CVIndependent

Fri07102020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

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

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

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

So far this year in the Coachella Valley, water-rate increases have gone into effect in both the Mission Springs Water District (encompassing Desert Hot Springs and northern Palm Springs) and the Myoma Dunes Water Company territory of Bermuda Dunes.

In both cases, mandatory public meetings were held—and citizens came out to protest what they saw as unfair increases.

On Tuesday, June 14, the latest domino to fall was the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the valley from portions of Cathedral City eastward. Its board of directors was holding one final public meeting on whether to approve the controversial rate-increase plans it had been proposing for more than three months. Various local media and an overflow crowd of more than 300 customers showed up for the meeting, held under the watchful gaze of armed members of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

As expected, the board approved the first step in a five-step rate increase plan … sort of: The members voted for a rate increase in volumetric charges, effective July 1, as well as a 44 percent increase in fixed-cost charges for customers effective from July through September, with a reduction to 22 percent beginning in October.

Or did they? Heather Engel, the CVWD director of conservation and communication, told the Independent after the vote that the increase would not be quite as steep.

“For our (single-family residential) customers, their fixed charge was going to go up (on July 1) from $7 to $11.30, but now, it will be $9.26 (a roughly 32 percent increase) as of Oct. 1” rather than July 1, she said.

She said it’s possible the board could further lessen that fixed-charge increase between now and October.

“It will be revisited (in September) to see if it can be adjusted down further,” she said.

As for the volumetric portion of the customer bills, the proposed increases were indeed adopted as proposed. (To review the final approved water rates, visit www.cvwd.org/ratechanges.)

With all of the local water districts, the rate-increase rationale begins with the revenue shortfall caused by successful conservation efforts. Another undeniable factor is the cost of maintaining and upgrading the existing water-management and delivery infrastructure.

But the wild card in each agency’s deck is the State Water Resources Control Board’s new Chromium 6 abatement regulations. After initially fighting the state-regulation terms that the agency viewed as onerous, the CVWD has now decided to move forward aggressively with plans to create and maintain a massive treatment infrastructure—at an estimated minimum development cost of $250 million, with ongoing annual maintenance costs of $8 million.

At least one local lawmaker thinks the CVWD should be pushing back against the state a little more.

“If I was in the CVWD’s shoes, I’d say let’s hold off a little bit,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia. “Let’s maybe spend some money on doing some designing and some engineering, but let’s hold off a little bit to see if there’s any change (in the current regulations).”

Garcia said it’s indeed possible that those Chromium 6 regulations could be changed.

“Last year, we were successful in passing Senate Bill 385, which I co-authored. … The bill gave (affected) agencies a five-year variance to comply with the new standard,” Garcia said. “That meant three things from our perspective: (We can) continue to gather scientific information that would either support or invalidate the (Chromium 6) standard … and possibly challenge that standard; give agencies the time needed to plan, design and build the infrastructure needed to meet the standards; and allow time for specific legal challenges already under way to proceed and potentially change the direction or outcome of the new standards. … But (the CVWD is) moving steadfast, perhaps because they feel there might not be any changes, and I respect that outlook and the direction they are going in.”

Garcia said it’s also possible the CVWD could get financial help from the state.

“Another area we’re looking at is money made available in the water bond, Proposition 1. Specifically, it allocated $260 million for water grants and loans for public utilities, and for addressing infrastructure needs and what have you. These dollars were originally meant for smaller utilities, but we’re trying to see if utilities with a larger footprint could potentially be eligible.”

On a related front, during the June 14 meeting, board member Peter Nelson expressed a desire for the CVWD to join a lawsuit against the California State Water Resources Control Board, being led by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and the Solano County Taxpayers Association. It questions the need for the stringent drinking-water regulation of Chromium 6. The CVWD board has scheduled a closed-session discussion of this possibility for July.

Ashley Metzger, the manager of conservation and outreach at the Desert Water Agency, which serves much of Palm Springs and Cathedral City, defended the CVWD’s efforts.

“CVWD fought this (Chromium 6 regulation) tooth and nail,” she said. “They really put up a strong campaign against this standard being set so low.”

Metzger also offered a reminder for all local water-agency customers: “One thing that people often forget is we’re all public agencies. We represent them. We’re not for-profit. We’re different from Edison and SoCalGas, which are private companies. Everything we do is with our customers in mind.”

Is a water-rate increase coming to the DWA?

“We are doing a rate study right now,” Metzger said. “A whole host of factors will be evaluated. It’s a very comprehensive process. We expect to see the results sometime in late summer 2016.”

Published in Local Issues

"It never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way." —John Steinbeck, East of Eden

California’s State Water Resources Control Board recently indicated that mandatory water restrictions could be lowered in some parts of the state later this spring. Such a move would come just one year after the wise decision that encouraged residents to save water in the midst of a severe, multi-year drought.

Regardless of the board’s decision, Californians need to shift permanently toward water conservation and efficiency. In fact, that’s not a bad idea for all Americans.

There’s no denying it: There was a lot more rain and snowfall in California this past winter than we’ve seen in recent years, especially the last five. Unfortunately, when it comes to the drought, a closer look at recent rain and snow trends makes it clear that saying “things are better” is a long way from knowing that “the drought is over.”

As of this writing. statewide snowpack is now at 87 percent of average—a big improvement over last year’s abysmal 5 percent, but, still, not even average. As for rainfall, El Niño took good care of parts of Northern California by filling some important reservoirs to their historical average levels. Southern California, however, has not been so lucky, with well-below-average rainfall this winter, despite a handful of storms.

The Central Valley’s agricultural lands remain locked in a drought, and farmers continue to pump the region’s dwindling groundwater resources, because there isn’t enough surface water from which to draw. Farms and other customers in the southern part of the state, which depend on water distributed through the Central Valley Project, just learned that they will get far less water than they requested.

In short, the drought is not yet over. The near-average precipitation received this winter has dented it, but not crushed it. In fact, the U.S. Drought Monitor still classifies much of the state as being in an “exceptional” drought.

It is foolhardy to expect that one near-average season of precipitation will keep drought conditions at bay, particularly as El Niño weakens. We need to fully embrace strategies like drought-tolerant yards, efficient fixtures and appliances, water-smart agriculture, and additional protections for groundwater. If we focus on what residents can do, then rethinking lawns, installing water-efficient toilets, and fixing leaks are effective ways to cut back on direct water use and keep gallons in reservoirs. In addition, we have to expand our notion of water use to include the water that goes into producing the food we eat, the energy we use and the products we buy. This requires becoming more energy efficient, reusing and recycling more, and wasting less food. Tools like the Water Footprint Calculator can also help consumers track and reduce how much actual and virtual water they’re using. 

These actions may not always mean that there’s more water available in the local reservoir or aquifer, but an increasingly water-aware lifestyle requires us to look at the impact on our shared resources beyond city, water district and state borders. Californians can do it, and in fact, they already have, by nearly meeting the 25 percent reduction target on residential water use set by the governor last year. Importantly, they did so without dramatically affecting their way of life. California farmers have also become more water-efficient over the past decades, and many are now going even further by using sustainable techniques to protect the quality of water supplies. By building upon these efforts, even larger reductions in water use can provide stability, regardless of yearly fluctuations in rain and snowfall.

Local water utilities may be nervous, because reduced water use usually means less revenue, and ultimately, higher customer bills. But options exist that encourage conservation, including those already adopted in parts of California. One way is decoupling water sales from overall revenues, or tiered pricing, which provides enough water to meet basic needs for cheap or even free, and then adds increasing rates as customers use more.

Now is not the time to go back to the old ways of doing things. No harm can come from water conservation, no matter what part of the country you call home. In California and other Western states still enduring or recovering from the most recent drought, now is the time to stay efficient. Around the world, people are beginning to embrace the new normal—because it’s here, and it requires all of us to make changes that last a lot longer than just one year.

Peter Hanlon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is the deputy director of programs at GRACE Communications Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable food production and water use.

Published in Community Voices

As the calendar turns from 2015 to 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown and his Sacramento conservation team are pleased with the results of California’s statewide drought-emergency restrictions.

However, they’re not happy with the efforts of Coachella Valley’s largest water agencies—despite significant cuts in local water usage.

“Californians have reduced water use by 27.1 percent in the five months since emergency conservation regulations took effect in June,” wrote Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), in her Dec. 1 monthly press release. “In October, when outdoor water use—and the opportunity for significant savings—typically drops off from the hot summer months, the statewide conservation rate was 22.2 percent, down from 26.4 percent in September. Adding to the challenge, October brought temperatures that were well above normal for most of the state. Nonetheless, average statewide water use declined from 97 gallons per person per day in September to 87 in October.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the Coachella Valley’s two major water agencies expressed pride over their customers’ conservation achievements—and frustration with SWRCB delays in addressing multiple requests for reductions in their state-high 36 percent reduction targets, and the lack of transparency in the state’s process to levy onerous fines against them.

“I think our customers have done a really good job,” said Heather Engel, the director of communication and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the eastern valley. “We’re averaging 27 percent savings over 2013, and honestly, that’s pretty impressive. But—and unfortunately, there is a ‘but’—that 27 percent is not enough to make the state happy.

“We were fined $61,000 by the state, because they don’t think our customers are doing enough. It was very disappointing to receive that fine, because I think we’re doing a good job. But we’ve got to move on.”

How often may fines be levied? “They haven’t made that clear. In fact, when they released the October numbers at the beginning of this month, they did not announce any new fines. I don’t think anyone knows when to expect another announcement of fines.”

On the western end of the valley, Ashley Hudgens, the Desert Water Agency (DWA) public information officer, expressed concern over the CVWD fine and a similar fine levied against the Indio Water Authority (IWA). So far, the DWA has avoided a penalty.

“The hard thing about this is that the state’s action here is kind of arbitrary,” Hudgens said. “If you look at Indio, and you look at CVWD, there are very different circumstances there. Each of them had very different levels of contact with the state before the fine, and there wasn’t a real pattern (of which agencies the state fined). We crunched the numbers a dozen ways: Was it suppliers who missed their targets by volume, or was it those who missed by gallons per capita, or was it those who missed their target by percentage? There was no rhyme or reason necessarily to link the people the state chose to fine in any of the calculations that we did. So we don’t know if we’re in peril of a fine.”

Repeated attempts to contact Brian Macy, general manager of the IWA, for comment were unsuccessful.

Hudgens reiterated the DWA’s disagreement with the 36 percent reduction target assigned to the agency.

“The 36 percent target in our minds is arbitrary, and it’s disproportionate to the circumstances here (high average temperature and lack of rainfall) and our (existing) water supply,” she said.

Hudgens also praised her agency’s customer base for achieving a cumulative savings through October of 29.2 percent—above the state average, but below the state’s mandate to the DWA.

“I’m incredibly proud of our customers for doing that, but there is still more to do,” she said. “Everybody needs to do their part. I think the city of Palm Springs has set an incredible example. They’ve done a really good job of conserving—and since they’re our biggest customer, that’s been huge for us.”

In response to the state fine, the CVWD implemented heightened restrictions as of Dec. 1. All residential and commercial customers are now prohibited from any outdoor irrigation on Mondays and Thursdays. Also, penalty fees for exceeding water-usage allotments have increased close to 100 percent.

“In the cooler months that we’re entering now, your landscaping doesn’t need water seven days a week,” Engel said. “The plan is for people who don’t normally cut back to do so for these two out of seven days. If they do, then they are reducing their water use by about 28 percent. If we have a large segment of customers who do that, it could have a significant impact on our overall savings. We don’t know for sure if that will generate enough savings to allow us to reach our 36 percent target, but we’ll see what the results are.”

We’ve all heard forecasts predicting heavy precipitation due to a strong El Nino condition in the Pacific Ocean. Could that break the drought and relieve the pressure on valley residents to limit every drop of water they use?

“We’re waiting to see what happens and how it impacts our reality,” CVWD’s Engel said. “If the state gets a lot of rain, and if the lakes get full, and there’s snow in the Sierras, then the state might lift the drought emergency. But it would require a lot of rain and snow for that to happen.”

They’re also in wait-and-see mode at the DWA.

“We are trying to be cautiously optimistic and remind people that even if we do have a wet winter, it’s going to take a lot to get us into a sustainable level in terms of the state’s aquifers,” Hudgens said.

Speaking of sustainable levels: How are the two largest valley agencies coping with the revenue shortfalls caused by the reduction in water usage by their customers?

“We are still experiencing a large drop in revenue because of the conservation, and it is mostly being made up with penalties revenue each month,” the CVWD’s Engel said. “So that has allowed us to only dip into our reserves a little bit each month. As a result, we’re in really good shape financially, because we have those healthy reserves.”

But at the DWA, there are no penalty fees, nor is there a tiered rate structure as part of a conservation strategy.

“We are in a revenue shortfall situation,” Hudgens said. “Before this year began, we adjusted the budget downward since we assumed this is where we would be—so we’re coping with it. We are going to have to look at rates, and I think that’s on everyone’s mind out here. I think all the local water agencies are going to be looking at rates. I would guess probably sometime in 2016 we will see a rate study. Of course, that’s up to our board of directors.”

Published in Environment

On July 30, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a press release highlighting the quick success of statewide water-conservation efforts.

“With record-breaking heat throughout much of the state in June, Californians continued to conserve water, reducing water use by 27.3 percent and exceeding Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s 25 percent mandate in the first month that the new emergency conservation regulation was in effect,” the release said.

However, most of the Coachella Valley’s water agencies didn’t conserve as much water as the state wanted.

Among Coachella Valley’s five water districts, the Mission Springs Water District had the least success in June, reporting only a 10 percent decline in usage—missing its 28 percent target by 18.4 percent. The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) reported a 21 percent decrease in usage—but missed the state’s huge, harsh 36 percent target reduction by 15 percent.

A bit more conservation success was realized by the Indio Water Authority; the agency reported a 26 percent usage decline, but that still fell 5.6 percent short of the targeted 32 percent. The Coachella Water Authority reported a 20 percent decline, 4 percent below the 24 percent target.

By far, the best local June conservation results came from the Desert Water Agency, which exceeded its 36 percent target with a 40 percent decline in usage.

Representatives of the agencies put a positive spin on the numbers.

“We were pretty satisfied with our June number of 21 percent,” said Heather Engel, the Coachella Valley Water District’s director of communications and conservation, “although the state water board criticized us because it was 15 percent away from our goal number of 36 percent. We got some feedback from the state that we might have to do something differently, but we felt that 21 percent was pretty impressive for summer in the Coachella Valley.”

Even more impressive are the CVWD’s July numbers: The district saw a 41 percent decrease, when compared to the same month two years ago. However, the Desert Water Authority’s reduction fell from 40 percent in June to 30 percent in July.

As of our press deadline, July reports were unavailable for the Indio Water Authority, the Coachella Water Authority and the Mission Springs Water District.

Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, said her agency wasn’t sure why the 40 percent reduction in June slipped to 30 percent in July.

“We haven’t been able to determine any factual evidence to demonstrate what made the difference between the conservation results in June and July of this year, since it’s only been two days since we reported that information,” she explained. “But we will continue to implement our restrictions and conservation programs to keep the momentum going.”

Ruark did offer some preliminary theories on the difference between the two months: “July was a hotter month in terms of temperatures than June, so that could have been a factor in increased use. Also, it occurs to me that we should look at an increase in tourism rates throughout July, because that could impact the level of usage as well.”

Over at the CVWD, the marked improvement in conservation results obviously pleased Engel. She credited the agency’s public outreach, education programs and rebate programs. “We’ve had this jump in July, and I think that can primarily be attributed to not only the ongoing efforts just mentioned, but that’s when the drought penalties went into effect. That was an additional financial incentive for people to cut back their water use.”

However, the water agencies now find themselves in a curious quandary: As their conservation successes increase, they’re bringing in less money. Does this forebode a rate increase for water customers?

“In July alone, our regular billed water consumption revenue was down by more than $2 million, but we received $1.9 million in new penalty revenue,” CVWD’s Engel said. “We’re hoping to use some of that (penalty) money to further fund our conservation programs, like the turf-buyback program, but I’m not sure if that’s the way it will work, honestly, because our overall revenue is down due to the conservation of water. That penalty funding may be needed to recoup some of that lost revenue.”

Ruark said the Palm Springs-area Desert Water Agency readied itself for the loss in income.

“The DWA, in the preparation of the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget … did prepare for a revenue hit that we knew would result from decreased water use,” she said. “We compensated for that by projecting a $10 million hit, and we deferred capital-improvement projects, and we’ll be taking some money out of our operating reserves to fill that gap. In 2016, we were already scheduled to be doing a rate study, so we’ll be taking a really hard look at both our costs and our rates to determine if our customer rates do need to be adjusted.”

At the east end of the valley, the CVWD’s Engel described the challenge this way. “We do have reserve funds that are specifically designated for use as a rate-stabilization resource. So, when and if we do have a large drop in revenue, we can rely on those funds to be a short term solution. As a result, we are not seriously concerned about the near future.”

There will be no relief forthcoming from the State Water Resources Control Board, which declined to accept appeals and population-data submissions by the DWA and CVWD, which felt the absence of seasonal residents in population statistics skewed the agencies’ per-capita water usage—and resulted in the harsh decrease mandates from the state.

“We did submit our data to them in a memo with backup documentation of our methods,” Ruark said. “They would not accept our conclusions because they felt that we should only include seasonal residents in our winter months’ usage calculations. We explained that those homes are still using water even when the residents themselves are absent, because most of the water usage is on landscaping needs outdoors, and continue regardless. But they declined to accept that premise.”

Published in Environment

The board of directors of the Coachella Valley Water District—the agency that provides water to much of the east end of the Coachella Valley—met on Tuesday, May 12, to issue a final set of emergency water usage restrictions.

When it was all over, CVWD customers were facing a much less onerous set of restrictions than residents elsewhere in the valley.

After more than an hour of public comments from an audience of roughly 120 residents and business owners, the CVWD issued mandates including:

  • The watering of outdoor landscapes within 48 hours of measurable rainfall is prohibited.
  • The irrigation of ornamental turf on public street medians is no longer allowed.
  • The use of water in decorative fountains is prohibited unless there is a recirculation system.
  • Restaurants must serve water only on request.
  • Runoff flows from outdoor watering are now a no-no.

However, the CVWD did not follow the lead of the west-side Desert Water Agency (DWA) or the Indio Water Authority (IWA) and place mandatory restrictions on the watering of ornamental landscapes.

Rather, it was “recommended” that CVWD customers continue to water only between sunset and 10 a.m., any day, if they so choose. That’s quite a contrast to the restrictions issued by the other water agencies. The IWA limits landscape irrigation to the hours between 6 p.m., and 6 a.m., on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The DWA mandated that residential customers can only water Monday, Wednesday and Friday, between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., while commercial, industrial and institutional customers can water on alternate days—but only after they submit a plan approved by agency personnel.

Katie Ruark, the DWA’s public information officer, explained how the DWA board of directors came to the three-days-per-week, mandatory restriction.

“Math,” Ruark said. “We ran some calculations internally to see what we would have to do to reduce overall usage by 36 percent, and knowing that landscape watering accounts for the majority of water use … we knew that we had to cut down to that many days to get where we needed.”

Almost all of the CVWD board’s “restrictions” aren’t restrictions at all, but “recommended activities” in which actions are either “strongly encouraged” or “strongly discouraged.”

“I think the board decided that people need to have flexibility in determining what works best for them,” said CVWD spokeswoman Heather Engel after the meeting. “They set a goal at 36 percent below your budgeted water use amount, and you know we’re not asking every single person or customer to reduce. Some people have already done their part, and they don’t need to do any more. But for the people who are above that threshold, they are saying, ‘You do what you need to do to get your number down.’ So if that means you need to limit your watering, then fine, but maybe there’s somebody else who can get to their number without reducing their watering.”

That flexibility was not offered to DWA and IWA customers.

“Our strategy has been to achieve a community-wide reduction,” said Ruark of the DWA. “And the reason for that is that we know there are people in our community who have put in desertscapes; they’ve taken out their old washer and dryer and put in water-efficient ones; they’ve redone their irrigation systems, and they don’t have a lot of room left to save. We also know that there are people who do have a lot of room to save. So we implemented 13 water-use restrictions, and we’re essentially controlling the way you use water, and not necessarily how much you use.”

There is some hope for all valley residents: The onerous 36 percent total reduction mandated by the state may be rolled back to some lesser amount, thanks to the efforts of the DWA.

As reported previously, the DWA was the only one of the Coachella Valley’s three major water agencies that put in the time and effort to argue for the reduction of the valley’s per-capita water-usage calculation as adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board. Partly as a result of the agency’s explanation as to how the valley’s seasonal and tourist population inflates the water usage that is attributed to the smaller full-time residential community, the state board decided to allow agencies statewide to present revised estimates and supporting data on actual per-capita population totals.

“We’ve been making the comment since 2010, when we did our urban water-management plans, that it was just not accurate for us to use (federal) Census data,” Ruark said. “Other population projections have to be incorporated in this area, because our seasonal population is so significant.”

If the revised and lower per capita numbers are accepted by the State Water Board, that could lessen the target water-usage reduction total.

“This is huge for all the agencies in the Coachella Valley, and we’re very excited that we’ll be able to do that,” Engel said. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out and back up a population number which we think is more accurate. But we’re still confirming our data with as many experts as we can to make sure we can defend it.”

If the state does decrease the target from 36 percent, would usage reduction targets be moved to that lower number?

“I think we would have to go back to the board and see how they want to respond,” Engel said.

As for the DWA, “That is hard to say,” Ruark said. “Our board is open to effectiveness always, but specifically to say would they change the restrictions halfway through the game, I don’t know.”

No matter which Coachella Valley water agency provides you with the valuable natural resource, you should visit the appropriate website and study up on the restrictions from and behaviors allowed by your agency. If you hope to avoid financial repercussions, such as higher-tier rates and/or potential fines—the CVWD has had fines in place for a year now, and the DWA is looking into them—you need to be proactive in observing and managing your water usage.

“We’re not a policing agency,” Engel said. “We’re not going to go crazy with these restrictions and fines. Our goal is to educate people and to assist people.”

For more information, visit www.cvwd.org, www.dwa.org or www.indiowater.org.

Below: The Coachella Valley Water District mandated that customers can’t water within 48 hours of measurable rain. That was one of the few actual restrictions issued by the agency, which instead focused on recommendations. Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Environment

On March 17, the California State Water Resources Control Board made it clear: Californians need to escalate the battle against the continuing, disastrous drought that’s plaguing our state.

Gov. Jerry Brown first held a press conference to reiterate the need for increased voluntary water conservation. Soon after, though, he went on the offensive: In an executive order issued April 1, he delivered the first list of state-mandated water-use restrictions in California’s history—mandates which will remain in effect until at least Feb. 28, 2016, although most people believe they’ll remain in effect well beyond that date.

The order means the two main water-management agencies in the Coachella Valley—the Desert Water Agency (DWA) on the west end, and the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) on the east end—have been charged with creating, implementing and following local water-usage-reduction programs.

The CVWD held a board meeting to solicit public input on April 14.

“I’d estimate that we had nearly 100 people there—and we don’t get any people at our meetings very often,” said Heather Engel, the agency’s director of communication and conservation. “I think the board really appreciated the outpouring from the community and the sharing in the discussion. Here’s the thing: We need to hear from them which restrictions are feasible and are going to be accepted by them.”

The CVWD’s new strategies and restrictions will be announced at the board meeting on Tuesday, April 28.

Over at the DWA, on Tuesday, April 21, the board of directors held a public meeting—and an estimated 200-plus citizens packed into the small meeting room, overflowing into the lobby. The size of the crowd required that Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, deliver her multimedia presentation on water-conservation efforts twice—first in the meeting room, and then to the disgruntled citizens forced to stand outside the meeting room’s doors.

While the CVWD put two weeks between the public-input meeting and an announcement of new restrictions, the DWA issued revised policies just hours after public input was received on April 21. Given that tight turnaround, it’s difficult to understand how the public comments could have influenced the final policy announcement.

The DWA restrictions, which took effect immediately, declare that “the following uses of water are now prohibited (or continue to be prohibited): washing of hardscapes; running water to wash vehicles (buckets and stop nozzles on hoses are permitted); (and) the use of potable water in fountains or other decorative water features (unless necessary for aquatic pets).”

The decree continues, “Irrigation restrictions include: using potable water outside of newly constructed homes and buildings that is not delivered by drip or micro-spray systems; outdoor residential irrigation shall be restricted to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after 7 p.m. and before 7 a.m.; a commercial, industrial or institutional customer may implement an alternative water use reduction plan that achieves reductions in water use equivalent to those expected from the restrictions prescribed herein, if approved …; runoff such that water flows onto adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots, or structures is prohibited; irrigating up to 48 hours after measurable rainfall is prohibited; the use of potable water to irrigate turf within street medians, and turf within the dedicated right of way on either side of a public street, is prohibited.”

The restrictions end with: “Additional restrictions for hotels and restaurants include: Restaurants may provide water to customers only upon request; (and) operators of hotels and motels shall provide guests with the option of choosing not to have towels and linens laundered daily.”

The DWA also asked customers to refrain from emptying and refilling swimming pools from June 1 through Oct. 31, unless absolutely necessary.

Per State Water Resources Control Board policy, no restrictions are being placed on the agricultural industry. In CVWD territory, agriculture accounts for 50 percent of total water usage, as compared to 17 percent by golf courses, and 33 percent for domestic use—public and private, commercial and residential.

Both of the valley’s agencies have been told to reduce their customers’ total usage by 36 percent as computed against 2013 usage numbers. By comparison, some water districts in the state have been asked to reduce usage by as little as 6 to 10 percent. The percentage target for each district was based on per-capita usage numbers, so this high target for valley residents was predicated on consistently high per-capita average-usage totals.

In a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board by DWA general manager David Luker, he blamed seasonal residents for much of the high water usage.

“During the warmer season, approximately 30 percent of water bills are sent out of the state of California,” Luker wrote. “Seasonal residents have homes that use water whether they are here or not, but they are not counted as population. The water use of seasonal residents is placed on the backs of year-round residents, as seasonal residents are not included in population data.”

Unlike the DWA, the CVWD declined to make a comment to the SWRCB.

“A 36 percent reduction is not going to be easy as a whole water district,” said Engel. “We still think that the state’s per-capita number for us is not a fair representation, but we have decided that, no, we’re not going to push back. We’ve decided that if the state wants us to reduce by 36 percent, then we’re going to do what we can to reduce by 36 percent.”

At the DWA’s public meeting, numerous community speakers urged the board to adopt and implement a tiered-billing policy soon—even though a state appeals court had just ruled that a four-tiered pricing plan adopted by San Juan Capistrano was in violation of Proposition 218, a 1996 initiative passed by voters that prohibits government agencies from charging more for services than their actual cost.

However, the CVWD, which has had a tiered-billing system since 2009, is confident the agency’s system could withstand any legal challenge.

“We don’t think it will have an effect,” Engel said about the ruling. “Our understanding is that the court’s problem was not with budget-based tiered rates in general, but with rate structures that arbitrarily set the pricing. Our rate structure is based on our cost to provide service.”

Published in Environment

At night, in the parched pasturelands in the southern reaches of California’s Central Valley, strange constellations glow on the horizon: beacons atop rigs that are drilling for water.

Applications to drill new wells skyrocketed after state officials announced in February that, after the third year of pitiful precipitation, no water would be delivered via the concrete rivers of the massive State and Central Valley water projects. In Fresno County between January and April, 226 well-drilling permits were issued, compared to just 69 during the same period last year—prompting some to fear irreparable damage to aquifers.

In the daytime, signs planted in desiccated orchards come into view, declaring: “Congress created Dust Bowl” and “Man-made Drought,” expressing the widely believed myth that regulations to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are responsible for water shortages on Central Valley farms.

In February, House Republican David Valadao proposed lifting endangered-species protections and invalidating the federal mandate to restore the San Joaquin River, so that pumping from the Delta to the Central Valley could be increased. In March, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sought more “flexibility” to transfer water from wetter northern regions to the south’s water-starved farms and cities, and to expand Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, for storing more water. Just last week, five Central Valley water agencies announced their own audacious plan to overcome the drought: Fill the California Aqueduct with groundwater, and reverse its normal flow along one roughly 50-mile section in order to deliver moisture to the valley’s bone-dry western edge.

In California, the worst political sin during times of extreme aridness is the appearance of idleness. However, while politicians maneuver for temporary engineering fixes and regulatory rollbacks, other Westerners argue that the old solutions to water scarcity won’t end the current crisis, or protect us from future ones.

Water expert Peter Gleick says California and the West have reached “peak water,” with more water promised to farms and cities than mountains and rivers can provide. Worse, the region could fall into a “megadrought,” lasting decades or centuries. Bigger reservoirs and new wells will bring no relief without an adequate water supply. This raises the question: Will California take realistic measures to deal with its water crisis, or succumb to political inertia and lack of rain?

The last decade’s unrelenting droughts have forced Westerners to re-evaluate the definition of a “normal” water supply. B. Lynn Ingram, a University of California earth-science professor and author of The West Without Water, didn’t have to look far to find major periods of aridity in the past. There was the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the 1976 to ’77 drought, known in California as the “year of no rain.” And yet, as economically and socially damaging as these events were, we have not witnessed the worst possible extremes—not by a long shot, says Ingram. The mid-Holocene drought, for example, persisted for 1,500 years, forcing vast migrations of Native peoples.

Add climate change to the risk of natural megadrought, and the future looks even bleaker. “The data shows that there are certainly periods of dryness that were longer and more intense than what we have in our 100 years of records,” says Elissa Lynn, program manager of the Climate Change Program at California’s Department of Water Resources. “The problem is that today, it’s hotter than it was in those periods—and that will exacerbate any drought problems we have.”

Lynn points out that the state’s snowpack, the source of about one-third of its water, is expected to decline by 48 to 65 percent this century. It has already dropped by 10 percent over 20 years. In early May, the water stored in remaining snowpack was just 18 percent of average. “We have to start making plans for its loss,” Lynn says.

The White House’s National Climate Assessment, released in May, reinforces that mandate. According to the report, temperature increases resulting from carbon pollution have played a large role in the snowline’s rapid retreat. Rising temperatures and shrinking water supplies are a double blow for farms: “The combination of a longer frost-free season, less frequent cold air outbreaks, and more frequent heat waves … increases agricultural water consumption,” the report says. “This combination of climate changes is projected to continue and intensify.”

Ingram says California and most of the West have entered an era in which water shortages can’t be solved through brute-force engineering. “We need to acknowledge how unreliable and uncertain our water supply is. It looks variable over a century. But if you go back in time, it’s even more variable. And that’s a little scary,” she says. “You can build bigger reservoirs, but if we’re heading into a drier period, you’re not going to have the water to fill them.”

She has some practical advice: “We need to be thinking about local efficiency—the use of wastewater-recycling and rainwater-harvesting,” she says. And in agricultural regions where the bulk of the state’s water is consumed, efficiency- and groundwater-monitoring must be priorities. (California doesn’t regulate groundwater-pumping, and the more aquifers are depleted, the less they can be leaned on during future droughts.)

Lynn of the Department of Water Resources agrees, pointing out that reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt will force water managers to take a “portfolio” approach—diversifying water supplies, increasing water conservation and recycling, and devising new storage methods, like banking water in aquifers in wet years, rather than in reservoirs.

The drought currently ravaging California is, indeed, partly “man-made.” But those responsible for “making” the drought are not politicians or regulators with soft spots for endangered fish. This drought, while natural in some sense, has likely been intensified by anyone who puts gasoline in a car, flips a light switch powered by coal- or gas-burning power plants—or turns on a faucet.

In California, an estimated one-fifth of overall energy is expended moving water to places it doesn’t naturally flow. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all to blame.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

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