The Navy can't explain the reasons the base wells were abandoned, some within a few years of construction, the purchase of municipal water and resulting expenditure of millions of dollars.
MCAS El Toro was commissioned on March 17, 1943. In 1942, the Irvine Ranch's lima bean field near the Canada Del Toro (Canyon of the Bull) was chosen as the site to relocate five Marine Carrier Groups from San Diego.Construction of the air station began on August 3, 1942. By January 1943, the former bean field was turned into a Marine air station, complete with five asphalt runways, hangars, barracks, and a water distribution system. By 1945, the California State Military website reported that El Toro "had grown to a station of 4,000 acres, 9.2 miles of roads, 660,000-sq. yd. of runways and taxiways, 139,281 sq. yd. of aircraft ramps, a 10-mile water system, and a 10-mile sewer system." (see: http://www.militarymuseum.org/MCASElToro.html)
Fast forward to 1985. During a routine water well inspection, Orange County Water District employees discovered a Trichlorothylene (TCE) plume spreading from El Toro into the county's principal aquifer. The Agency for Toxic Substances Abuse (ATSDR) reported in 1993 that: "The maximum concentration of TCE was measured at a well approximately 1 mile beyond the station boundary at depths between 165 and 450 feet, (below land surface) and have been moving northwest at a rate of 4-30 feet per day, which is considerably greater than the 1-4 feet/day regional flow rate."
The very young and the old are especially vulnerable to the health effects of TCE exposure. The contamination of two water wells in Woburn, MA, made national attention in a best selling book and follow-on movie. John Travolta starred in "A Civil Action," a story of the legal fight for justice by parents of children exposed to TCE contaminated drinking water from Woburn's Wells G and H who died from lymphoblastic leukemia. The resulting civil suit against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods in 1982 was settled out of court, but not before the plaintiff’s attorney went bankrupt.
Millions of dollars were spent by the Navy in the investigation and clean-up of the soil and groundwater on the base. TCE was used on the base for decades as an industrial solvent to degrease aircraft. No usage records were kept, but Navy estimated 8,000 pounds were in the base's soil and groundwater under Site 24, the highly industrialized area where the six of the base wells were located, too. A consultant for the city of Irvine estimated 700,000 pounds of TCE under the base. The Navy disputes the higher number.
TCE waste products in the groundwater and soil from the southwest quadrant's highly industrialized area, slowly moved northwest with the groundwater flow into the Orange County principal aquifer. The TCE plume never penetrated the principal aquifer under the base, but did contaminate the shallow aquifer down to 260 feet below the ground surface (bgs).
The TCE plume cut a path right through the base wells. However, since the wells drew water from the deeper, uncontaminated principal aquifer, both the Navy and the EPA maintain there's no need for concern. However, the Navy did not take follow-up action on a consulting engineer's report of finding a well screen in the contaminated shallow aquifer, destroying the remaining wells without looking for their screens. Contaminants like TCE could enter the wells through well screens. There's no explanation from the Navy for this decision.
In April 1998, Well #4's well screen was found in the contaminated shallow aquifer. The other five wells constructed at the same time during WW II were not inspected for the location of their wells screens, even though the original well construction drawings were missing and the wells were about to be destroyed. The Navy did exactly the right thing in locating the well screen for the first well destroyed, but failed to follow-up on the remaining wells. There is no explanation for not inspecting the other wells. It's highly probable that the driller used the same technique to construct the other well screens. This risk is that any well screens in the contaminated aquifer allowed TCE into the wells and the drinking water.
In addition to TCE, well screens in the shallow aquifer would allow salts from elevated levels of total dissolved solids (TDS) into the wells. High levels of salts can cause service disruptions, expensive repairs and shortened a well's useful life.
The Irvine Desalter Potable Treatment Facility is located just outside the former base. This facility was built to remove salt from the groundwater flowing from the shallow aquifer under El Toro, using reverse osmosis to separate the salt from the water. The facility produces 2.7 million gallons per day of desalted water, enough drinking water each year for about 50,000 people www.irwd.com/WaterQuality/IDP/facilitites.php. Salts from TDS greater than 2,000 mg/L in El Toro’s shallow aquifer may have been the justification for the Navy to purchase municipal water.
Chemical tests for TCE in the drinking water were not available until the mid-1980s. Well screens in the shallow aquifer would not only have allowed salts into the wells, but a much more dangerous contaminant-TCE.
In February 1951, the Navy purchased "softened water" for both El Toro and the nearby Santa Ana Air Facility. The base wells were less than 10 years old. Only a few details on this purchase are known. The Navy could not locate a copy of the early contract or any details justifying the reason for the purchase.
A few lines from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) Annual Report for 1951 confirmed the agreement to furnish "about one cubic foot per second of softened water" to serve both El Toro and the Air Facility." The Navy's position that the base wells were all abandoned by 1951 just doesn't make sense. In 1945, the new well were producing over 1,296,000 gallons/day. There is no evidence of any shortage in water from the principal aquifer. Did the Navy really abandon all the base wells in 1951?
Millions of dollars were spent by El Toro over four decades to purchase water from two California water districts. At our request, Navy personnel searched files but were unable to find a justification for either purchase. Records show that two wells were abandoned by 1948 (Wells #3 and #4).
The Navy reported that "records from 1943 until 1950 showed the maximum combined flow from these six wells was 900 gallons per minute in August 1945." This turns about to be about 1,296,000 gallons/day. Abandoning two of the six wells would have meant lost capacity of about 432,000 gallons/day (1/3 x 1,260,000 gallons). In hindsight, it appears reasonable to conclude that the 1951 MWD purchase may have been done to make up for the lost output of these two wells.
The MWD contract provided for the delivery of one cubic foot/second of water for El Toro and the Santa Ana Air Facility. The United States Geological Survey defines cubic foot per second (cfs) as "the flow rate or discharge equal to one cubic foot of water per second or about 7.5 gallons per second." Converting the MWD's one cubic foot per second into gallons equals about 648,000 gallons/day for both installations (7.5 x 60 x 60 x 24). While 648,000 gallons/day is a lot of water, it's a little less than 1/3 of the 2,016,000 gallons/day purchased by the Navy for El Toro (86%) and the Santa Ana Air Facility (14%) in 1969 from the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD). The increase in the water supply from the IRWD contract was supported by the construction of two additional water mains.
By 1969 the Navy had no intention of using El Toro's wells. The IRWD contract stated that the El Toro wells were not to be used even in the event of a curtailment of water from a successful suit by the city of Santa Ana to challenge the IRWD annexation of property. In this event, IRWD agreed to make water from the Santa Ana Air Facility's base wells available to El Toro.
Knowing the corrosive effects of salts from the shallow aquifer, and the placement of well screens, the best thing that can be said about El Toro's wells was the decision to abandon them. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In summary, there's enough information to point to the salts in the shallow aquifer causing well and pump repairs, shortening their useful life, and forcing the decision to abandon the wells early and probably not later than January 1970, the date that the municipal water service contract with the Irvine Ranch Water District was scheduled to be fully operational. We may never know the extent of TCE contamination of the base wells and the health effects on those who drank its water. But, we can be thankful for the "salt" in the shallow aquifer which appears to be the reason the wells were abandoned and the purchase of municipal water. Next time you put some salt on your food, say a prayer for those who drank the well water and didn't know.