Nature will bring on race day. Photo courtesy of the Big Bear Valley Event Resource Office.

One of the challenges of holding a snowshoe event though, is that you never know what Mother Nature is going to bring. California’s drought has kept things pretty dry this year, but that’s not going to stop the fun. Lundgren, who has hiked Mount Everest and the Seven Summits, is up for anything, “We’ve had years with two feet of fresh powder and we’ve had a mud run in the rain – no matter what the weather’s like, everyone comes back with a big smile on their face.”

What Impact Does the Drought Have?

California’s drought has put a big dent in the snowpack on our mountains, both the Sierras and our local mountains. That’s important because most of the water we use everyday comes from those snowpacks. Big Bear, in particular, is part of the headwaters of the Santa Ana River’s watershed, which is one of the most used rivers in Southern California.

Last week, the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge  of high pressure that has blocked winter storms from coming into California shifted north toward Alaska, allowing two small storms into our region. Each dusted two inches of snow in Big Bear, but some high-temperature days have already melted them. Here’s to hoping that the ridge will allow a few more storms past (or will dissipate entirely).

Event Details:

This February 22nd, there will be a 5k and a 10k race, as well as a children’s race later in the day. Athlete Check In is from 7am – 9am. Both the 5k and the 10k start at 10 am on the corner of Pine Knot and Village Dive and head up to two different mountain trails. The kids’ race starts at noon. The day ends with a raffle, race awards, and hang out in Big Bear Village.  For complete information, visit the official website.

The tails give participants awesome views of Big Bear Lake. Photo courtesy of the Big Bear Valley Event Resource Office.

The tails give participants incredible views of Big Bear Lake. Photo courtesy of the Big Bear Valley Event Resource Office.

Registration and Rentals

Register for Snowshoe the Bear on their website. The 10K is $45 and the 5k is $25. You can rent snowshoes at any number of sports stores in the Village, and they highly recommend reserving a pair ahead of time.

Can’t Make It? Other Awesome Events in the Headwaters:

Snowshoe the Bear is a part of Open Air Big Bear , which hosts a number of athletic events that take advantage of the best Big Bear Lake has to offer. If you can’t quite make this event, check out their Facebook Page for Moonlit Hikes (with or without snowshoes, depending on the weather).

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