Darwin residents ferry Crystal Geyser water to town while system is offline

After hauling 292 gallons of Crystal Geyser bottled water from the Olancha bottling plant, Darwin resident Max Rosan parks his water-carrying 1974 International Harvester truck at the Darwin Post Office so residents can come get treated drinking water. The small town is working with the state to bring its drinking water system back online after an “emergency” two years ago forced the water plant to only deliver untreated water to residents.

The loading dock at the Crystal Geyser bottling plant in Olancha is usually full of semi-tractor trucks and trailers being loaded with pallet after pallet of the bottled spring water. But over the past two years, a different crew of drivers arriving in an assortment of pickups has also been pulling up to the plant to take on a load of water.

Most recently, a vintage 1964 International Harvester, 4-wheel-drive, three-quarter ton truck was backed into the dock and taking on water. Literally.

The driver of the pickup was Max Rosan, a resident of Dawin. He was at Crystal Geyser taking his turn to bring 292 gallon jugs of Crystal Geyser water back to Darwin. Being a retired Los Angeles Department of Water and Power mechanic and manager who last worked out of the Owens Dry Lake facility, Rosan detailed just how much his trusty old truck was hauling in a Facebook post.

The pallet of water contains 73 gallon jugs per layer, and there are four layers, for a total of 292 gallons. At 8.3 pounds per gallon, that means the 1964 rig will haul “2,435 pounds, plus the pallet” on the 35 mile trip back to Darwin.

Which begs the question: Why are Rosan and his fellow Darwinites hauling water to Darwin?

Granted, Darwin is a high-desert town on the edge of Death Valley National Park, so it’s naturally “dry,” so to speak. But it started its life as a booming mining town and maintained that status, and its population, for years more than other desert mining towns. Today, the town is home to about 50 hearty souls who bask in the isolation, artistic bent of many residents, and the unique, unquestioned sense of community and outsized volunteerism, symbolized by neighbors helping neighbors that are trademarks of the little outpost.

That ability and willingness of individuals to work for the common good is why Rosan and other Darwin folks have been making the 70-mile round trip from Darwin to Crystal Geyser for two years so everyone can have safe, treated drinking water.

Yes, they are making that drive because Darwin does not have safe drinking water, and hasn’t for about the past two years.

The problem is that the town water treatment system has been offline for those two years due to a leak in the tank holding the raw, spring water, which has sidelined the system’s chlorination process.

That drinking water outage has persisted even though the state Water Resources Control Board, which built the water system and tanks, has taken responsibility for fixing the problems that are stopping the flow of treated water into Darwin homes. The agency declared an “emergency” in Darwin two years ago. As Rosan understated, “it’s been a slow, uphill thing.”

Two years with no drinking water. Let that soak in.

Rosan explained that the town does have its own source of mountain spring water. It’s a steady spring about seven miles from Dawin in the Coso Mountains.

That explains why the town is not totally high and dry. The system was designed to allow the spring water to flow into the town’s water pipes. So there is water for swamp coolers, plants, animals and other uses. But not for drinking. The town has been under a boil water order for about two years.

That led to the town’s four person, volunteer Darwin Community Services District board (Rosan is a board member) to arrange with Crystal Geyser for the drinking water at no charge. “But we have to fetch it,” noted Rosan, thus the trips to the bottling plant.

“We are very fortunate that Crystal Geyser has been so generous to provide us with their bottled drinking water,” Rosan wrote. “Every time I go there to fetch the water, I clasp my hands together and take a bow, and let them know how grateful we are for their generosity.”

Inyo County and the state, however, have been less generous. The repairs and other work to the raw water tank and chlorination system are estimated to cost about $310,000. And the service district is in communication with the state agency. But there is a snag.

The state is mandating that the Darwin water system has to have a certified water plant operator before state funds can be allocated to help fix the water plant.

“The bureaucratic irony here is that the state is requiring us to have an operator, under penalty of citation and fine, when there is no plant to operate … go figure,” Rosan wrote. He continued that Inyo County doesn’t take responsibility for operating any of the many small water districts in the county, many of which do not need a full-time operator. “A traveling operator would be (would have been) a great solution” the quandary Darwin is facing along with other small water districts.

But Rosan is undaunted and will be volunteering on a higher level. He has taken and passed the online water treatment operator course and is waiting to take the state proctored exam so he can be “certified.”

Once that happens, more negotiations with the state are on tap.

And more trips from Darwin to Olancha and back to pick up and deliver drinking water for the thirsty desert town.

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