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A popular spring in Oak Creek Canyon has gotten a clean bill of health after a citizen said his own tests found high levels of lead in the water.

The Forest Service did a water quality analysis after a citizen who regularly tests the Sterling Spring hydrant, encased in a stone springhouse just south of the Highway 89A switchbacks, reported two positive lead readings.

The man, Jonathan Sprague, urged the agency to do its own follow-up testing. Those results came back Monday showing arsenic levels below federal drinking water limits and no lead detected at all.

The Forest Service takes claims such as Sprague’s seriously and wanted to follow up with its own testing to eliminate any doubt, agency spokesman Brady Smith wrote in an email.

The springhouse has long been popular with locals and tourists who stop by to fill up all manner of jugs and containers.

Waiting On The Water

Michael Tarallo squats by the Sterling Spring hydrant just south of the Highway 89A switchbacks in Oak Creek Canyon waiting for a five gallon water jug to fill. Tarallo said he has been coming to the spring for most of his 35-year life and for the last 10 years has come to collect fresh spring water every couple of weeks.

Some people who live in Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona use the springwater as their sole water source, said Sprague, who has lived in the area for about 15 years and has been testing the springwater for seven of those years.

Sprague said he avoids the springwater, knowing it doesn’t receive any additional treatment. But because many friends and family members do still drink it, Sprague decided to do his own testing using kits he buys on Amazon.

“I don't get paid to do this but I would rather have that information known," he said. “It’s paying a couple hundred bucks a year to make sure my friends are safe."

It was by chance last fall that Sprague got a test that included lead analysis. It came up with a positive reading, which surprised him so he followed up with another test. That one registered lead levels in Sterling Spring water that were four points above the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion.

Directly From The Source

Rainbow Miller fills 5-gallon water jugs last week at the Sterling Spring hydrant just north of the Pine Flat campground in Oak Creek Canyon. Some locals use the spring as their main water source, according to one Sedona resident. 

Sprague contacted the Forest Service, alerted locals via a Sedona community Facebook group last month and left it there.

The Forest Service followed up, collecting three water samples on Feb. 1, then doing the testing that showed lead and arsenic at well below any sort of federal alert level.

The agency also regularly monitors the spring’s drinking water outlets for microbiological contaminants, nitrate, and nitrite because it is considered a transient, non-community water system by the state, Smith wrote in an email. Results of those tests are publicly available at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s website.

Sterling Springs north of the Highway 89A springbox is the source of the water system. The system was constructed in the 1930s and feeds the hydrant next to road as well as the Sterling Spring Hatchery and Pine Flat Campground. The springflow is collected with a large-diameter pipe placed at least 100 linear feet into the hill, Smith wrote. Water is then collected in a concrete box that has two separate waterways directing flow to either the hatchery or to the drinking water system, Smith wrote.

Sterling Spring

Water flows from the two spouts of the Sterling Spring hydrant near the Pine Flat Campground in Oak Creek Canyon last week.

Water flow of the spring source does not appear to be affected by precipitation events, he wrote. Historical flow records collected by Salt River Project over the past year show the spring’s average daily flow bottomed out in March 2017 and was highest in April through May.

The spring box has received recent improvements to provide more protection against large, post-wildfire debris flooding, Smith wrote.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or


Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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