Just three weeks ago an octogenarian, who is either truly brilliant or merely skillful, moved down from Ojai, southeast of Santa Barbara, to rural Escondido. His name is Stephan Riess. He’s eighty-seven, and for fifty years he’s claimed the ability to tap unlimited supplies of water from deep inside the earth. He moved to the arid San Diego area, which imports the majority of its drinking and irrigation water from hundreds of miles away, because, he says, “Most of my water interests now are here, in the tail end of the system.”
Water from Sparkletts well No. 1
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“The system” is the state water project, which Riess ridicules as a multi-billion dollar hornswoggle. “Water is the biggest political corruption in the world,” Riess thunders, his basso voice clipped around the edges by a time-worn German accent. “Politics and water are a racket; every home, every household is controlled by politicians through everyone's complete dependence on water.” Riess is an angry old man, given to outbursts in which he labels politician "idiots” and worse, and university scientists as “the stupidest bunch of sons of bitches there are” He would be easy to dismiss as a petulant crank except for one thing: he has an uncanny ability to find water where the experts say there is none. He claims the water he finds is “primary water," water created below the earth’s crust by the cooling of magmatic rock, such as granite and basalt. Riess is one of a very short line of geologists and earth scientists who believe such water, which they allege exists in vast quantities, is independent of the hydrologic cycle of precipitation and evaporation, the natural mechanism almost universally accepted as the source of all water on the planet. Riess says that there’s no need to move water to San Diego through the state’s astronomically expensive system of canals and pump stations; all the water we need, he insists, is right under our feet.
Filtration tanks at Sparkletts
Photo by Robert Burroughs
This theory is so contrary to accepted tenets that it is utterly preposterous to most scientists, engineers, and water district administrators. It bucks the standard doctrine that all waters now on the earth were originally part of the primordial material that covered the newly formed planet five billion years ago. Riess’s ideas also contradict the basic assumption of laws governing the distribution of water — namely, that all groundwater is derivative of precipitation. As a result, public policy in California has entailed moving colossal amounts of water from wet areas to dry areas; deep drilling has never been considered an alternative.
New avocado groves, northern San Diego County
Photo by Robert Burroughs
In 1982 Riess and a young associate named Morad Eghbal approached the San Diego County Water Authority and suggested that it allocate funds for some deep-well drilling. Riess argued that all the water San Diego needs can be tapped in fracture zones beneath the bedrock, and that this water constitutes a pollution-proof, drought-proof, never-ending supply. The Water Authority spends more than $60 million per year (supplied by taxpayers) on imported water, and it has long-term commitments to continue such purchases and to help pay off the 1961 bonds that financed the state water project. Directors of the Water Authority rejected Riess’s idea as unproven, but told him that if he wanted to pay for the drilling himself, they might buy any water he found. Riess left empty-handed. Now, however, he has returned to San Diego County and, with a local entrepreneur, is doing his own drilling. He is just beginning to supply water from deep wells to the Valley Center Water District. This is the only project wherein a private individual is selling water to the public agency throughout the Water Authority’s 1400-square-mile jurisdiction. Riess sees the tide turning his way now.
Mature avocado groves, northern San Diego County
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Stephan Riess is a Bavarian-born mining engineer and geologist who was educated at the pre-World War I German Naval Academy and at the University of Tuttlingen, just north of the Swiss border. He says he has drilled more than 800 wells around the world, most of them tapping “rock fissure aquifers” where primary water purportedly flows on its course to the sea. Two local examples of his work are the wells at the Sparkletts water bottling plant near Lakeside, and those at supermarket magnate John Mabee’s Golden Eagle thoroughbred horse ranch on Highway 78, east of Ramona.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
In 1955 Burton Arnds, president of Sparkletts, read press accounts of Riess’s success in finding water in the previously dry Simi Valley, northwest of Los Angeles. One article in particular, appearing in Collier's magazine, inspired Arnds to contact Riess and ask the water developer if he could help locate water at the struggling Lakeside plant. Arnds already had eight shallow wells there, each between thirty and sixty feet deep, but their water levels were declining and the water itself was of increasingly questionable quality. Riess conducted extensive geological analyses on the site, surveys which determined exactly where the different types of rock formations intersected underground. Riess, who doesn’t charge his clients if he doesn’t find water, explains that he looks for “restricted faults,” which don’t reach the surface. Yet he almost never digs below the surface during his analyses. “Whatever I can’t excavate with a pick, I’m not interested in,” he explains. He eschews the highly detailed geologic cross-section charts painstakingly drawn up by geologists, preferring to determine for himself the specific local geology.
Reservoir fed by imported water
Photo by Robert Burroughs
After his ground studies at the Sparkletts plant, Riess told Arnds exactly where to drill. A diamond-core drill rig dug through the soft earth and hit solid granite at 400 feet. For almost 500 more feet the drill descended, and then it struck water where Riess had predicted it would. Wells in the Lakeside area are generally between fifty and 150 feet deep, and although wells of 600 or 700 feet, such as Riess located for Sparkletts, are not unheard of in the county, almost all of them are drilled in porous sedimentary formations, not solid granite. “In the name of accepted geology, it was ridiculous to drill there,” Riess says. “But I knew I was right.”
That first well continues to produce about eighty gallons of water per minute, water with a fairly high mineral content, but extremely low in tritium, a hydrogen isotope produced naturally by radioactive bombardment of the earth from deep space. The tritium content of the Sparkletts water is so low, in fact, that it is used by UCSD geochemists in their lab experiments, according to Hans Suess, a geochemistry professor there. In the years since the development of the hydrogen bomb, worldwide tritium levels have increased dramatically, making it difficult to find water with sufficiently low levels of the isotope for scientific research. Tritium has a half-life of approximately twelve years. The low tritium count in Sparkletts water means it hasn’t been on the earth’s surface for at least one hundred years. Riess contends that the low tritium content is one indication that the water has never seen daylight. But geochemists say the tritium count only means the water is old; it would take analysis of other elements in the water to date its origin.
In 1962 Riess located a second well at a depth of 960 feet for Sparkletts, which produces about 200 gallons per minute. (The company needed a well with more flow, and when the second one was completed, the first was put on standby as a backup well.) Bob Jurgensmeier, the water processing technician at the plant, says the company has been pumping out 30,000 gallons of water per day from that second well since 1962, “and the water level always stays the same. I don’t think it’s groundwater that’s seeped down through the rocks,” Jurgensmeier maintains. “The water table never varies, even during droughts, and the [chemical] analysis sheet never changes. A lot of people have tried to say it’s water from the [nearby] San Vicente Reservoir, but the analysis is really different.”
John Mabee, founder of Big Bear supermarkets and owner of the 400-acre Golden Eagle horse ranch, also believes the water Riess located for him is of curious origin. “It’s not surface water,” Mabee contends. “I believe Riess is correct. It’s primary water.” In 1972 Mabee read an article about Riess in West magazine, a Los Angeles Times supplement. He asked Riess to try to find water on his ranch. “Others had said forget it, there’s no water there,” Mabee recalls. “I’d sent my engineer out with experts, and they all said the land was dry. I heard about Riess and asked my engineer to check him out. Riess had drilled for Sparkletts, and they pump millions of dollars’ worth of water each year out of that well. They bow down to the East to that guy. When he spotted a place for us, we drilled it. Right through blue granite. He said that at 525 feet we’d hit water, and we did! And it’s real good water, low in solids. We could bottle it. He made the farm, no doubt about that.”
Mabee says that three of the wells Riess located (out of five) are now pumping about 1500 gallons per minute. One need only drive past the ranch, whose pastoral greenery stretches off toward the San Ysidro Mountains, to see why Mabee venerates Riess.
Many respectable people, however, ridicule the man’s ideas. Orthodox geologists and hydrologists say they have demonstrated that all but an infinitesimal amount of the earth’s water is locked up in the hydrologic cycle, and is “meteoric” (related to the atmosphere) in nature. As almost everyone learns in school, this entails the evaporation of water from oceans, lakes, and rivers, the movement of clouds over land, the dropping of the water in the form of rain or snow, and the return of most of the water to lakes, rivers, and, finally, the oceans, through runoff. Much of the water that doesn’t return percolates down to underground aquifers, which can contain immense amounts of water and are usually underlaid by hard, impermeable rock, such as granite. This is exactly the kind of rock beneath which Riess’s wells are commonly drilled, into the deeper zones where hydrologists believe little water exists.
The hydrologic cycle also involves meteoric water that is absorbed into the roots of plants and trees, which either re-enters the atmosphere through “evapotranspiration” from the leaves, or is broken down in the photosynthetic process into organic plant matter. Riess says that on a global scale 600 billion gallons of water a day are actually lost in photosynthesis. (Hydrology texts measure this water in tons, generally accepting an annual figure of 180 million tons per day.) “In two and a half million years, if the water consumed by plants weren’t replaced, all the earth’s water would be used in photosynthesis,” Riess argues. “Where does the replacement water come from? It doesn’t come from outer space.” Hydrology authorities confirm the time figure of two and a half million years, but they say experiments have proven that all but a tiny fraction of the water consumed in photosynthesis is returned to the atmosphere by the animals and small organisms that eat the plant matter, and oxidize it back into carbon dioxide and water. In this way, say the scientists, global equilibrium in the water supply is maintained.
Scientists acknowledge that the earth does indeed create water, but only in minute quantities, as a by-product of the cooling of molten lava into rock. They say there simply isn’t enough oxygen bound up beneath the earth’s crust to create water in large quantities. “As far as we can tell, all waters are derivative of meteoric waters,” explains Robert Poreda, a geo0chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Even the origin of waters at, say, the geysers of Yellowstone, is still meteoric. The water originally seeped down from the surface. The only place we see juvenile water [what Riess calls primary] is in lava.”
When Riess contradicts this theory, scientists respond by asking him to publish his own, with suitable testing, in reputable journals. Riess refuses. “There’s no sense in publishing,” he grouses. “They immediately hit you back with ‘The book says this, the book says that.’ They can call me a phony, but I’m a phony with 800 producing wells.”
The disputed theory, which was first proffered centuries ago by a few maverick scientists, including Leonardo da Vinci, and was widely accepted until the Eighteenth Century, is this: at the lower edge of the earth’s crust, where magma is cooling to form hard rock, gases are continually rising through fissures along the lines of least resistance. Included in these gases are hydrogen and oxygen, which through heat, pressure, and chemical catalysts, combine to form massive amounts of water. Although the theory is archaic and was rejected by the first real earth scientists, large volumes of water are found all over the world in deep rock of igneous origin, such as granite, and Riess cannot bring himself to believe the scientific explanation that this water originated on the earth’s surface. “So he’s very New avocado groves, northern San Diego County Mature avocado groves, northern San Diego County good at finding fractures,” says an un-impressed Robert Poreda of Scripps. “We know that meteoric water percolates down several kilometers into the crust through faults and fractures. All he has to do is find the fractures.”
Riess planted himself firmly outside the realm of scientific dogma a long time ago. Born in 1898 and reared first in Germany, then in Switzerland when his father retired from the German military, Riess says he became interested in the sources and dynamics of water when he was fourteen. A university professor named Dr. Bergenbach lived down the street from the Riess family in Schefhausen, Switzerland, and young Riess took numerous trips to the mountains with the professor and his two sons. They often visited castles on the Rhine and the Danube rivers, most of them built a thousand years before. Professor Bergenbach pointed out to the boys that the castles were always built above a good water supply, usually high atop a mountain, up to 3000 feet above the rivers. To the professor’s mind, this was an odd place to find water. “These wells were dug by hand, some of them to 800 feet, in solid igneous-origin rock,” Riess explains. “They were drilled with water and fire. Where the rock became unbreakable, they'd build hot fires and get the rock red-hot, then pour water on it to crack it. The castle at Ruedesheim on the Rhine had a well that took eighty years, three generations of well diggers, to drill between 640 and 700 feet.” Riess drank the water of these wells and listened to the professor explaining his doubts that such water originated from rain and snow. “He woke me up. I became very, very interested in water.”
Riess entered the German Naval Academy, where he spent most of World War I studying metallurgy, mineralogy, and chemistry. The academy’s motto was, “Say not 'This is the truth,’but say ‘This it seems to be to me as I sec the thing I think I see.’ ” He never studied hydrology and. in fact, has avoided formal study of the subject, the tenets of which he considers basically incorrect.
Riess came to the United States in 1923, bought a two-seat Buick in Florida, and drove across the country to Los Angeles. After almost a year of just enjoying himself with the $15,000 he’d brought over from Europe, Riess headed up to the California gold fields to look over the mining operations, in the hope of securing work as a mining consultant. He found that the dozens of small, family-run gold mines “were really behind the times,” when it came to milling procedures and the chemical extraction of metals from ore, and he had no lack of employment.
In addition to his knowledge of mining engineering and milling procedures, Riess also developed the ability to locate the underground water necessary to operate mines of all types. In the late 1920s he traveled through South America as an independent mining consultant, and one of the first hard-rock wells he dug was for the guano (bird excrement) miners in the Tarapaca Desert region of Chile, one of the driest areas on earth. Eventually he went to work for the Selection Trust Mining Company, founded by Herbert Hoover, which was one of the biggest mining outfits in the world. He worked primarily as a metallurgist until World War II, when gold mining was halted by President Roosevelt, according to Riess, because it was irrelevant to the war effort.
Riess’s mining knowledge won him an exemption from military service and he took a job with the Metals Reserve in the War Department. He traveled all over the West, advising where and how to mine lead, zinc, copper, and other war-related metals. He was provided with all the gas-rationing tickets he needed, was well paid, and was able to work at something he enjoyed. “It was a great job,” he says, drawing deep on one of the cigarellos he chain smokes. His narrative is interrupted by a rumbling, gurgling cough.
During his travels, Riess was often either fighting water or searching for it. Deep in some of the mines, huge streams of water would commonly burst through a fresh blast hole 4000, 5000, 6000 feet down. Riess knew that such tremendous streams of water, usually associated with faults or fissures along two different intersecting rock formations, had confounded miners for centuries, and were explained away by scientists as merely surface water that had seeped down along cracks. Two of the biggest silver mines ever worked, the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, and the Tombstone mine in southern Arizona, were lost to flooding before they could be mined completely. “Most mines are flooded out long before they’re worked out,” he explains. The quantities of water Riess encountered in the mines were so great, and the location of the mines was often so high in dry desert mountains, that it made no sense to Riess that such waters were originally produced by rain or snow. He became convinced that this water was being continually created within the earth, and could be tapped for public use.
After the war, Riess settled in the Simi Valley and became a professional water developer. His success at finding water in large quantities in that arid region, and his confrontational bluntness in the face of scientific and governmental critics, made Riess a natural subject for newspaper and magazine writers. His fame spread. Testimonials were widely circulated from ecstatic well owners who had contacted Riess as a last resort. “Anytime I hear of a place with fifteen dry holes, that’s for me,” Riess explained in one magazine story. “When little people have been beaten to death by the drillers and the experts, I work for nothing.”
As detailed in the book by Christopher Bird, The Divining Hand, hydrogeologic experts from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) were sent out in 1954 to investigate some of the wells reportedly located on Riess’s own land in Simi Valley, and other nearby wells. The resulting report dismissed the wells as tapping into nothing more than rain and runoff water, and concluded that they would eventually run dry. Owners of those wells that Riess had located in the Simi Valley area thirty years ago couldn’t be contacted for this story, but other wells dug by Riess have reportedly dried up. For example, Riess is often credited in print with locating the wells for California City, a retirement community in the high desert just north of Edwards Air Force Base. But Dean Stewart, city engineer for California City, says that the two wells Riess located in hard rock have been abandoned. “The wells in that area just didn’t pan out,” Stewart says. “One of those wells was used for a number of years, but it went practically dry.” Stewart adds that the five wells the city depends upon were located by other people in the early Fifties, and they tap “just another alluvial groundwater basin.”
In 1957 the state Department of Water Resources issued its landmark California Water Plan, commonly described as the biggest water-moving project ever undertaken in the history of mankind. Riess became an immediate critic, and was a frequent guest speaker at rallies and meetings opposing the Feather River project. The cornerstone of the whole state water project, the proposal to dam the Feather River near Oroville and channel the water to Southern California, seemed to Riess to be utter folly. “I told Governor [Pat] Brown that he was the rottenest, crookedest crook there was,” Riess recalls, still angry. “I said seventy-five percent of the legislature ought to be in jail for passing the Feather River project ” Riess sees a conspiracy of politicians, scientists, and bankers, bent on furthering what he considers to be the false notion that water is in short supply in Southern California because it only comes from the sky. In October of 1959, Riess testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources, which had convened in Los Angeles, and explained what he thought was a simple and inexpensive way to supply Southern California’s water needs.
According to a transcript of his testimony, Riess told the senators, “Here in our West, all of the water programs in the past have been temporary and short-lived. Dams silt up and large areas of land have been and are becoming denuded. Behind Hoover Dam, Lake Mead is filling with silt at the terrific rate of more than 137,000 acre feet annually. The dams associated with the proposed Feather River program will result in even faster silting-up. These problems do not seem to concern the proponents. The answer that I get nine times out of ten is: ‘Well yes, but we won’t be here.’ This answer contains the same fatal error that resulted in the demise of so many ancient civilizations and may well spell out the doom of our own.”
Riess went on to explain his success in drilling for hard rock aquifers all over the world, including the Hanegev Desert, near Elat in Israel, as well as the deserts of Mexico, Egypt, and the Sudan. When asked about the economic feasibility of producing such water, Riess said, “Although the hydrostatic pressure of the waters flowing through rock-fissure aquifers is not often sufficient to make the wells flow, it does in almost every instance force the water up to levels that makes pumping costs entirely economically feasible. Gentlemen, it is certainly far more economical to pump water vertically up 300 feet than to pump it and transport it laterally for 450 miles. ...In conclusion, gentlemen, I trust that you completely understand that the above presentation has been only a mere summary of the subject. I only request that you challenge me to further document this concept and all of the statements which I have made to you.”
Rather than stimulate interest in a possible alternative to the $1.75 billion Feather River bond issue, Riess’s testimony helped initiate a counterattack by the state Department of Water Resources. The director of the DWR sent out an official information bulletin to thirty-three state offices, as well as the state director of finance, the board of registration for civil and professional engineers, the state attorney general, and the assistant chief of the state bureau of criminal identification and investigation. As reported in Christopher Bird’s book, the bulletin asserted that Riess’s theories were based on “specious and utterly speculative” arguments, and referred to Riess as a “purported scientist, geologist, geochemist, and philosopher.” The bulletin also pointedly stated that the concept of “primary water” wasn’t included in “any standard glossary of geological or hydrological nomenclature.” In response to that last statement, author Bird, an un-abashed believer in Riess, wrote, “The same could have been said for the word ‘blitzkrieg,’ which became acceptable to French generals, who could not find it in any of their standard military glossaries, only when they were overwhelmed by the reality the word represented.”
Riess and his followers use battle metaphors frequently, and they foresee the day when the scientific world stops scoffing.“It’s going to be a war. Primary water is the future of water supply, if it can be managed properly,” explains Peter Britton, chairman of the Riess Foundation, founded in 1984 and currently based in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit foundation was established for the purpose of providing the financial wherewithal to drill deep holes; it can cost as much as $250,000 to drill a well down to 2000 feet. “If you or I owned a hundred acres of oranges or avocados, that’s too expensive to drill. We could never get our money back,” Riess says. “So the foundation is going in and collecting money from people I drilled big wells for. I have $14 million committed. First I prove that the water is there, then the local group of farmers get a four-and-a-half percent federal loan to finish drilling and install pumping equipment.” So far the foundation has done no drilling in California, but Peter Britton says it has drilled three holes on the East Coast, one of them to 3000 feet. “We look at ourselves as a priesthood,” Britton says. “We have to help people see the truth. There’s plenty of water available in rock fissure systems in San Diego, but a lot of vested interests aren’t necessarily friendly to having rock wells provide water to Southern California. Who can deliver water to the avocado and citrus growers of Southern California at a price they can afford? And will there be a political constituency that can force this water onto the market? It’s going to be a fact of life. It’s going to be a war.”
The initial assault has already taken place in Valley Center, a few miles northeast of Escondido, but the Riess priesthood hasn't encountered any resistance. The Valley Center Water District, which is part of the twenty-four-member San Diego County Water Authority, has signed a contract to purchase water from deep wells dug by a North County flower grower and entrepreneur named Vern Meyer. Riess and Meyer have their own separate contract; Riess determines where to dig, and Meyer invests the money in doing the digging. His contract with Valley Center says that he’ll sell them the water he finds (on water district property) at a cost that’s twenty percent lower than the cost of water from the Water Authority. Right now the district is paying $207 an acre-foot for water that's brought down through the state water project and administered by the Water Authority; Meyer’s selling price will be about $165 per acre-foot.
Vern Meyer doesn’t want to encourage competition from other entrepreneurs who might try to jump into the North County water business, so he declined to discuss his drilling project. But Charles Dacus, director of the Valley Center Water District, says Meyer has drilled four wells near the district’s Cool Valley Reservoir, and one well on Paradise Mountain to the east. All of the wells approach 2000 feet in depth. “We've taken samples from three wells, and it appears to be good water,” says Dacus. The tritium level in the water is also quite low. Dacus says it tests at about 350 parts per million, while “normally up here well water contains about 500 per parts million of tritium.” Meyer reportedly has about two million dollars invested in the drilling project.
District executives say Meyer told the district board he’d be tapping primary water, but the district isn’t overly concerned with the water's origins. What’s needed is a large volume of water at a good price. “The contract doesn’t go into effect unless they can produce a thousand gallons a minute from each well,” explains Jerry Gerald, the district’s director of finance.“We haven't reached that point yet. but we'd probably take whatever water they can pump.”
Ninety percent of the district’s water goes to agriculture, mostly avocados, and the cost of water is the single biggest expense for the avocado farmers, and the most critical. The farmers pay between $140 and $525 an acre-foot, depending upon what water district they buy from and the elevation of their land. Darwin East is in charge of a Disney Corporation subsidiary that has planted 850 acres of avocados in Valley Center, and water costs him about $475 an acre-foot. “We’d need it to be $260 an acre-foot to grow avocados profitably,” says East. “If somebody doesn't come up with something, we’ll drill our own wells.” The problem is, it costs about thirty dollars per acre-foot for every hundred feet the water has to be raised from a well, according to the North County Avocado Growers Association. So if the hydrogeologist East has hired can’t find water shallower than 900 feet. East’s grove is in trouble.
This is where Riess and Meyer believe they come in. “I know where the water is down here,” says Riess, getting up slowly out of the sun on his back porch overlooking the avocado country of Valley Center. “Four hundred farmers want that water, and we can supply it to them for half of what the state charges. That’s why I moved down here.” Riess says he and Meyer have permits to drill for water on federal land in the area, and they plan on selling this water directly to the farmers. If they succeed, it won’t matter to the farmers if the water is primary or meteoric. But if it is someday proven to be water that’s continually being manufactured inside the earth, San Diego will become known as the place where hell really did break loose.