CVIndependent

Mon11232020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

The surf is about to be up in the Coachella Valley.

The Thermal Beach Club is a private residential/vacation community being developed on the privately held Kohl Ranch land, just north of the Salton Sea. The developers hope its beaches and waves are open by 2023 to members—people who can either pay $1 million or more for one of the 326 homes, or $175,000 annually for a non-resident club membership.

Not surprisingly, some current residents of the Thermal and Oasis communities are dismayed by that prospect—and the marketing push being employed by their new neighbor has exacerbated their misgivings. That marketing promises an opulent lifestyle characterized as: “Adventure living. Wrapped in luxury.” Artist renderings and a promotional video reveal a 20-acre wave pool that will feature a continuous stream of waves in excess of six feet each.

“Our communities have remained undefended for generations,” said a representative of the grassroots east valley activist organization No Se Vende who requested anonymity. “It wasn’t just during my parents’ or my grandparents’ time. This is a longstanding issue of not prioritizing our needs, and not engaging with the (challenges) we go through on day-to-day basis. Obviously, this Thermal Beach Club project viewed our community as an afterthought. And, obviously, with such a high membership fee, the people of Thermal, especially (many) who are undocumented and part of the farmworker community, will never be able to access this.”

But proponents of the project—including six of the seven members of the Thermal-Oasis Community Council, as well as all five members of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors—view the buildout, in a disadvantaged region of Coachella Valley, as an opportunity that could jumpstart improvement in the area.

“Honestly, it’s a gut-wrenching scenario that takes place time and time again when we’re talking about land use,” said Riverside County District 4 Supervisor V. Manuel Perez during a recent phone interview. “Mind you, when we talk about the disadvantaged communities of the east end (of Coachella Valley), this particular issue had folks in support as well as against. On the ‘against’ side were the younger activists, while the support came more from individuals who are a bit older and want to see development. And it’s interesting, because if you look at the Thermal-Oasis Community Council, there was a … vote in support of the project, and we’re talking about individuals who grew up on the east end and, quite frankly, individuals who also own polanco (mobile home) parks, who see the importance of bringing in infrastructure. The challenge is how to do that with limited resources.

“So, I do look at this through the lens of social justice, like those individuals who are against this project, but I see how we get there from a different standpoint. I understand that we need clean drinking water. I understand that we need housing opportunities, and we need infrastructure as well as more community centers and parks. We’ve had a few listening sessions to have those discussions, and obviously, we’re going to have more of them. COVID-19 put a stop to that process. But, at the same time, when I think about all of this, the county is in a very limited position to make those type of (infrastructure) investments, especially now because of COVID. So, unfortunately, we have to rely on development from the private sector to ensure that we are able to provide the amenities, and frankly, the basic necessities, that our people deserve. … My colleagues on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors were amazed by what the developer was willing to do (for surrounding communities), aside from the usual costs of paying for permits and development impact fees. They’re demonstrating that the Kohl family members want to be good neighbors.”

Those benefits include a commitment to install water and sewer pipelines and hookups to connect with existing Coachella Valley Water District infrastructure in the area; a community benefit fund into which the Kohl family, through the developers, will pay $2,300 per unit, for a maximum of $750,000; a written “good faith” commitment to engage in a dialogue with the Board of Supervisors to identify land that can be utilized for affordable housing, with access to the new water and sewer infrastructure; a promise to hire local workers for 200 to 400 permanent jobs created by the project; a promise to procure materials and equipment locally; a promise to work with Desert Mirage High School to enable student access to the TBC facilities to learn how to surf; and county property-tax revenue that could eventually total $8.7 million annually.

Other opponents to the TBC development questioned whether there is enough water available to support the development. But according to Katie Evans, communications and conservation director at the Coachella Valley Water District, that is not an issue.

“The Coachella Valley Water District is not a land-use agency, and doesn’t have the authority to approve or deny any type of development,” Evans said. “Instead, our role is to evaluate the water-supply assessment and then provide the information to the land agency about our findings. Whenever a development comes in, they are required to evaluate the amount of water they are going to be using through formulas, and (by studying) past demand, building practices and plumbing codes, and provide that information to CVWD. … We analyzed (the information from Thermal Beach Club), and we do have the water supply to meet that demand.”

Thermal-Oasis Community Council member Matthew Melkesian voted in favor of the project. He said he has a background in low-income housing development—he is currently installing 40 manufactured homes in the eastern valley for the Riverside County Housing Authority—and Melkesian was impressed by the flexibility and generosity of the Kohl Ranch representatives.

“Any time you are able to have a wealthy developer foot the bill on behalf of the community, we are going to welcome that with open arms,” Melkesian said. “The amount of offsite improvements that they have committed to doing is really such an asset and incredible for the community. It’s one of those things that, unfortunately, people and residents take for granted, or they do not know the difficulty involved in the process of developing anything. That’s why I was one of the more-vocal advocates, because I have been a part of infrastructure and low-income housing projects.”

Did Melkesian believe that the young advocates who spoke out against the development were heard by the community council?

“We appreciate the community’s involvement,” Melkesian said. “I’d like to see more members of the community continue their political advocacy and take it a step further: Don’t just get involved in one development or one case that became emblematic of many of our society’s problems. We need to have our community speaking out about what the community needs consistently. It can’t just stop at this project. That’s the only way that lawmakers are going to make changes. … We need people to really speak up and say that we need low-income housing.”

Perez said a broader perspective is required to evaluate the community-changing potential of a development such as the Thermal Beach Club.

“We need mixed land use,” Perez said. “We need mixed income levels. We need mixed housing. We need diversity. Even the economists who are part of the UC Riverside economic forecasts have mentioned that: Moving forward, we can deal with society’s ills by being inclusionary of all these concepts. Quite honestly, I can say, having grown up on the east end of our valley, there’s a reason why it’s impoverished. There’s a reason why all of the development has been on the west end. … I’ve got to think about the fact that there were decisions made back in the day in which the east end was not included.”

Perez said he would ensure that the highly touted public benefits—some of which are described in rather vague terms in the current agreement—are fully realized.

“We made sure we got an agreement that within six months, we’ll start working on the specific plan, and that is going to provide us the opportunity to think about the acreage for affordable housing. Ultimately, what that means is re-writing the specific plan that was written 20 years ago. The developers agreed to that. Six months from now, if that doesn’t happen, that project, potentially, will not move forward. The same thing with the $750,000 community benefit fund. There will be checks and balances at the Board of Supervisors.

“Believe me, this was not easy. I’ve pondered it for over a year, and obviously, we want to make sure that we improve the conditions back home. I want to make sure I follow through on that. I think the east end deserves everything that the west end has. Why not?”

Published in Local Issues

On April 2, with COVID-19 establishing itself as both a financial and fatal threat, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order prohibiting water shutoffs by local water agencies.

The order applied to all homes and small businesses in the state, protecting them from losing their access to water due to the nonpayment of service fees.

“This executive order will help people who have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by ensuring they have water service,” Gov. Newsom said at the time. “Water is critical to our very lives, and in this time, it is critically important that it is available for everyone.”

Today, nearly seven months have passed since then, and the state is still mired in the pandemic—so questions are beginning to arise about how much debt is being accumulated, not only by the state’s water providers, but by customers who can’t afford to keep up with payments.

An Oct. 15 article from CalMatters reported: “The State Water Resources Control Board regulates all public water systems in California, serving close to 85 percent of the state’s customers. The board hasn’t required the utilities under its purview to report specific data about how the pandemic has had an impact on their finances, nor has it tracked ratepayer debt. Initial efforts over the summer to collect some of that information from water providers through a voluntary survey fell short” when only 10 percent of the state’s approximately 2,900 public-water systems responded.

The Independent spoke to representatives from two of the largest Coachella Valley water agencies to assess the impacts of this moratorium on their operations. To their credit, the directors at both the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA) voted on their own to enact water-shutoff moratoriums in March, weeks prior to the governor’s order.

“Right now, we have 510 accounts, out of a total of 23,492 active accounts, that are severely delinquent, which means they’re somewhere between five and nine months past due,” said Ashley Metzger, the outreach and conservation manager at the DWA. “Also, we have about 1,240 accounts that are delinquent, meaning at least two to five months past due. So, overall, we have 1,750 past-due accounts.”

Katie Evans, the director of communication and conservation at the CVWD, was less specific, but said the impact of the shutoff moratorium has been “exactly what we expected.”

“Every year, we generate around $1 million in late or delinquency fees. So we’re now anticipating that won’t happen (for the 2020-2021 fiscal year). In the meantime, other revenue hasn’t really changed much,” Evans said.

Is the shortfall in customer payments causing a cashflow problem for the CVWD?

“We have a reserve fund called the rate-stabilization fund,” Evans said. “It’s very specific for (an unusual occurrence) like this. It ensures that we have funds if there’s a major change in revenue. The intention there is to prevent a big spike in consumer rates in order to compensate for a catastrophic change in revenues due to some crazy situation like a pandemic. So, I think we’re fine, because we have that reserve available.”

To date, CVWD has not yet needed to tap into that reserve.

One reason why cashflow hasn’t yet become a major issue for these local water providers is the valley-wide customer-payment assistance program in which they’ve all opted to participate, administered by the United Way of the Desert. According to the United Way website, The “Help2Others” (or “H2O”) program helps eligible residential customers avoid water-service shutoffs due to nonpayment. Agencies across the Coachella Valley offer between $50 and $100 in annual credits.

(To find out about the program, visit www.unitedwayofthedesert.org/help2others.)

“We have experienced a 200 percent increase in demand for participation in the assistance program,” CVWD’s Evans said. “That’s actually kind of good news, because that means customers who are having trouble paying their bills, instead of just letting it accumulate, are reaching out for customer assistance to get help to pay their bill.”

Currently, both agencies contribute “non-rate” revenues to the H2O program, and at times, other ancillary revenues have been directed there, including water-vendor contributions, public donations and contributions from employees of the agencies themselves.

“Our fund was actually started using employee contributions and money from vendors,” DWA’s Metzger said. “It helps low-income customers when they need it. Also, what we really liked when we set up the program is that the United Way can connect our customers with other social services and resources, so that it’s more of a holistic approach.”

Looking ahead at the financial picture, Metzger reports some positive developments at the DWA in the July-September period—the first quarter of the new fiscal year.

“We’re actually tracking under budget for expenses, which is good,” she said. “Year-to-date, in our operating fund, expenses were 12 percent under budget, while our revenues are (tracking) 7 percent over budget projections.”

That good news didn’t happen by accident, though. The DWA’s fiscal 2021 budget was being prepared when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, and the extent of the potential financial losses became apparent quickly.

“Our general manager, Mark Krause, told us all: ‘I don’t want to see a wish list. I don’t want to see a want list. I want to see a need list,’” Metzger said. “Basically, he said that if there’s (an expense) that isn’t imperative to do this year, then we don’t want to do it this year.”

Over at the CVWD, Evans reported: “The 2021 fiscal-year budget maintains current rates for domestic water, (as well as) canal and construction meter charges, and includes no increases in staffing for the district.” The operating budget decreased by 3.8 percent ($11.1 million) year over year, while the capital-improvement budget saw a 23.2 percent ($29.4 million) cut.

Still, there is much uncertainty about what the future holds regarding the longer-term costs and the potential debt problems lurking beneath the surface. No specific date has been set by the state for ending the moratorium.

As for when the moratorium ends, Metzger offered some words of comfort.

“It’s not as if the day that the moratorium ends, we’re going to shut everybody off,” she said. “We’ll work with people to set up payment plans so that they can get (their finances) back in order.”

Published in Local Issues

Let’s jump right into the news, some of which merits some discussion:

• Yesterday, we mentioned that Riverside County COVID-19 hospitalizations had gone up almost 6 percent from Friday (184) to Tuesday (195). This fact is important for all sorts of reasons, one of which is the fact that “stable hospitalizations of COVID individuals on a 7-day average of daily percent change of less than 5 percent,” whatever that means, is one of the new criteria for counties to move further into Stage 2 of the reopening process.

Well, according to today’s numbers, 189 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county—a drop of six yesterday. This means the county may meet this criterion. Although, seriously, I don’t know what “stable hospitalizations of COVID individuals on a 7-day average of daily percent change of less than 5 percent” means. Do you? Anyone?

Meanwhile, the county government is still waiting to hear from the governor office to see if the state will accept their attestation, sent Friday, that Riverside County is supposedly ready to move further into Stage 2 (which means retail stores and restaurants can have customers inside of them). No word on that yet. However …

• The state has, as of this writing, given 32 counties the go-ahead to move further into Stage 2—including the first Southern California county, Ventura County.

• Tulare County, which had not get gotten the go-ahead, has decided to skip the second part of Stage 2 and barrel into Stage 3—something the state called “hasty and careless.”

• Here in the valley, the Agua Caliente casino properties in Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs have announced they’ll be open for business come Friday. Read the details here

• While most Southern California casinos obviously didn’t heed Gov. Newsom’s plea to hold off on reopening, the Riverside Press-Enterprise is reporting that one has: San Diego County’s Casino Pauma will remain closed for now.

• Among all of the reopening news, a sobering note: According to the World Health Organization, more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported to the agency in the last daythe most since the pandemic began.

• An update: Hospitals in Imperial County (our neighbor to the southeast) are again taking COVID-19 patients, after being overwhelmed yesterday. Inewsource explains what happened.

• Here are more details on the Memorial Day weekend celebration downtown Palm Springs retailers are having—in a curbside-pickup, responsible manner, of course.

• A new Stanford study makes it clear that, no, you probably didn’t have the coronavirus back in the fall.

• From the Independent: The Coachella Valley Water District has obtained $3.3 million in state funds to extend water service to east valley areas that badly need it. While the funding seems secure for now … nothing is a sure thing in this COVID-19 world.

• Can you imagine dealing with a disaster in the middle of a pandemic? Keep the people dealing with a dam failure in Michigan, and a powerful cyclone in India and Bangladesh, in your thoughts.

• Meanwhile, in Florida, it appears the government may be trying to fudge the coronavirus numbers, which is a very bad thing. A similar but different thing is happening in Georgia, too.

• As testing becomes more wildly available … should everyone consider getting tested? A Los Angeles Times writer goes through the process—and talks to the experts.

• AAP—Food Samaritans lost its huge Evening Under the Stars fundraiser due to the shutdown—but the excellent nonprofit organization is holding a great online auction June 1-7. Check out the goods, or just contribute.

Prejudice and fear regarding people who have recovered from COVID-19 are real things. The New York Times explains.

• What is the pandemic like for people with multiple partners living in separate homes? Agence France-Press, via Yahoo! News, talks to some Muslim men in Kuwait dealing with this situation.

• Gosh darn it, now there’s a garlic shortage? Sigh.

• Shakespeare’s Globe theater is another possible casualty of the pandemic.

That’s today’s news. Buy our amazing coloring book! Please consider supporting local journalism, if you can afford to do so, by becoming a Supporter of the Independent. We’ll return tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

Water infrastructure is finally coming to three underserved portions of the eastern Coachella Valley—if state budget cuts don’t get in the way.

After nearly six years of work by Castulo Estrada, the rest of the Coachella Valley Water District board and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, the water district announced in early May that the State Water Resources Control Board had approved two construction grants, totaling about $3.3 million. The funds will be used to complete three projects that will bring safe, reliable water service and fire protection to two disadvantaged communities and one elementary school in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The reason we put out the press release was because the financial agreement was executed,” said Estrada, the CVWD board’s vice president, during a recent phone interview. “Once an agreement has been executed, it’s a contract between the state of California and the CVWD for the execution of the project (for which) the money had been requested, in this case the three east valley projects. That allows us to move forward with bidding the project, so that we can move on to construction. We’ve initiated that (bidding) with money from the CVWD’s own budget. I believe we’ve begun advertising, and these three projects are being presented as a package. The same contractor would construct the necessary works for connecting these systems the public system. The last I heard, we were shooting to award the contract sometime in July, and start construction sometime between the end of July and the fall.”

Garcia, who chairs of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, welcomed the funding in a news release.

“Together with partners like the Coachella Valley Water District, we have been leading a concerted effort to address the eastern Coachella Valley’s severe water disparities,” he said in the release. “Last year, we focused our legislative endeavors (on) creating a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to ensure that California dedicated investments towards long-standing water infrastructure needs of underserved areas like ours. I am proud to see our advocacy and hard work result in these state grants that will go a long way in supporting our goal of improving water connectivity and public health for our families and students."

However, the good news arrived just as the state and country were falling into the deepest and most-sudden recession in history, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Estrada if he was concerned state budget cuts could possibly negate the funding commitment.

“No, these monies have been accounted for,” he said. “But what I think might be at risk—not just for water-related projects, but for all budgets within the state of California—are those (grant applications) that will come up in next year’s budget process. These (projects) have already been encumbered. So, I don’t have any worry about these projects stalling.”

The Independent reached out to the SWRCB to verify that the grant funding was, in fact, completely secure. Public information officer Blair Robertson responded via email: “The bottom line is that there is no irrevocable commitment. That said, we are not aware of the funding for the Coachella projects being proposed for cuts by the governor.”

According to the SWRCB, all grants are subject to a set of terms and conditions, the 18th of which states: “The State Water Board’s obligation to disburse funds is contingent upon the availability of sufficient funds to permit the disbursements provided for herein. If sufficient funds are not available for any reason, including but not limited to failure of the federal or state government to appropriate funds necessary for disbursement of funds, the State Water Board shall not be obligated to make any disbursements to the recipient under this agreement. … If any disbursements due the recipient under this agreement are deferred because sufficient funds are unavailable, it is the intention of the State Water Board that such disbursement will be made to the recipient when sufficient funds do become available, but this intention is not binding.”

Once the connections are built between the CVWD’s existing water-delivery infrastructure and the Oasis Gardens Mobile Home Park, the Thermal Mutual community and the Westside Elementary School, the district will add roughly 200 new customers. While, without a doubt, these projects are necessary, the Independent asked Estrada if he was concerned the new clients may have difficulty keeping up with the monthly water-service charges, especially given the economic downturn.

“That hasn’t been a concern,” he said. “Obviously, before the project moves forward and the monies are appropriated, there is a need to enter into consolidation agreements. There were a number of workshops put together to engage the community and let residents know exactly what it means to get hooked up. Information about bills, and things like that, are explained up front, so that there are no surprises and so that there’s buy-in. All of that took place. Our water (comes) at a very affordable rate, and I think folks are happy when they’re able to connect to our system. I think that their concern about not having access to safe drinking water for themselves, and their families and their kids, outweighs any concern that they might have about a bill.”

While the financial crisis is obviously a huge concern, Estrada said he was confident other needed infrastructure projects in the eastern Coachella Valley would receive strong consideration from the state whenever funding is available.

“When the new funding called the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund was created and signed into law last year … (the legislation) created the fund, but it also directed the SWRCB to put together an advisory group, because there was no (statewide) plan. What gets funded? What is the expenditure count? What are the priorities? … It’s made up of 19 people from across California, and I’m one of them. I think we’re very well represented in Sacramento now. We are at the table, and we’re constantly engaging with the SWRCB and their staff. Personally, I now know the SWRCB members in Sacramento, and I’m very happy to know them. We’re in constant communication to the point where (the SWRCB) advised us that … since we have (over the last several years developed detailed) water- and sewer-project master plans (identifying roughly 40 water- and 80 sewer-hookup projects in the east valley) that total multi-millions of dollars in infrastructure investments, they want to help us enter into bigger financial agreements (with the state). So rather than doing small agreements almost on a per-project basis, the next thing that we’re working on is an application for a group of water-related projects that would require a $20 million grant.”

Published in Local Issues

Much of the news today was bleak.

The latest projected U.S. death numbers are downright horrifying. The city of Toronto has cancelled all major public events through June 30—which brings home the reality that a return to “normal” is months away, at least. The state just announced that schools will not reopen this school year. And county health officials are recommending we all start wearing face coverings in public; the federal government may soon follow suit.

I’d also like to point out the latest piece in the Independent’s Pandemic Stories series, by staff writer Kevin Fitzgerald, about the cutbacks in services made by the Coachella Valley’s agencies that help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. While they’re still doing all they can to help people, and that’s a lot—I need to make that very clear—the pandemic means that for now, a rep from Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services can’t be there in person to comfort a rape victim as they begin to endure the trying process of a medical exam and dealing with law enforcement. That means that Shelter From the Storm can’t accept domestic-violence victims into their shelter right now—because they need to protect the health of the clients and staff already at the shelter.

This. Is. All. Awful.

Take a breath. Take a moment if you need to. And realize that despite all this awfulness, we are still blessed overall.

And now, the good news: There’s yet more evidence coming out that California’s (relatively) quick actions, most notably the shelter-in-place order, are truly, honestly working. By doing what you’re supposed to—keeping your ass at home—we’re making a real damn difference.

We should also take solace in the fact that our society—despite some real, systemic issues—is functional. I was hit by this fact earlier today when I read this fantastic article, from The Conversation, about what’s happening in Syria right now. Can you imagine dealing with COVID-19 and a nasty civil war at the same time? I sure as hell can’t.

We’re blessed. The vast majority of us are safe. And we’re making progress at beating this goddamned virus. Let’s keep it up.

Now, more news:

• People, listen up. We just received this plea from Katie Evans, the director of communications and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District: “We are having a bit of a challenge. I thought you might be able to include in something—maybe as a brief or part of a roundup. With people increasing their use of wipes, we have getting a lot of wipes in the sewer system which can cause really significant damage to our pumps. We ran a campaign last year with the hashtag #nowipesinthepipes because even so-called ‘flushable’ wipes should not be flushed and can cause significant damage to our system. We really want to remind people that only human waste and toilet paper should go down the drain.” So … there. Got it? Stop flushing wipes!

• Our friends at Dig Boston have compiled yet another roundup of coverage of COVID-19 from alternative newspapers across the country. We ain’t dead yet!

• The city of Palm Springs has posted the slide deck from a recent presentation with Assemblyman Chad Mayes, Mayor Geoff Kors and some biz experts with details on the new loans being offered to small businesses during the pandemic. Everyone’s still figuring out all of the finer points of the loan programs included in the just-passed stimulus package, but this includes some very helpful info.

• As of tomorrow, Joshua Tree National Park is completely closed.

• Covered California asked us to remind you that they’re there to help you get health insurance. They write: “As job loss claims hit record-highs, more and more Californians will be dealing with a loss of income and their health insurance coverage. Covered California and Medi-Cal are providing a path to coverage for those affected by this pandemic. Covered California recently announced a special-enrollment period related to the crisis. Anyone who meets Covered California’s eligibility requirements, which are like those in place during the annual open-enrollment period, can sign up for coverage from now through June 30.” Get deets at www.coveredca.com.

• Finally, a tidbit out of Michigan that’s sad but fascinating: Health officials are reporting that one of the COVID-19 victims there passed away at the age of 107. That means that this person was 5-6 years old or so during the last pandemic of this magnitude—the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

Wow. Feel free to join me in raising a toast to that man or woman. What a run.

I’ll be back tomorrow with lots more—including the list of Supporters of the Independent I promised you yesterday. It makes more sense to include that in tomorrow’s Daily Digest; that way, I can include everyone who supported us during the month of March. If you want to be part of that list, and support amazing, free-to-all local journalism like Kevin’s story referenced above, please go here. Thank you.

And to March: Good freaking riddance!

Wash your hands. Count your blessings. #nowipesinthepipes. And keep up the fight, as our efforts seem to be working!

Published in Daily Digest

On Sept. 27, the Environmental Working Group—a self-described nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, based in Washington, D.C.—released a report titled, “Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ Detected in Drinking Water Supplies Across California.”

The lead paragraph in that report states, “Drinking water sources for 74 community water systems serving 7.5 million Californians are contaminated with the highly toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, according to an Environmental Working Group review of the latest state data.” We reviewed the report, which found that the water supplies managed by both the Desert Water Agency (serving most of the western end of the Coachella Valley) and the Coachella Valley Water District (serving a large portion of the central and eastern valley) tested positive for some levels of PFAS chemical compounds. In the case of the DWA, the test results referenced a maximum PFAS test result of 70.2 ppt (parts per trillion), but in one well only. One CVWD well returned a reading of 5.2 ppt.

The report, with the alarmist headline, gained a fair amount of media coverage.

However, reading beyond the headline, we found this: “The water systems conducted the tests between 2013, when the EPA ordered one-time nationwide sampling for PFAS, and this year, as the state moves toward establishing its own health advisory levels for the two PFAS compounds covered by the EPA’s advisory. EWG’s list shows not the current level of contamination in customers’ tap water, but rather the extent of contamination in drinking water sources identified since 2013. Maximum detection levels reported to the California State Water Resources Control Board and the EPA are a snapshot of what was in the water when it was tested, not necessarily what is coming out of taps now.”

That’s a relief. Or is it? Why the alarmist headline?

“We heard about the EWG report … but they do this every year,” said Ashley Metzger, outreach and conservation manager at the DWA, in a phone interview. “Some of the standards that they include on their site are actual real federal and state standards (for allowable contaminant levels in drinking water). Other standards that they include are ones that they make up. So we’re always kind of leery and looking out for it to make sure that (their reports are) appropriate and fact-based, and if they used their own standard, they’re clear about it. It can be pretty misleading to folks.”

What did Metzger have to say about that DWA well reading cited in the report?

“I know that we had an issue with one of our samples at Well 26, where it was registering a read,” Metzger said. “In two following tests, we were ‘non-detect.’ There’s a provision in the sampling guidance from the (California State Water Resources Control Board) Division of Drinking Water that indicates if you take two additional samples that don’t show the presence of the chemical, then they’ll disregard the original sample.”

Metzger added: “When you’re talking parts per trillion, that’s very, very, very minute traces—and you’re talking about a very ubiquitous substance. You know, those (chemicals) are present in a lot of different materials that we come into contact with on a daily basis, (like) food wrap, the insides of paper cups sometimes, Teflon pans, Scotchgard repellents, clothing, cosmetics, sunscreen and all sorts of stuff. So samples can sometimes be contaminated. … We don’t know exactly what went wrong (in this case), if it was a false positive or what. We do feel secure that the follow-up results are helpful. We not only did those two follow-ups on that well, but also we did a second … sampling that showed ‘non-detect’ at that well.”

Katie Evans, the director of communications and conservation for the CVWD, pointed out that the EWG is an advocacy group. “When you’re advocating for a cause, what you want to do is bring attention to that cause—and so that’s what they have done … and very well, it seems.”

Evans said the CVWD’s water supplies are safe—and that testing proves it.

“We’re testing for all those PFOS and PFOA chemicals according to our state regulatory requirements,” Evans said. “The state has come out recently with new testing requirements for those specific issues, and so we’ve been testing against those—but we haven’t had a problem. We haven’t exceeded, and so we haven’t had to treat for anything. But if there was, in the event that we exceeded any contaminant level, then we would look at treating the water to bring it into drinking-water standards.”

DWA said the state’s testing requirements have forced water agencies to be proactive.

“We’re not waiting for anything,” she said. “Basically, we have orders from the state of California to conduct this testing, because of the fact that we are close to the airport—and we’ve done the testing. We’re doing testing. We have written documentation from them.”

Evans said the CVWD is constantly testing its water supplies.

“I want to assure people that the drinking water is safe. In our view, the definition of the word ‘safe’ is that it meets all the drinking water standards, both state and federal. CVWD collects water samples every day, 365 days a year.

“It seems that the discussion the EWG wants to have is whether the levels need to be changed, and that’s fine. They’re advocating for that. But CVWD provides drinking water that meets all federal and state standards, and the drinking water is safe. Water quality is a huge, huge priority over here. It’s what we do. We provide drinking water, and it’s not lost on us that the public counts on us to provide them with a safe supply.”

Published in Environment

Local news reports as of late have included alarming updates on a spate of disputes that have cropped up involving local water agencies.

For example, there’s the outrage expressed by the Desert Hot Springs-area’s Mission Springs Water District over what it refers to as the west valley-area Desert Water Agency’s “seizure” of groundwater management.

Or perhaps you saw a headline regarding the Imperial Irrigation District’s concern over the recent legislative action taken by local Assemblymember Chad Mayes (right). His Assembly Bill 854 proposed forcing the IID to expand its board of directors from five to 11 members, with the six new members all coming from Riverside County, whose IID electricity customers pay 60 percent of IID’s power-related revenues. Currently, only Imperial County constituents elect the IID board members, which leaves Riverside County customers with no voice in their power company’s operations.

Then there’s the biggest local water dispute—which began in 2013 with the filing of a lawsuit against the east valley’s Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The suit claims the tribe possesses “senior water rights” to all the groundwater in the aquifer under the entire Coachella Valley. The tribe has been seeking control over all decisions, policies and groundwater-management strategies that either agency might implement.

Why is this all happening, and why is it happening now? What is causing this hyper-sensitivity among water stakeholders? What does it all mean for residents?


John Soulliere is the Mission Springs Water District’s conservation and public-affairs officer. During a recent phone interview, I asked what led to the recent lawsuit and public attacks against the Desert Water Agency.

“What we’re talking about here is removing the ability from the five elected board members of the Mission Springs Water District to determine how we will develop our local water supply to meet demand and meet (the requirements) of economic development and growth,” he said. “That right was taken away through a unilateral action of the DWA board, and through a somewhat stealth action by the state, to include (the DWA) in a new state law as an exclusive Groundwater Sustainability Agency without notification to the city of Desert Hot Springs or our water agency.”

The “stealth action” Soulliere refers to was taken by the DWA board back in 2015. So why the aggressive posture now—four years after the fact?

“Prior to taking the action they did in 2015, we had a court settlement with DWA and CVWD, who does pump and serve up in our area (as well). That court settlement put the three of us at the table to jointly manage. We spent $1.3 million developing a management plan. Within that plan, MSWD retained its rights to manage its local water supply and to develop the water as it saw fit—within state law, of course. DWA was, and continues to be, the state water contractor. They are here for the purpose of replenishment. We were functioning under that agreement just fine, (but the DWA’s) 2015 action basically threw that settlement off to the side. The management plan that came out of that settlement may still be in play, but the difference now is that we (MSWD) are removed from the governance and the authority. So it was a very divisive and hostile act that they’ve taken to move us out of the equation so that they can make autonomous decisions related to water in our basin.”

Kephyan Sheppard is the pastor at the Word of Life Fellowship Center in Desert Hot Springs, and the chair of the Mission Springs Water District’s Water Rights Study Group, which just issued its final report. I asked him why this issue had taken on such a sense of urgency now, when the action in question took place in 2015.

“Being a pastor in this community, I’ve been hands-on with the residents for seven years, and for the most part, it appeared that many didn’t even know that there was a dispute going on,” Sheppard said. “Recently, in like the last year and a half, people are starting to find out, and there’s a sense of pride and entitlement saying, ‘Keep your hands off our water.’ There’s a growing understanding of what’s at stake.”

I asked him if he could point to any examples of the DWA not fulfilling its responsibilities, or the DWA doing anything harmful to the interests of DHS residents.

“No, not necessarily,” Sheppard said. “The study group was formed because of the unprecedented action taken (by the DWA) without discussion with MSWD, and so for (DHS residents), that was the main thing. I know (Desert Hot Springs) is projected to have an economic and growth boom over the next decade, and I know that water is integral to everything that’s getting ready to take place. So, we need to make sure that we control our water.”

“Our” water? Doesn’t the water the DWA is managing as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency belong to all Coachella Valley residents?

Obviously, the Desert Water Agency views the dispute differently. Ashley Metzger is the outreach and conservation manager of the DWA.

“The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is a law passed (by the California State Legislature) in 2015,” Metzger said. “We are one of approximately 20 or so agencies statewide that are actually designated by law as exclusive groundwater-management agencies. If you look at the language when we were established in 1961, it was for the purpose of (providing) groundwater replenishment and management. That is part of the reason why we have this exclusive designation. We have the unique ability within our boundaries to provide for both supply and demand management. The MSWD is missing a key part of the equation (replenishment capabilities) if we are not involved. If we are involved, as we have been for decades, then you have both sides of the equation.”

I asked Metzger about Mission Springs’ claim that the Desert Hot Springs agency has been effectively removed from any role in planning for future water-development needs.

“We are and have been a part of the Desert Hot Springs community,” Metzger said. “We have facilities there, and we have the authority to manage the groundwater there by statute. There’s a water-management agreement that’s been in place since 2004. As part of (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), you have to submit a plan to the state, and the foundation for that plan was the agreement that MSWD, CVWD and DWA had all signed onto.

“We’re not proposing anything radical. We’re not trying to take any water away. Groups come to our board meetings saying things like, ‘You’re trying to take our hot springs water and provide it in Palm Springs,’ and that’s certainly not true. We’ve been fighting a bit of confusion and misinformation, which has been a challenge. I think our biggest message to people is that we’re planning for the future. That’s a key part of our organizational role. … You know that Palm Springs and Cathedral City are largely built out. So when we talk about planning for growth, we’re thinking about the northern area of our boundary, where there is the most room for growth, which is the DHS area. We’re putting dollars out and committing to spending more money in the future to make all that possible.

“We’ve been communicating with stakeholders in the community and letting them know. I think we may have done ourselves a little bit of a disservice in the past by letting MSWD take the lead on being the face of water in the community out there. So we’re changing our approach, and we’re more active and engaged in the community.”


“Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” This quote—attributed to Mark Twain, although there’s no evidence he actually said it—seems to apply to the Coachella Valley of today. How else might one explain the recent controversy over District 42 Assemblymember Chad Mayes and his AB 854?

Neighboring District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (right) recently stepped into the fray, tabling the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee (on which he sits), in a successful effort to get the Imperial Irrigation District and the east valley’s Coachella Valley Water District into discussions about “extending the (1934) electricity-service agreement in the Coachella Valley service area.”

The controversial bill was sponsored by Mayes, a Republican, to rectify what some perceive to be an injustice: Some Coachella Valley residents receive their electricity service through the IID, but they are not allowed to vote for any IID board members.

The IID provides no water to Coachella Valley residents, just electricity. This is one reason why Mayes’ call to increase the IID board size from five members to eleven, with the six new members all being from Riverside County (in other words, the Coachella Valley), drew public cries of outrage from multiple directions—including threats that the IID could pull out of the Coachella Valley.

Emmanuel Martinez is the IID’s government affairs specialist.

“The position of the Imperial Irrigation District is that this legislation completely ignores a longstanding relationship and agreement between the CVWD and the IID,” Martinez said during a recent phone interview. “The long and the short of it is that through this contractual relationship, which is the 1934 compromise agreement expiring in 2033, the Coachella Valley was allowed to get water via the IID, and in return, the CVWD leased their power rights to the IID. So, this new legislation proposes to add six new directors to the IID board and is a complete takeover, in our opinion.”

I asked Martinez if it was unfair that Coachella Valley residents had no right to vote on the makeup of the board of the IID, to which they pay their electric bills.

“IID and CVWD are similar agencies in that they are both water districts with competing interests for the same source of water, which is the Colorado River water,” Martinez said. “By virtue of that, this legislation would give double representation to the people of the CVWD, who would vote for CVWD board members and have control of that board, and also vote for IID board members.”

The Independent asked Mayes what prompted him to sponsor AB 854; he responded via email.

“IID has the ability to change utility rates, determine investment in communities, or cut service altogether,” Mayes wrote. “This power over 92,000 disenfranchised voters must be balanced with representation. An individual’s right to a voice in any government exerting powers over them is one of the founding principles of this nation. AB 854 was introduced to honor this fundamental right and extends it to all IID ratepayers.”

We asked Mayes what his next steps would be, now that the bill has been tabled, at least temporarily.

“In order for this bill to pass the Legislature, we must ensure water rights are protected; representation is extended to those currently disenfranchised within IID’s service territory; and there is a strong and dependable public electrical utility in perpetuity in the IID service area,” Mayes wrote. “I’m committed to finding a common ground that both sides can agree on and amending this legislation to reflect that. From day one, I’ve said that IID’s water rights are sacrosanct. I did so publicly, and I did directly to IID. The final version of this bill will not infringe on those rights.”

Assemblymember Garcia, a Democrat, took credit for quelling the tensions raised by AB 854. “Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia Engages to Bring Parties Together for Talks on Future of IID’s Electricity Service in Coachella Valley” was the headline on the press release issued by his office on May 16.

It went on to say: “After speaking with both Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District, they have both agreed to begin meetings to examine the 1934 agreement and the possibility of extending the electricity service agreement in the Coachella Valley service area. The willingness of parties to come to the table demonstrates good faith efforts on all sides to resolve this matter locally without the need for legislation.”


Last, but certainly not least, is the recent development in the battle between the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the valley’s water agencies.

The tribe’s suit, seeking power over the groundwater underneath the valley, hit a significant wall in April, when U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal dismissed portions of it because the tribe could not prove it had been significantly harmed.

The Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency claimed victory in an April 22 statement.

“The Agua Caliente Tribe was not harmed, because it has always had access to as much high-quality water as it needs,” the statement said. “The judge ruled that the tribe does not have standing, the right to pursue a lawsuit against the local public water agencies, Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency. The only claim remaining in the tribe’s lawsuit is the “narrow issue” of whether the tribe has an ownership interest in storage space for groundwater under its reservation, the court wrote.”

This ruling is as close to a total victory as the water agencies could have hoped to achieve.

“Our top priority is and always has been to protect our groundwater supplies to ensure a sustainable, reliable water future for everyone in the Coachella Valley,” said John Powell Jr., the Coachella Valley Water District’s board president. “We are part of this community, and we are committed to its environmental and economic success.

The statement went on to read: “The water agencies have spent decades ensuring a safe, reliable water supply to all users in the Coachella Valley, including the five tribes in the basin. Both agencies remain committed to long-term water sustainability.”

The Agua Caliente tribe has not said what its next steps will be.

Several days later, the Coachella Valley Water District boasted in an April 30 statement: “An annual analysis of groundwater levels shows significant increases over the past 10 years throughout most of the Coachella Valley.”

The statement discussed studies done on both the Indio and Mission Creek sub-basins, which account for much of the valley’s aquifer. The Indio Sub-basin is located under the vast majority of the Coachella Valley; over the past 10 years, there were increases in groundwater levels between two and 50 feet. There were localized portions of decreased water levels in the range of two to eight feet in the mid-valley area, which will soon benefit from the CVWD’s Palm Desert Replenishment Facility.

Meanwhile, the Mission Creek sub-basin, located under Desert Hot Springs and the unincorporated area of Indio Hills, showed increases in groundwater levels of up to 28.5 feet in most of the area.

So, there you have it: The Coachella Valley’s water supply is in good shape. But don’t expect fights and power struggles over it to end anytime soon.


Coachella Valley Water History Timeline

1918

Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) is created.

Feb. 14, 1934

Signing of the Agreement of Compromise between the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) governing access to Colorado River water.

1953

Mission Springs Water District (MSWD) is created.

1961

Desert Water Agency (DWA) is created.

2004

An initial MSWD lawsuit against DWA and CVWD is settled requiring the Mission Springs Sub-basin to receive supplemental water from the other two agencies.

May 14, 2013

Lawsuit filed by Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians against CVWD and DWA seeking groundwater rights, superseding all other water users in the region.

2013

The Mission Creek/Garnet Hill Water Management Plan is adopted by the boards of CVWD, DWA and MSWD.

2014-2015

California State Legislature passes the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2015; it is amended in 2015.

Nov. 13, 2015

DWA holds board meeting and votes itself to be the groundwater management agency supervising MSWD.

2016

MSWD files suit against DWA opposing designation of DWA as the Groundwater Sustainability Agency over DWA and MSWD boundary areas.

Nov. 27, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court decides not to review the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision granting superior rights to groundwater to the Agua Caliente tribe.

Feb. 20, 2019

AB 854 introduced by Assemblymember Chad Mayes.

April 19, 2019

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal dismisses a significant portion of the Agua Caliente’s suit against DWA and CVWD, saying the tribe has not been substantially harmed by the agencies’ actions.

May 16, 2019

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia issues statement as a member of the Assembly Appropriations Committee placing a hold on AB 854 with the intention of holding negotiations between IID and CVWD.

Published in Local Issues

On March 29, Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia set out to tour multiple mobile home parks and schools in the eastern Coachella Valley—places where there is no reliable access to clean drinking water.

Garcia—the current chair of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife—was not alone: He was joined by 57 others, including fellow members of the state Legislature; an eight-member complement from the State Water Resources Control Board, led by Chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel; and representatives of the Coachella Valley Water District, including board Vice President Cástulo Estrada, who helped arrange the tour.

“There’s this perception that the issue of accessibility to clean water is only a problem in rural parts of California,” Garcia said later, during a phone interview. “There are clean-drinking-water issues up and down the state, whether you’re in a small or big town, a larger urban city, a rural community or an Indian reservation.

“We were able to demonstrate to members of the Legislature, as well as other stakeholders from the Sacramento area, just how important fixing this statewide issue is, and how it ties in to the water-quality problems we have here in our own backyard in the Coachella Valley.”

Estrada later said the tour was instrumental in showing that a number of Coachella Valley residents still don’t have access to safe drinking water.

“The purpose of the event was not just to highlight the lack of access to safe drinking water across the state, but primarily to highlight the particular needs here in the eastern Coachella Valley,” Estrada said. “I think that was the purpose—and that’s what we did.”

Estrada said it’s important for the Coachella Valley to get state help.

“Two years ago, the conversation started, and it got really heavy, and folks were trying to create a bill to address this issue,” Estrada said. “My concern at that time was that (the legislative effort) was too heavy in trying to address the needs in the San Joaquin Valley. Although they were trying to create a statewide solution and extract revenues from all of California, the highlighted problem was in the Central Valley as it relates to the agricultural contamination of groundwater and the (resulting) high level of nitrates in the water in those areas. So at that time, I started to get more involved with Assemblyman Garcia to make sure that, as this conversation continued in Sacramento, we had a seat at the table, and that folks understood our particular situation here in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Local needs—and solutions—have been summarized and organized in a master plan drawn up by the Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force of the Coachella Valley Water District.

“Through the (task force), we’ve been able to work with county departments, local nonprofits, concerned community members, the assemblymember’s office, the congressman’s office and the supervisor’s office,” Estrada said. “Now, this is the story that we tell folks: (Residents of the eastern Coachella Valley) have more than 100 small water systems that are scattered across thousands of acres of mostly agricultural lands. These communities didn’t just pop up yesterday; they’ve been here for decades. They are in rural areas, and they’ve been left to their own devices to understand water, and water quality, and dig their own wells and take ownership of them. But it’s come to a point where these wells are not sustainable, and as a result, there are folks drinking unclean and unsafe water.

“So we created this master plan where we took these 100-plus small water systems scattered across the eastern Coachella Valley and created about 42 projects out of them. … These 42 projects will consolidate all of these mobile home parks and other small water systems that we have identified and make them part of the CVWD infrastructure. We put a rough (cost estimate) on the master plan of about $75 million. So the story we are telling in Sacramento is, ‘Look, we have a master plan. We’ve done the needs assessment, and we need funding in order to execute on these projects.’”

To this end—and to create a fund to help secure safe drinking water statewide—Garcia is sponsoring Assembly Bill 217, the Safe Drinking Water for All Act.

“AB 217 establishes a funding mechanism,” Garcia said. “It’s a combined effort of general-fund money and fees on (the agricultural industry), pesticides (producers and users) and the dairy industry. There will be a public benefit fee for clean water that is paid through the water agencies. As you can imagine, this is a very difficult conversation for folks to have: People will say, ‘I have clean drinking water, so why should I have to help provide clean drinking water for the people who live in Thermal or Mecca? We’ve heard that said time and time again.

“California boasts the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Garcia said. “But in spite of the amount of wealth that exists in the state, there’s still a significant amount of people living under the poverty line. We believe that (on behalf of) those folks, the state needs to address these issues. No one in California should have to go without safe clean drinking water, whether it be at their school or at their home.”

The bill is currently making its way through the Legislature.

“The bill got out of its first committee several weeks ago, and I believe there’s more work that needs to be done on the legislation,” Garcia said. “Specifically, there are the questions of oversight and accountability of funds—where they go, and how they get used. If I’m going to spend money to improve the water quality for over 1 million people by connecting them to clean drinking water, how and when would we know that we are hitting our benchmarks? We are working with a wide array of stakeholders on language that will do that.”

Meanwhile, Estrada wants start working on those aforementioned 42 projects as soon as possible.

“For years, (the CVWD has) been applying for grants. … We’ve gone after (U.S. Department of Agriculture) money. We’ve been pretty aggressive as an agency to seek grant funding, and we have been successful—yet we’ve been moving very slowly.”

Estrada said the water district is ready to begin work on two projects.

“For these top two projects, we are going to use the funding we currently have to get them through preliminary engineering, the environmental documentation and the application process to apply for construction funding,” Estrada said. “In the case of the Valley View Project, which was one of the stops on the March tour, we’ll be consolidating nine small water systems in mobile home parks. It covers a huge area, and we’re connecting about 136 families.

“The other one is St. Anthony’s, where we’re consolidating around the same number of families by hooking up just three small mobile home park water systems. So we have a road map now, and that’s our master plan. When funding becomes available, we’ll just continue to the next (project) and the next one and the next one.”

Published in Environment

The flood the Coachella Valley experienced on Valentine’s Day will not soon be forgotten—and the scars it left will be visible for a long time.

The severity of the event was framed for us by the facts presented by Marcus Fuller, the assistant city manager and city engineer for Palm Springs, in an email sent after we requested an interview. On that day:

• The Palm Springs Airport received 3.69 inches of rain—“almost all the rainfall we receive normally in an entire year, (which) was reported as the third-highest volume of single-day rainfall in our (recorded) history.”

• “Riverside County Flood Control reports that rainfall totals in the Mount San Jacinto area (Idyllwild) reached over 9 inches, and (it) was considered a ‘100-year event.’”

• “The storm was also warm, and there was no snowfall on Mount San Jacinto. The rainfall melted the prior snow accumulations, generating more runoff into the rivers and the desert floor.”

The result was traffic mayhem. For about 24 hours, the only way to get between Palm Springs and the freeway was via Ramon Road, which led to massive traffic jams and delays.

As the waters cascaded in an easterly direction, Cathedral City was next to sustain infrastructure damage. Cathedral Canyon Drive was closed for more than a month—although things could have been much worse.

“As a point of fact, we actually did pretty well during the storm overall,” said John Corella, Cathedral City’s director of engineering/public works. “When the storm happened, our engineers went out and identified four or five locations where we were having significant stormwater challenges.”

Further east in Palm Desert, Cook Street was closed for a couple of days at the wash. The city of Indian Wells had to shut down a stretch of Fred Waring Drive, and in Indio, Avenue 44 remained closed at the wash as of this writing.

Despite the grumblings by residents and tourists alike about impassable roads and lengthy traffic disruptions, Katie Evans, the director of communications and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District, said things went … great?

“I would point out that, from the CVWD perspective, the rain event on Feb. 14 provided a great example of our system working exactly as we want it to,” she proclaimed.

I asked her to elaborate.

“That storm was a pretty significant weather event,” Evans said, “and the truth is that our system is designed to funnel all the water falling or running off the surrounding mountains into our Whitewater Wash storm channel, and then convey it down to the Salton Sea, and that is exactly what happened.

“Because we live in this area that has very steep mountains all around us, flash flooding is a major concern. The Whitewater Wash storm channel is the safest place for the water to be for the protection of all our valley residents—because, when it’s in that channel, it’s not flooding homes and businesses.

“CVWD is the regional stormwater provider. The cities are the local municipal stormwater providers, and they have to build their own systems that feed into the channel, so there’s a need for cooperation here. The cities build their own retention basins and smaller channels all that send their water into the Whitewater regional channel system, which CVWD maintains. The wash was a naturally occurring route (for stormwater) that the CVWD improved and built upon in the 1970s, but the fact is that we do have some trouble caused by (projects) that were built in the channel territory, such as golf courses and roads. There are agreements that allow one to do that—to build a road in the channel if you want to—but it’s a channel, and its primary purpose is to convey storm water.”

And therein lies the problem: Many of the important roadways in the valley, by necessity, cross the wash. So what can be done to mitigate the road closures and damage that take place when these types of floods occur—and where will the money come from to fund any such projects?

According to local government officials, some projects are already in the pipeline.

“We’ve sent four locations in to Caltrans in our request for emergency relief funds,” said Corella, from Cathedral City. “One is the Cathedral Canyon low-water crossing. We lost our two northbound lanes to the flood flow that came through the wash channel. We are currently restoring that to two lanes (one northbound, one southbound), and we are petitioning the state for funds to restore it to four lanes again, which would cost about $1.2 million—but we’re trying to work with them to explain that we already have a bridge project that’s been designed. All the required property has been acquired. … We have a shovel-ready project that will cost $20 million, and we’re on the Caltrans potential-projects-to-fund list in their next funding cycle. So we’ve explained that we’d rather not restore the four lanes in the low-water crossing. … We’d like them to please fund the bridge project.”

In Palm Springs, Fuller wrote that the city has been getting federal help for infrastructure improvements.

“The city has aggressively pursued federal funding through what was formerly called the Highway Bridge Program to replace, widen (and) retrofit/rehabilitate its existing bridges, and we currently have six different federally funded bridge projects underway,” he said.

Some $150 million in federal funding is committed to six projects, which include replacing the two-lane bridge over the railroad tracks on Indian Canyon Drive with a new six-lane bridge; a new raised roadway and bridge/culvert across South Palm Canyon Drive at Bogert Trail; widening the Ramon Road bridge over the Whitewater Wash from four lanes to six; and a new half-mile, four-lane bridge on Vista Chino over the wash.

Unfortunately, not all needed projects have been approved. Fuller said that the state—using federal funds—did OK a 2015 request for a new, two-mile bridge on Indian Canyon Drive over the entire 100-year flood plain of the Whitewater Wash. But …

“The state accepted our application but did not approve programming any funding, as the total amount of the project nearly represents the total funding that the state receives from the federal government for the total (Highway Bridge Program) fund in any single year.

“Then, on Oct. 1, 2016, the state stopped accepting applications. … Thus we are prevented from submitting a request for funding a Gene Autry Trail bridge, which would also have an estimated cost of $250 million.”

What does that mean for these two vital arteries in and out of Palm Springs? “Given the costs of these two long bridges, we are unable to proceed unless we find alternative funding sources,” Fuller wrote.

However, there is some good news: The CVWD just announced it is receiving a $51 million loan from the Environmental Protection Agency to fund area improvements.

“The CVWD has a big, long-term capital-improvement plan for our regional stormwater system,” Evans said. “… System improvements are needed, for example, in north Indio, where there are areas that need flood protection and don’t have it now. Also, the Avenue 54 stormwater channel running to the Thermal Drop Structure has been identified to receive improvement funds.”

Published in Local Issues

In April 2016, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) held a rally to highlight its achievements in bringing safe, clean and potable water to schools in the Eastern Coachella Valley via its Agua4All campaign, which installed 75 clean water-bottle-filling stations for student use.

For many of these local children, these stations offer the only consistent and free access to safe drinking water they have. (See “Potable Progress: Agua4All Meets Its Goal of Giving East Valley Students Access to Safe Drinking Water—but There’s Work Left to Do,” May 8, 2016.)

Since then, however, Agua4All’s progress has slowed significantly. Just those initial 75 stations are operating; no others have been installed.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that the program has stalled,” said Olga Morales, the RCAC regional manager. “Originally, we had two pilot programs, in the Coachella Valley and Bakersfield. Most of our resources were utilized in those two communities. Then, we expanded our program into other counties throughout the state, and arguably, the available money didn’t go as far as it did when it was concentrated in one specific area.

“Our whole program thus far had been funded strictly by foundation and bank money. It takes a lot of effort to attract those kinds of dollars. … In the end, it doesn’t really go very far.

“We did succeed in expanding the program into other counties across the state,” Morales continued, “but there have not been sufficient resources to increase our outreach in Riverside County and the Coachella Valley. However, in the last two months, we were awarded what’s known as a ‘technical assistance (funding) program’ for our drinking-water-in-schools program, which is hosted under the State Water (Resources Control) Board. Under this new program, we’ve been directed to work with schools to identify the need either for access to, or treatment of, drinking water on their campuses. The program officially launches next month, and it has $9.5 million set aside for drinking water infrastructure to be installed at schools in primarily disadvantaged communities.”

Unfortunately, Morales said only school districts in cities with populations less than 20,000 can apply for that assistance for the first nine months—meaning most of the Coachella Valley schools in need will not qualify.

However, there is good news to report regarding infrastructure access in the Eastern Coachella Valley.

The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), in partnership with other governmental offices and community stakeholders, is poised to deliver some lasting improvements to East Valley communities. CVWD Board Vice President Castulo Estrada, who represents the East Valley, talked about the positive signs for valley residents who have struggled with a lack of access to potable water for decades.

“During discussions at the CVWD Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force meetings (chaired by Estrada), we can put some focus on the water needs of the east side, which is due to a lack of infrastructure,” Estrada said. “… Over this last year, our group at the meetings has grown to include a lot of the people who need to be part of the conversation, and who are essential to ensuring that these projects get done. Our group now includes the assemblymember’s office (Eduardo Garcia), the congressman’s office (Dr. Raul Ruiz) and the county supervisor’s office (V. Manuel Perez). We have folks from the Riverside County Transportation and Land Management Agency, which is the department in charge of issuing permits. We have folks from the United States Department of Agriculture, folks from Building Healthy Communities (BHC), folks from the leadership council, and folks from the housing coalition. Now folks from the Desert Recreation District want to join us.

“Our meetings now provide a place where everybody can talk about the projects that they’re working on, and it allows everybody to have a sense of what’s happening, and that way, things can get done better.”

Estrada mentioned the San Antonio del Desierto sewer-extension project as an example of how the task force is making progress.

“The county was holding back a grading permit that was stopping progress with the project, and as a result, we had to request at least two extensions for a grant from the USDA,” Estrada said. “Then, when Supervisor Perez came in, I spoke to him about it, and there was a big meeting called. After that, things got done. So now that project is going out to bid (for construction contractors) this month after a whole year of hiccups and delays.”

Supervisor V. Manuel Perez agreed that the CVWD task force’s work is leading to much-needed solutions to the East Valley’s longstanding needs for potable water and sewer-system access.

“Castulo’s attempts to ensure that we have reliable water infrastructure on the east side deserve recognition, particularly when it involves safe drinking water, which I view as a social-justice right.” Perez said. “This has been an historical issue for us for a very long time.”

District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia was also optimistic about the progress being made in the East Valley—including possible forward progress for Agua4All.

“From my perspective, we’re going to continue to build off our efforts with the legislation AB 2124, which included dollars to ensure safe, clean drinking water for our schools and communities in and around our school grounds,” Garcia said. “That was part of the Agua4All campaign, which received approximately $10 million in support of their efforts.

“In this last budget approved by the governor, there is roughly $17 million budgeted toward these types of efforts. That’s specifically a result of our advocacy and the advocacy of other legislators who represent similar geographic districts that are primarily rural, agricultural economies, where you have remote housing circumstances, as we do here in the Coachella Valley, that are unable to centralize infrastructure. … My job, and the job of Castulo Estrada, and the job of RCAC is now to try to bring those dollars to our backyard.”

Published in Local Issues

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