When Sarmed Badri makes coffee in his store, he only uses bottled water.

He refuses to drink tap water during his long shifts at Oak Shores Liquor & Grocery in Lake Morena Village, and he won’t let his customers drink it either. Since the Iraqi native bought the store in East County in 2008, he’s taken a gallon of water from its shelves every other day, at a cost of $25 a month.

“I don’t even give it out when customers ask for a glass from the faucet,” he said. “I don’t want that liability, to be responsible for them.”

Few ever ask. Residents throughout the rural area near Morena Reservoir said they also buy their water bottled. Five miles down the road in Campo, Maria Amaya, owner of Angelo’s Beauty Salon, is so afraid of the water at work that she lugs plastic jugs of water from her home.

“They say it’s drinkable, but I don’t drink it,” she said. “I’ve just heard too much, so I don’t even want to try it.”

Despite halting efforts to improve water quality affected by pollution in rural areas like Campo and Lake Morena Village, residents are still fearful. And with reason: A state law passed in 2000 that requires better regulation of septic systems, a major source of the water contamination, has yet to be implemented.

A decade after the first attempts to solve these water pollution problems, the solution still looks a lot like the water that runs from Badri’s tap: murky.

Water contamination isn’t isolated to Lake Morena Village and Campo. Thirty of the 75 water systems that serve every city, home and business in San Diego County have had at least one problem since 1998, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports. But none has had more than Lake Morena Oak Shores Mutual Water Co., a nonprofit whose water system serves about 700 people.

Between 1998 and 2007, the company reported 12 different health violations for exceeding state and federally prescribed limits for nitrates and coliform bacteria. Nitrates, which are found in fertilizer and human and animal waste, can interfere with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, especially in the elderly and young children. Coliform bacteria signal the possible presence of human or animal feces, which can carry hepatitis A, salmonella, poliovirus, rotavirus or E. coli.

Although none of those bugs have been found in Lake Morena Village’s water, its residents say they receive “boil water” alerts once or twice a year after coliform violations. Sharon Ehrlich, a village resident, said that’s done little to build her trust. Even the company warns pregnant women, babies, the elderly and sick to avoid drinking its water.

What Lurks in the Groundwater

Drive through the winding roads around Lake Morena Village and one possible contamination source is easy to see. Many houses have fenced-in horses loitering on their front lawns. Nitrates and coliform bacteria in the waste from these horses, as well as cattle and other animals, can seep into the groundwater supply, said Marylynn Yates, an environmental microbiology professor at the University of California, Riverside.

A 2002 county assessment of the water sources for Lake Morena Oak Shores points to another less visible cause: septic systems. The assessment found that the village’s water is most vulnerable to contamination from the area’s high density of septic systems — more than one per acre.

In rural areas like Lake Morena Village, residents use septic systems because their houses are spaced far apart, making a community sewer system too expensive. When someone with a septic system flushes the toilet or pours water down the drain, the water flows into a large tank — typically holding about 1,000 gallons — buried in the yard. Solids sink to the bottom, leaving cleaner water to flow out into a series of perforated pipes, where it is slowly absorbed and filtered by the ground’s soil. Contaminated water can sometimes seep into the groundwater below.

“When regulations for septic tanks were first set up, they were more meant to ensure that the wastewater wouldn’t pond on the surface,” Yates said. “They weren’t as concerned with groundwater contamination as they are today.”

The State Water Resources Control Board, the state agency responsible for enforcing clean water laws, acknowledges that septic systems contribute to groundwater pollution. But it hasn’t yet done anything to regulate them. The state passed a law requiring the water board to create septic system regulations in 2000.

Ten years later, those rules have still not been adopted.

After spending years researching and surveying septic systems’ contribution to groundwater and drinking well contamination, the water board in 2008 proposed making all 1.2 million California septic system owners regularly inspect their systems and retrofit failing systems within 600 feet of a polluted surface water supply. Although the state estimates that only 7,700 homes and businesses statewide meet this 600-foot requirement, public opposition was so fierce that the board backed off.

“Can you imagine anything more personal than telling people what do with their sewage? I think that explains why people were so upset,” said Dave Clegern, the spokesman for the water board.

The board is now revising its proposal, which it will present again sometime after March. Clegern declined to comment on its specifics.

Though the state law was meant to protect the water in rural areas like Lake Morena Village, little improvement would’ve been made even if the water board’s original proposals had passed.

Septic owners like Amaya would have had to inspect their systems every five years, which costs about $325. But the retrofit requirement for failing systems would have cost $45,000 and only have applied to 200 houses in San Diego County, all around Rainbow Creek, near Fallbrook. Amaya said she adamantly opposed the inspection requirement.

“That’s crazy,” Amaya said. “I’ve been here 21 years and I’ve never had a problem in all that time. Now they’re making us pay for something we haven’t had to do in so long.”

‘You Need to be Careful’

While septic systems do contribute to the village’s contamination problem,

Mark McPherson, the head of San Diego County’s land and water quality division, said its aging infrastructure, including leaking pipes and storage tanks, is also to blame. He said holes in its network of pipes can allow water to be sucked in from the ground. And if that water contains nitrates or coliform, which is more likely in areas with lots of septic systems, contamination can easily occur.

Although McPherson said fixing infrastructure problems can be costly for small water systems, which often only serve a few hundred customers, the Lake Morena Oak Shores water company has an unusual fundraising advantage. In 2005, it began a $2.6 million system upgrade using federal funds it secured by designating the village as a colonia, an area within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border eligible for grants from state and federal agencies.

When the project is finished in the next two months, half of the water system’s old metal pipelines will have been replaced with new plastic ones, which should make the water safer, said James Owens, the engineering manager for Nolte Associates, the company overseeing the project.

But Karen Russell, former president of Lake Morena Oak Shores’ board of directors and now its part-time manager, said the water won’t be completely safe until the company raises an additional $250,000 for a system that removes nitrates from the water. She said the company recommends that people who are sick, elderly, very young or pregnant avoid drinking the water.

“In a rural area like this, by the time you get a notice out, people are already drinking the water,” she said, “so we want to keep them aware all the time that if you have health problems, you need to be careful.”

But even for healthy residents like Badri, the store owner, the warning is enough dissuasion. And although he’s aware of the infrastructure improvements, he remains unmoved.

“They say there’s a new pipeline, and that they’re changing the wells, so it’s supposed to be OK, but I still don’t want to drink the water,” he said. “I would have to see if it looks clear, like the water back in the city, and then maybe I’ll drink it.”

In the meantime, Badri and many other Lake Morena Village residents will continue to buy their water bottled.

Claire Trageser is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at claire.trageser@gmail.com.

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