IWD water quality

Three months after April Fools’ Day, the Idyllwild Water District announced to customers, “Our water system recently exceeded a drinking water standard. Although this is not an emergency, as our customers, you have a right to know what you should do, what happened, and what we are doing to correct this situation.”

While the health issue was potential water contaminants, the community issue became, “When do we have a right to know?”

The problem was an excess of disinfectant by-products, which sounds like a harmless and technical subject. In reality, the chlorine needed to remove iron and manganese from IWD’s well waters created an excess of potentially dangerous by-products. It is likely the chlorine interacted with naturally occurring organic matter already in the water to produce these by-product chemicals.

The district and state, as well as federal environmental officials, have labeled these by-products — trihalomethanes (TTHM) and haloacetic acids (HAA) — as contaminants. Every level of government stressed that it did not constitute an immediate danger or cause for alarm.

The Federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention states “… there is not enough research to classify them as non-carcinogenic. There is inadequate epidemiological evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for all four compounds.”

Except for some Idyllwild customers, most people agreed there was a problem, but not an immediate emergency. But most everyone seemed surprised and taken aback at the length of time it took IWD to inform its customers.

IWD staff learned of the excess TTHM and HAA in the district’s water supply in September 2017. The formal announcement to customers came nine months later in July 2018.

President Dr. Charles “Chip” Schelly said that was fine, since IWD did not have a legal mandate to report it sooner. 

Schelly claimed he learned of the problem in June. Former General Manager Jack Hoagland said he mentioned it to the board in March or April; but the minutes of those meetings do not mention the chlorine by-product issue.

Another director said he learned of it in December 2017 and a third also said he learned of it last year when the district began using more water from the downtown wells as opposed to the Foster Lake wells.

In February, Hoagland told the board, “[Foster Lake] is very low but the wells are doing fine, and I’m very comfortable with water production,” according to the minutes of the Feb. 21 meeting.

In August, IWD submitted a report to the California Division of Drinking Water, a unit of the State Water Resources Control Board. This described the problem, which the state understood, since it had already issued a citation to the district in July to clean up the problem.

Hoagland recommended, and the IWD board agreed, to purchase a granulated carbon-activated filter to remove the organic compounds from the water, thus inhibiting the production of the TTHM and HAA. This equipment cost about $100,000. It will be installed in late January 2019.

During the board’s deliberation of the issue, Director David Hunt recommended that IWD reimburse customers who purchased filters to ensure safe and clean water consumption. However, his colleagues never agreed on a process.

Meanwhile, IWD has reduced its reliance on water from Foster Lake and increased production from the downtown wells. This reduces the use of water with high levels of organic compounds, Hoagland told the board.

Both directors Steven Kunkle and Hunt urged more flushing of the pipeline in the Pine Crest area. Kunkle also was an advocate for exploring and drilling additional wells to relieve the dependency on the Foster Lake wells where the organic material has accumulated.

Although the presence of the TTHMs and HAAs posed no immediate health problems and IWD is taking action to correct the problem, many customers were disappointed in how the board handled the issue; in particular, its unwillingness to keep the public informed.

“The public trust failed,” commented Vic Sirkin. “… No transparency! You hid behind the law. Some board members knew, and now you’ve lost public trust.”

Another speaker felt the board was impervious to the public’s concern and unwilling to admit it could have handled it differently. “And we deserve an apology!”

Water district consolidation

Consolidation, collaboration or cooperation of the three local water districts — Fern Valley, Idyllwild and Pine Cove — resurfaced as an issue during the IWD water rate debates. 2004 was the last time this issue arose with some public support on the Hill.

FVWD and PCWD went through their rate increase hearings without a whimper of seeking greater unity with the other two districts as a step to control costs. But during the IWD process, the subject rose again after more than a decade of quiescence.

In the context of justifying the IWD rate increase, Greg Henry of NBS, IWD’s rate consultant, explained that IWD needed a sufficient reserve balance in case of unexpected, major and expensive catastrophes.

“Smaller districts need to hold reserves. Bigger districts have more ability to spread risk,” he stated. With that statement, IWD’s customers saw a door that might open to a path toward lower rate increases.

In response, Dwight “Buzz” Holmes, Idyllwild resident and vice chair of the Idyllwild Arts Academy’s Board of Trustees, said, “If bigger has more ability to share risk, isn’t that an argument for consolidation? That’s the elephant in the room.”

Since there was not unanimity for rate increases in Fern Valley or Pine Cove, several IWD customers felt that the potential of combining two or all three districts might find support throughout the Hill.  

Former IWD General Manager Jack Hoagland told the board, “I’m not hearing from the boards in the other districts. There’s no interest in consolidation.”

But several IWD customers felt it was an option, which should be pursued because of its potential savings, and that the three districts are so close and share several water resources.

Holmes replied to Hoagland, “This is a 21st century solution.” 

At the June 20 board meeting, in response to a motion from Director Peter Szabadi, IWD President Dr. Charles “Chip” Schelly created an ad hoc subcommittee to gather input for potential consolidation of the San Jacinto Mountain water districts. Directors Les Gin and Szabadi, and Sue Nash, an IWD constituent, were appointed to the committee.

Despite the name and purpose, several people, including Szabadi, stressed that “consolidation” was not the goal; rather, IWD should seek to find paths that would improve and broaden cooperation among the three districts. He said, “If not consolidation, maybe cooperation. I’ll urge that we do some projects together.”

“Look for the best practices in Pine Cove, Fern Valley and Idyllwild. Maybe you could save a lot of money,” said Diedre Vail, a part-time Idyllwild resident from Walnut.

Supporting this view was Holmes, who encouraged the committee. “Why not look at what we can do and bring out the best management of all, not just IWD take over,” he said.

The subcommittee held its first meeting July 16. Pine Cove residents attended and were adamant and vehement in their comments and opinions of IWD. Essentially, they saw the effort as a means for IWD to supplant PCWD and secure its water supplies for Idyllwild.

For example, Nancy Borchers began her comments, “I don’t want Pine Cove to be taken over by Idyllwild. You’ve had decades of problems. Idyllwild is acting like school yard bullies.”

Next, the committee members attended the PCWD August meeting, only to be confronted again with rejection and suspicion. The PCWD board prepared and unanimously adopted a resolution stating its formal opposition to any consolidation.

The subcommittee met two more times without gaining any traction. At the September IWD board meeting, nearly 50 Pine Cove residents attended and again publicly expressed opposition to any further efforts to seek consolidation with IWD.

Szabadi and his committee colleagues stressed that greater cooperation among the districts was a more appropriate and beneficial goal. IWD Director David Hunt supported that concept, but advocated that a citizens group undertake the effort rather than an IWD subcommittee.

In 2004, the Citizens’ Committee on Unification formed and organized several community meetings. Residents from all of the districts attended the meetings and they did not all agree with the objective, but they spoke together. A facilitator was used and speakers from the county’s Local Area Formation Commission addressed the groups about time frames, roles and decision points in the consolidation, or technically, reorganization, process. 

While IWD has reached out again, this time the roots for consolidation were too shallow and not deep enough during this drought era.

Jazz in the Pines

Please do not become confused. The annual Idyllwild Jazz in the Pines festival will not occur in 2019. It will likely return, but in a different format, in 2020.

In the July 19 issue of the Town Crier, Pamela Jordan, president and head of school for the Idyllwild Arts Foundation, published a letter to the community in which, she announced, “In 2019, Idyllwild Arts will take a hiatus from Jazz in the Pines to reflect upon what we have heard and to re-imagine the festival.”

The 2018 Jazz in the Pines was the 25th version. It grew from one day and a few groups, to two full days, three stages, dozens of performers and a special dinner the Friday evening before the festival opened its gates.

John Newman, IAF chief operating officer and principal producer of Jazz in the Pines now, affirmed that a “brain trust” session has discussed the festival’s future. Besides Jordan and Music Director Marshall Hawkins, Harry Pickens, Bob Boss, Yve Evans, Evan Christopher and others have been involved.

Days of discussion about what the festival means preceded this moment. “It’s not going away,” Newman stated firmly. “It will be aligned with the mission of Idyllwild Arts.”

He added, “It is not simply how we teach music. It goes to keeping this American heritage — jazz — going into the future. We want to take it to another level. It’s not just a two-day event. Jazz in the Pines is an idea, a philosophy.”

So Newman promised, “The spirit of Jazz in the Pines is here and will prevail.” Its form and shape may change, but that is in the spirit of human evolution.

Mountain Disaster Preparedness

A disaster — the Cranston Fire — affected Idyllwild and Mountain Center. Some homes and structures were lost, and evacuation cleared those neighborhoods for several days, but no human lives were lost. 

Significant contributions to the town’s safety were fuelbreaks around town, drills and citizen efforts helping to prepare for this disaster and other future ones. While firefighters — federal, state and local — are constantly preparing for fires, most of the rest of local residents devote much less time to this preparation.

Fortunately, the exception is the Mountain Disaster Preparedness group. While it helped firefighters during the fire and organized the effort to re-populate the Hill, MDP works and prepares year round for the worse case.

During 2018, MDP held three major community meetings to help residents survive local emergencies. Each drew dozens of people, who learned how to handle emergency wounds and bleeding until first responders arrive on the scene, what Southern California Edison has done and was planning for the Hill, and finally, the options for purchasing a generator to be used during power outages.

“Stop the Bleed!” is not just a first responder’s directive. Since October 2015, the White House has encouraged citizens to understand how to slow or to stop bleeding in order to give victims time for first responders to apply more effective aid and get the victim to an emergency room. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a website on this topic.

In March, MDP organized a community meeting to share this information with Hill residents. On the night of the session, Town Hall was nearly full with people wanting to be prepared.

Explaining the purpose of the session, MDP President Mike Feyder said that stopping the bleeding should not await arrival of first responders. “The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Homeland Security Department and the American College of Surgeons have all been encouraging regular citizens to learn these techniques,” Feyder said.

The possibility of a natural disaster such as fire or earthquake is a constant concern for Hill residents. If one were to occur, first responders may have multiple calls or even have paths to residences blocked. So “Stop the Bleeding!” is another tool in a Hill resident’s preparation for worst cases, Feyder added.

In May, MDP invited a phalanx of SCE staff to discuss past and future plans to improve the delivery of electrical service to the Hill. Part of the motivation for this session was the planned outage in December 2017 due to a Santa Ana wind. Then in July, SCE turned off power during the first several days of the Cranston Fire.

“You never know what power means to you until you lose it. And it happens too frequently up here,” said Feyder, introducing the evening’s discussion. “It’s more than an inconvenience; for those with medical needs, it can be an emergency.”

The audience learned that SCE has upgraded the four kilovolt electric lines with 12 kV lines, which provide better reliability and carry more capacity. This should reduce the length of outages. Other work includes installing metal poles, and more and stronger cross bars to decrease the probability that fallen branches will break wires.

In 2019, we can expect SCE to begin work improving and strengthening the 14 miles of line bringing power from Valle Vista to the Idyllwild substation. 

After two long-planned outages, and the possibility of more in the future, MDP held a community meeting to discuss the benefits and options of buying a generator to supply temporary power during these outages.

Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz said at the beginning of the November meeting, “The new norm in the mountains is for SCE to turn off our power for safety purposes. Outages are here to stay for all of our safety.”

Town Hall again filled with people wanting to learn more about the pros and cons of generators. MDP invited two local and licensed Hill electricians, Jim Manietta and David Schnalzer, as speakers. They discussed the differences between a portable and a whole-house generator — the fuel options, the permit requirements and issues involving their use, such as connection to panels and prevention of send power back into the system.

Before buying a generator, Schnalzer and Manietta stressed the resident must decide which appliances, such as refrigerator, microwave, lights, television, clothes dryer, air conditioning or others, they want to keep operational during the power outage. The more appliances to be used, the more power one needs, and this determines the size of the generator that will need to be installed.

Describing the differences between a portable and a whole-house generator, Schnalzer said, “A whole-house generator needs less maintenance, but must be exercised regularly; for example, monthly, and they tend to be safer.” Of course, these tend to be larger and their cost is greater than most portable generators, he emphasized.

Disasters will occur and re-occur. The Cranston Fire was just five years after the Mountain Fire. But MDP is trying to help local residents be prepared for emergencies on the Hill.


Politics was a major conversation topic throughout 2018. From Washington, D.C. to Sacramento, right and left had interminable and often uninterruptible debates on subjects from healthcare and immigration to North Korea and Russia.

While the Hill is not immune to national and state concerns, the vitriol doesn’t seem to be flavoring the nature of county and local politics.

This year was a California gubernatorial election and with many other statewide races and 11 propositions (just in November), the results were seldom a surprise, such as the presidential election was in 2016.

However, Riverside County and the Hill did have some notable election differences. 

Hill residents in precincts from Pine Cove through Garner Valley voted in a much greater proportion than throughout the state and county. Here, the voter turnout was about 80 percent in each precinct. That is about one-third greater than the rest of Riverside County or California.

The great interest in the election here did produce different results, indicating significantly different opinions among Hill denizens. Garner Valley voters were much more likely to favor the Republican candidates in state races than Idyllwild or Pine Cove voters.

For example, Idyllwild, Pine Cove and Mountain Center all cast a majority of their votes for Gavin Newsom, the Democrat and winner. His support in these three precincts was just less than 60 percent. But nearly three-quarters of Garner Valley voters favored Republican John Cox.

A similar pattern was evident for secretary of state, attorney general, controller and treasurer races.

In the race for state Senate, Jeff Stone was re-elected, but the outcome was much closer than his 2014 race. And the Hill’s votes were as similarly partisan as in the statewide offices. Joy Silver, the Democratic challenge, secured a majority of Idyllwild and a smaller majority in Pine Cove, while Garner Valley voters overwhelming preferred Stone, giving him 71.5 percent.

The same was true in the Congressional District 36 race. Incumbent Democrat Dr. Raul Ruiz easily garnered a majority of Idyllwild, Pine Cove and Mountain Center. His Republican opponent Kimberlin Brown Pelzer dominated in Garner Valley. She garnered nearly two-thirds of votes cast.

In the nonpartisan race for Riverside County sheriff, a majority of Hill voters in all the precincts agreed to replace incumbent Stan Sniff with challenger Lt. Chad Bianco.

In local elections, incumbents for the Hemet Unified School District, Ross Valenzuela and Bob Davis, were the victors. 

The same was true for the Idyllwild Fire Protection District commission election. The three incumbents — Rhonda Andrewson, Ralph Hoetger and Henry Sawicki —were all winners.