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Agua Dulce – A study in LA County water

Donna Saufley
Donna Saufley

Hiker Heaven, or The Saufley’s is one of the most amazing, hospitable places a hiker could hope to come across.  Walking into Agua Dulce from Vasquez Rocks, with their unique geology and red tones set against an azure blue sky, it is hard to believe this is also LA County – the most densely populated county in the state.

Upon coming through the gate, there are hiker resupply boxes that have just been delivered waiting to be put on shelves alphabetically in the garage.  There is a laundry station complete with stain treatment, laundry bags, and loaner clothes categorized by gender and type.  Next to this is the garage where one gets oriented – sign up for showers, select a cot or set up your tent, across the way you can use the internet, loaner bikes for the 1.6 mile ride into town are down near the horse stables, and the one rule – please don’t dig a cat-hole in the yard – use the port-a-potties.  There are chairs and tables, a small lawn, tubs and Epsom salts for soaking tired feet, a fire ring that says not to use it in high wind, movies to watch, and a small kitchen shared by hikers.  iPod, a gentleman who volunteers to come out and drive a 15 person van for the season will take you to REI, just sign up. IMG_0557

Donations of $20/day help the trail angels break even with paying for water, power, laundry detergent, port-a-poties, etc., and donations are also needed for the van rental, gas, and insurance.  I am sure hiker donations do not cover all of the costs, so if you are moved by this description, check them out and donate!

This place with the sweet sounding name, Agua Dulce, or Sweet Water is tiny, but has everything a hiker could want – a full grocery store, delicious food at the Sweet Water Cafe, Pizzeria or Maria Bonita Mexican restaurant, not to mention a hardware store and a liquor store.  There are many horses in evidence along the roadways, and there is a water story here that wouldn’t jump out at you, unless you asked.

Every other day, a truck delivers hundreds of gallons of water to the Saufleys.  Unless one asks, Donna Saufley makes no mention of the water situation, happily doing laundry and offering clean towels for showers to everyone who shows up.  There are no conserve water signs in evidence, though any hiker who has survived on 4-6 liters a day through the desert to get there knows how precious water sources are.

Maverick crossing a small spring before the fire station.
Maverick crossing a small spring before the fire station.

In this landscape where fire is much more a feature of the landscape than any other element, water resources are precious.  LA county has 9.9 million people, and would rank as 8th among state populations if it were its own state.  Anyone familiar with the UU Justice Ministry’s Water Justice Road Trips of the past several years knows that California expends more energy shipping water south over the mountains than the entire state of Oregon uses.  Having walked along the dry Angeles Crest, it seems totally amazing that so many people can survive in this water-poor area caught between the Mojave Desert and the salty Pacific.  Donna Saufley explained the challenges of a living in a rural enclave in this most populous county – the area is ripe for development, except that it survives on well water.  People who love their rural life complete with horses don’t want to become another bedroom community for Los Angeles.  The tiny town council -a non-profit entity elected by 53 voters in the last election – has its work cut out for it in dealing with a huge state bureaucracy, and regulations for large water municipalities and consumers.   A little bit of digging the web turned up a letter from the Association of Rural Town Councils addressing hauled water concerns of 88,000 people in LA County.  Sometimes the well water is not sufficient the whole year, or in the case of Saufley’s – not sufficient for their seasonal influxes of hikers (Northbound in the Spring, Southbound later in the summer).  Donna described a well sufficiency test that required a homeowner to pump 3 liters a minute from their well over a period of 24 hours to demonstrate that there is enough water – which could easily deplete the well significantly.  A silly test in a dry rural area.  There is even a Hauled Water Task Force who came up with a list of concerns in this region.

Not only is hauled water a fact of life, but also all the hikers have taken their toll on the Saufley’s septic system, so several port-a-potties sit down by the stables while their system takes a rest and will hopefully recover.

Having crossed the Santa Clara River in a simple hop when leaving the KOA campground in Soledad Canyon near Acton, “one of the largest river systems along the Southern Coast of California,” and met with activist, Lynne Plambeck who wants to maintain the environmental integrity of the river, I was intrigued to receive more texture to this water story.

Lynne Plambeck explains a huge housing development - Tejon Ranch.
Lynne Plambeck explains a huge housing development – Tejon Ranch.

I wish I had all the answers to California’s water questions, but the only answer I have now is to educate ourselves with these stories, to connect with the human, and other lives that rely on this resource, and to know it will take all of us contributing our stories, knowledge, and empathy to put together the giant puzzle that will make sufficient, quality water available to all.  We have yet to see how the Human Right to Water law will play out in this context, I know I will be watching and listening to the good people who make it possible to hike through one of the harshest desert landscapes I have encountered.

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