As snowmelt seeps into the rugged mountains around Idyllwild, residents of the rural hamlet are battling to decide the best use of its pristine alpine springs: commerce or conservation.
Two private water companies are seeking permits from Riverside County to extract and export water for bottling, arguing that they hold legal rights to the water and are providing a vital product to drought-stricken California.
"I think that people who find a clean, safe, healthy water source in California should be given a medal," said Paul Black, chief executive officer of Idyllwild Mountain Spring Water Works Inc., which is seeking one of the permits and has been selling spring water from its well near Idyllwild for several years. But local critics say these water-exporting operations would siphon off some of the state's scarcest supplies, exacerbating a five-year drought that has desiccated trees throughout the forest and forced stringent water restrictions on residents. Draining any more water off the mountain would endanger the community's wildlife and way of life, they argue.
"It is ridiculous to believe that 35 million people in California can sip from alpine springs without impact or consequence," said Chuck Stroud, a steering committee member of the local Mountain Resources Conservancy, which opposes water exporting.
The county planning commission will consider on Wednesday Black's application for a conditional-use permit and a zoning change that would bring his operation into compliance with local ordinances.
A second company, the similarly named Mountain Spring Water, has applied for permits to extract water from two springs above Garner Valley, southeast of Idyllwild.
Black's operation became the source of community controversy two years ago after residents noticed tankers loading water at his turnout in Pine Cove, northwest of Idyllwild.
They worried that the operation would deplete the community's aquifer, which flows through cracks and joints in the bedrock, and could drain water that would otherwise flow downstream to nearby Lily Creek, home to the southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered songbird.
Although local water district officials have dismissed concerns that Black's well diminishes their water supplies, members of the Mountain Resources Conservancy protested his operation in June.
Demonstrators even enlisted a San Francisco-based law firm to contest Mountain Spring Water Works' operations. The law firm alleges that Black's well taps not a stationary groundwater pocket, but rather a stream that runs beneath Lily Creek. In that case, they say, Black would need a state permit to remove the water.
The State Water Resources Control Board investigated that claim and expects to decide the issue in coming months, said Charles NeSmith, an engineering geologist.
Black previously received a citation from the Riverside County code enforcement department stating his operation did not have proper permits or zoning.
He then applied for a conditional-use permit for his well and two 6,000-gallon tanks, and requested changing his property from a residential zone to a commercial parcel that allows water extraction.
In the meantime, opposing sides float wildly differing facts. Black says he extracts about 10,000 gallons -- less than two truckloads -- of water a day. The Mountain Resources Conservancy says he is pumping twice that much.
Wayne Harrison, chief engineering geologist for Riverside County, said it's unclear whether Black is removing water only from a horizontal well -- drilled into a hillside -- or also is pumping from a vertical well, which could more severely disrupt the water table. Meanwhile, Mountain Spring Water in Garner Valley has proposed a comparable water export, hoping to tap two water outlets above the valley: Cedar and Strawberry springs.
The company has asked the county for permission to install two 6,900-gallon tanks, a pipeline and a truck turnout to extract as much as 44,000 gallons per day, and has produced documents stating the operation would cause no environmental harm.
But neighbors, state wildlife officials and environmentalists disagree and flooded a supervisors' hearing this month, contending that the project could disrupt water supplies to neighbors, including the nearby Mountain Zen Center; damage access roads; and harm threatened or sensitive species such as the southern rubber boa, San Bernardino mountain kingsnake, large-blotched salamander and two-striped garter snake.
Critics of water exportation point to the hillside above a wide, wooded canyon dotted with reddened pines ravaged by bark beetle infestation and drought. It's evidence, they say, that the area has no water to spare.
Given the wide variation in expert opinion on the two projects, Riverside County Senior Planner David Mares said it's likely that both will require full environmental impact reports.
These would be lengthy and exhaustive documents that detail the projects' potential effects and ways to mitigate them. But even given such a review, some critics and observers believe that taking water off a drought-parched mountain is a losing proposition.
Rainfall for the previous four years has dropped to about half the average of 27 inches, dwindling to a mere 10 inches last water year, which is measured from July 1. Water districts cracked down with the most severe restrictions, which allowed no irrigation, and residents began shortening showers and limiting laundry loads to avoid high fees for overuse.
Although rainfall this water year is near normal at about 20 inches and water districts have loosened restrictions slightly, the drought will not be declared over unless rainfall for the entire year increases.
In that climate, Harrison said, trucking water downhill will be "an extreme uphill climb."