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Cult of the Pipe



For seven years, Westhaven residents Peter Lonnies and his partner Susanna have sipped of the elixir that pours forth from the hill just before northbound Highway 101's Westhaven turnoff. There, two side-by-side white plastic pipes jut a few feet out of the hillside by the highway, about three feet above the ground, constantly spilling free, tasty spring water.

Lonnies and his partner only drink water from the pipe: two gallons a day between them, which they collect once or twice a week on their way back home from town in several five-gallon old-fashioned glass bottles.

"My partner and I, we pride ourselves to eat organic foods and uncontaminated water," Lonnies said. "The Westhaven water supply here has chlorine and bromide and chemicals in it, that we have never drunk. One of the reasons we live here is because we enjoy that water there." Cyclists also drink from it, and perhaps the occasional passerby enjoying a novelty roadside tipple.

But there's trouble at the pipes. Last week, Caltrans replumbed them so that now water spills out just inches above the ground.

Pipe imbibers are incensed.

"This is a very huge humanitarian dilemma!" said Lonnies, his voice rising over the phone Tuesday afternoon.

Caltrans spokesperson Julie East said on Tuesday it's a safety issue. "People were stopping on the side of the highway to get water," East said. "We would just hate to see something happen there to someone."

East said the California Highway Patrol asked Caltrans last winter to put in a sign notifying people that it's illegal to stop on the side of the freeway, an offense that carries a $148 fine. Caltrans put the notice up this February, below a sign that says "emergency parking only."

Lonnies said people got nervous. "And I said, listen, if somebody tells us we can't get a drink of water there, then that's the No. 1 sin against humanity," he said. "Because if any man tells any other person they can't get a drink of water ... then that is more than murder, OK? Water is more important than anything else except sunshine."

East said the pipes have been there since Caltrans built the freeway in the 1960s -- workers uncovered a natural spring during excavation and installed piping to drain it into a ditch. It keeps the hillside from bloating up with water and sliding into the highway, East said. Local CHP public relations officers were unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Diana Ashley, who drinks the water because it is delicious, said there are some people in Westhaven, however, who have no other source of potable water.

Richard Swisher, manager of the Westhaven Community Services District, confirmed that about 30 of the 260 parcels in the CSD's service area aren't hooked into the system because there just isn't enough water. Those people might dig shallow wells, or get water from streams, all of which could be contaminated. He doesn't know if any of them drink from the freeway pipes -- which aren't part of the CSD -- but he knows people outside his district who do. And he's actually tested the pipe water on occasion out of curiosity.

"It's good quality water," he said.

Once, he detected a minor amount of bacteria -- perhaps carried into the pipe by a slug -- and he taped a sign on the pipe to let drinkers know.

"It's kind of too bad," he said. "If you've traveled around the country, you'll know that it's not uncommon to see where a highway department has made a pullout beside a spring."

Well, the rejiggered pipe -- and the traffic fines -- might deter some people. But not Lonnies. He has devised a pipe to stick into the ground-level pipe and draw out the water.

"About six minutes ago I was there and I got six gallons," he said. And, he added: "Whoever the highway patrol is, and whoever the Caltrans people are, they need to stop doing what they're doing. They are our servants! We are the people of the land here, we pay property taxes, and that is our water, Westhaven water called The Freeway Water!"

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