By Zev Blumenfeld
A study conducted by a group of scientists and students at California State University, San Bernardino, concluded that Little Bear Creek — a headwater stream flowing into Lake Arrowhead — exceeded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recreational standards for E. coli and enterococcus.
Led by Assistant Professor Dr. Jennifer Alford, the group collected and tested water samples for contaminants. They aimed to find out if water met regulatory standards and understand how the land and environment influenced characteristics within tributary headwater streams entering Lake Arrowhead.
From August 2019 to August 2020, the group collected water samples from four locations in the Lake Arrowhead communities — Willow Creek, Orchard Creek and two sites along Little Bear Creek.
The team operated on a bi-weekly basis during the drier summer months since fewer changes occurred without precipitation. During rainfall and snowmelt conditions, the group collected weekly samples, aiming to record data before and after precipitation events.
“Usually, after rain events, you see the bacterial counts decrease dramatically, especially after a prolonged dry period. The first inch of rain or so is going to wash everything out,” said Jose Mora, an environmental chemist and San Bernardino University alum working with the group.
Water samples were collected in 100 ml high-density polyethylene bottles, placed immediately on ice and transported to a lab. At the lab, the group added a reagent — a compound that attaches to the actual contaminant and changes color to indicate the presence of the contaminant.
The group tested for nitrate, ammonium, total coliform, E. coli and enterococcus.
E. coli tests at the first Little Bear Creek site averaged 302.46 cfu/100ml, more than two times the EPA standard. The average of all testing performed at the second Little Bear Creek site also exceeded the EPA standard for E. coli and enterococcus.
Dr. Alford surmised that the raised levels were likely attributable to sewer or septic leaks near Daley Canyon Road.
The group summarized their findings in the Lake Arrowhead Tributary Water Quality Community Report. The report requests watershed management to consider the effect of the San Bernardino Rimforest Storm Drain Project — a county project set to divert water flow away from Highway 18 and into Little Bear Creek.
“Based on peer-reviewed literature, the approved stormwater project, moving water from impervious surfaces in Rimforest under Highway 18 and directly into Little Bear Creek, will result in increases in pollution concentrations and eroded soils into this headwater tributary system and downstream, eventually entering Lake Arrowhead,” the report stated.
Polluted runoff, like that found in the group’s testing, flows more readily into bodies of water the more impervious surfaces exist in the community — surfaces like the 311-space parking lot set to be paved in Rimforest.
FROM THE MOUNTAINS TO THE DESERT
On Oct. 20, Janice Rutherford and her fellow San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved the development of a 13.6-acre church campus in Rimforest. Church of the Woods, an evangelical church currently located on the north side of Lake Arrowhead, received permission to build the campus which — according to the county-mandated environmental impact report (EIR) — includes a 311-space parking lot.
“[The] on-site flows contained within the natural drainage course exit through the center of the Project site,” the EIR states about the Church of the Woods project. It continues, recognizing that the perennial stream located on the development site is the headwaters of Little Bear Creek.
Runoff flows from the site into Little Bear Creek, yet the county deemed these findings insignificant. Within the EIR, they cited the EPA’s CWA Section 303(d) List, stated on the agency’s website as “…the list of impaired and threatened waters that have been identified and reported to EPA.”
According to the EIR, neither Little Bear Creek nor Lake Arrowhead was identified as an impaired waterbody.
A given waterbody receives the “impaired” label through tests similar to Dr. Alford’s. Those results may be reported to the EPA by the State Water Control Board.
The State Water Control Board’s 303(d) list does not mention any testing done on Little Bear Creek, positive or negative.
It does, however, mention Lake Arrowhead — 12 out of 15 samples exceeded the EPA criterion for mercury.
These effects may eventually extend beyond the Lake Arrowhead community.
Little Bear Creek flows into Lake Arrowhead which, in turn, drains into two creeks feeding Deep Creek. Deep Creek, an area with many fishing and swimming locations, feeds the Mojave River — a body of water coined by the Mojave Water Agency as “the lifeblood of the desert.”
“The local water source for the High Desert is runoff from the local mountain watersheds,” the water agency states on its website.
Mora and Dr. Alford voiced concern about the impact more development would have on the watershed without stormwater better management practices (BMPs). These practices could include regularly maintained grass swales or bioretention basins — the keywords being “regularly maintained.”
Additionally, though ammonium, nitrate and total coliform did not exceed standards on average in Little Bear Creek, they exceeded regulatory standards in multiple tests across all three sites.
“Too many nitrates in drinking water will deplete the oxygen in your blood, affecting typhoid and brain development in children,” Mora said.
WHAT CAN THE COMMUNITY DO?
While increased runoff into these streams poses a health risk, Dr. Alford also stressed the economic risk. She urged people to be conscientious about how they may be contributing to potential water quality problems.
“We’re not trying to wag the finger at anyone because that’s not helpful. We’re trying to help the community understand what activities are contributing to various changes in water quality and how we can alter behaviors and activities to protect our community,” she said.
Reporting septic or sewer leaks can help reduce potential harm.
“If you detect septic or sewer leaks on their property, report it. I think a lot of people are wary of doing that because they think it might result in a large-scale cost,” Dr. Alford continued.
She hopes there may be a method for people who report problems to get financial assistance.
“Water agencies need to establish a rapport with the community that enables trust to be built and ensure that it won’t be an economic hardship if an individual does report something,” she said.
But reporting the problem is only half of the equation.
At press time, Dr. Alford had shared her results with both the Arrowhead Lake Association and Lake Arrowhead Community Services District (LACSD). She said LACSD representatives “punted,” saying that Little Bear Creek was outside of their jurisdiction.
Mora recalled his time working at a water agency in Rancho Cucamonga and noticing how infrequently they conducted tests.
“They don’t worry until something occurs,” Mora said. “But it’s cheaper to avoid the problem than deal with it after it’s become a problem.”
If the problem continues unmitigated, worsening effects will be seen, not just in streams but in Lake Arrowhead itself, and this economic impact may be overlooked by those who believe water testing is solely a health concern.
“Our community is reliant on people coming here and spending money,” Dr. Alford said. She cautioned that neglecting mountain streams will deter tourism.
“Silverwood Lake is a great example. When that’s not looking so [clean], their visitation rates are down. We need to be concerned about this over the long run. If we can’t get these headwater streams and watersheds flowing healthy, then we can’t have an expectation that water quality within lakes is going to remain healthy,” she said.
Swimming in water with high levels of E. coli can result in stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and low-grade fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What we’re trying to establish is a baseline,” Dr. Alford said. “All we can do is test as frequently as we can, get as much data as we can and try to get people to understand over time what is happening and the trends. There are expectations of naturally what should be occurring and, when anything deviates from that, then that should be a call for concern.”