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Veto May Take the ‘Natural’ Out of Hot Springs

Times Staff Writer

Since time immemorial, superheated steam has risen through the mantle of the Earth, collecting sulfur and other minerals and condensing into water that bubbles to the surface in a lush crease of California’s coastal range.

Patwin Indians were among the first to seek out the hot springs -- known then, it is believed, as Yawisel, today as Wilbur Hot Springs. They came for the waters’ presumed powers to heal and rejuvenate, as did Spanish explorers, stagecoach drivers, backpackers, yogis, nudists, celebrities and folks of every ilk.

Now, seeking to ensure that those who visit the springs for their health don’t get sick or sicker, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has in effect ordered that Wilbur, and perhaps dozens of other hot spring retreats, be treated like a public swimming pool full of children with small bladders.

Last week, the governor vetoed a bill, SB 1492, by state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) that would have exempted such sites from pool and spa regulations. In doing so, the governor agreed with Colusa County health officials, who say the ancient hot springs are in need of some modern chemical treatment.

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The notion of dumping chlorine or other chemicals into spring water drives Wilbur owner Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist, to say things like this:

“Longitudinal clinical observation over time, plus practical business observation -- namely, no lawsuits -- clearly indicates that these waters do not present any danger to the people that sit in them.”

Kevin Backus is Colusa County’s interim director of environmental health. The notion of not spiking the waters with cleansing agents prompts him to employ some scientific terminology as well: “We found fecal E. coli.”

That’s a bacterium from intestinal tracts.

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No one suggests that the waters have made anyone sick, but Backus said the E. coli was found in some of Wilbur’s soaking pools during testing in 2001.

Two and a half hours north of San Francisco, 22 miles from the nearest town, Wilbur Hot Springs is an outpost for seekers of solitude and sulfurous waters. Its small hotel was built in 1865 and until the 1990s had no electricity. It is now entirely solar-powered.

The water at Wilbur is collected as it flows from the ground and cooled from its 140-degree surface temperature before being directed into a series of concrete-lined baths that decrease in temperature from 112 degrees to 98.

In recent years -- it’s not clear precisely when -- county health inspectors decided that the baths at Wilbur were essentially the same as really hot swimming pools or really big hot tubs, and thus governed by a prodigious body of state law that lays out precisely how the water must be treated to ensure safety.

Treating the water, Miller and others at Wilbur quickly realized, presented at least two problems.

First, about 30,000 gallons of water come from the spring every day, pass through the resort’s tubs and flow into Sulfur Creek. Continuously treating the water would be expensive and difficult, perhaps impossible, they argue, and the chemicals would then flow into the creek.

Second, one of the primary reasons people drive hours to a natural spring is because it’s a natural spring, untainted and, many believe, filled with powers of healing and relaxation.

But some thermal waters elsewhere are treated.

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At Grover Hot Springs State Park, near South Lake Tahoe, workers have been treating the pools with chlorine and bromine since at least the 1980s, head lifeguard Hope Castro said.

“I’ve been in the pool with chemicals in it and without chemicals, and there’s not much difference,” Castro said.

Water samples can be quickly scooped up in a beaker, and their contents broken down into parts per million. But less empirical data are more difficult to quantify or legislate -- such as the apparent comfort Wilbur’s water has provided to thousands of recovering drug addicts during retreats, as well as a calm for workaholic urbanites.

Then there’s the “silky” smoothness of the water that assistant manager Meg Solaegui says she’s found nowhere else. How does one measure that?

Grover and Wilbur are on nearly opposite ends of the mineral spring spectrum. Grover attracts upward of 500 bathers a day, many of them happy splashing children. Wilbur is the kind of woodsy place where visitors frequently find themselves alone in a clothing-optional pool.

For connoisseurs, the only thing more soothing than an hour in the pools at a place like Wilbur is a solo dip in a remote and unimproved spring.

In his veto message, on which Schwarzenegger’s staff declined to elaborate, the governor said local officials should decide what bodies of water are covered by the state’s Public Swimming Pool Safety Act.

Now that the bill has been vetoed, it’s up to Colusa County officials to decide whether they will compel Wilbur to comply with that law.

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Critics of Schwarzenegger’s veto -- noting that the bill passed through the Legislature without opposition -- argue that using the governor’s logic, a spring where rocks have been moved to help pool the water might constitute a public hot tub, subject to sundry rules.

Bob Don Burns, a veteran Sacramento lobbyist for the pool and spa industry, which in California is subject to perhaps the nation’s strictest laws, sided with the skinny-dippers.

“You don’t chlorinate rivers people swim in,” Burns said. At Wilbur, “the water moves in and the water moves out. If this is the kind of scholarship that’s going to be applied to signatures and vetoes, we’re in for some interesting times.”


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