CVIndependent

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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

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

There are many alternative-newspaper editors out there who would take one look the story we put on the cover of our September print edition and instantly declare that I, your humble editor, am a total moron.

Stories about water-district boards, as a general rule, don’t sell newspapers. (Thank goodness the Independent is free, right?) So why, you might ask, did I decide to put a story about a water-district board on one of the only 12 covers the Independent has in year?

The answer is simple: This mundane-sounding story is really important.

It’s important for Coachella Valley residents to know that until two years ago, white people basically made up the entire board of the Coachella Valley Water District, the valley’s largest water agency, even though a third of the residents within the CVWD are Latino. It’s vital to know that many people within the CVWD boundaries don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water—largely because these people were never on the minds of the CVWD board members.

It’s crucial for the public to understand that while positive changes seem to finally be coming to the Coachella Valley Water District, there’s a lot of work to do—and it’s the public’s job to make sure that work actually gets done.

So … that’s why Kevin Fitzgerald’s excellent-if-not-so-sexy story on Castulo Estrada and his work on the CVWD board is on the cover for September. (Thank goodness designer Mark Duebner is talented enough to come up with a compelling piece of cover art, no matter the story!)

In completely unrelated news: It’s Best of Coachella Valley time again! Voting is now open in the first round of our annual readers’ poll. For more details, head to our Best of Coachella Valley page!

Be sure to follow the rules; for example, you have to vote in at least 15 categories; you need to put down your full name; and you need to provide a real, working email address. (If our test email bounces, we delete the ballot!) If we see more than a handful ballots coming from the same IP address, we’ll investigate to make sure the electronic ballot box is not being stuffed.

First-round voting takes place through Monday, Sept. 26. After that, the top three to five vote-getters in each category will advance to the final-round vote, which takes place throughout October. The winners and placement of the other finalists will be announced here at CVIndependent.com on Monday, Nov. 28, and in the December print edition. Email me if you have any questions!

As always, thanks for reading. Also: Be sure to pick up a copy of the September 2016 print edition of the Coachella Valley Independent, hitting streets throughout the valley this week!

Published in Editor's Note

The eastern Coachella Valley is the home of some of the poorest areas of California. Many residents don’t even have access to safe drinking water—thanks largely to years of institutional indifference.

This horrifying truth can be blamed in part on the fact that the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) was electing each of its five members at large: While each representative had to live in the “directorial division” he or she represented, voters within the entire CVWD—ranging from portions of Cathedral City, Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs southeast all the way to the Salton Sea—selected each member.

Even though a third of the voting-age residents of the CVWD are Latino, back in 2014, the entire board was white.

After civil-rights lawyers threatened to sue the district, the board moved to change the voting process, and in 2014, CVWD constituents voted to change future elections: From that year on, the residents of each directorial division would select their own representative.

That fall, Castulo Estrada, a resident and employee of the city of Coachella with a civil engineering degree, was elected as the Division 5 director. Since his arrival, Estrada has adamantly injected the voice of his constituency into all aspects of the operations of the Coachella Valley’s largest water agency.

“The fact that I was elected to the board of directors a year and a half ago has allowed us to voice concerns in a much louder way,” Estrada said in a recent interview.

Estrada explained why he felt qualified to represent the serious needs of his constituents at our valley’s eastern end.

“First, this is my community,” Estrada said. “This is where I grew up. I did come from a disadvantaged community. I used to live in Oasis with my parents under the same conditions that a lot of these folks now find themselves in.

“Second, (when elected), I was already working for the utilities department here in the city of Coachella,” Estrada said. “I went to college and studied civil engineering, so I had an educational background about water, waste water and flood control. When I came back to work for Coachella, I focused on water issues. I was involved in a lot of the regional efforts through the Coachella Valley Regional Water Management Group, which is basically a collaboration among the five water agencies in the valley. That’s how I got a glimpse into what the CVWD was doing in the unincorporated areas.”

Estrada glimpsed an effort that he—along with many of his constituents, including those involved with East Valley nonprofit organizations such as Building Healthy Communities and Pueblo Unido—deemed insufficient.

“A lot of us are trying to bring about some changes here in the east side in terms of the availability of potable water people now have,” he said.


After Estrada was elected to the board, he got right to work.

“When a new board member is elected, there’s an opportunity to form another committee that didn’t exist (previously),” he said. “So, knowing what our objectives were, I did form a new committee in December 2014.”

Estrada soon learned that working within the system can be a tedious, time-consuming process.

“Finally by the beginning of (2016), we had come up with the name Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Committee (DCIC), and we began meeting regularly every month,” Estrada said. “Now our DCIC goals and mission are set with two long-term and 10 short-term goals as well as three immediate actions.” (See the sidebar for an example of one of these “immediate actions.”)

“On July 19, we took these objectives to our first meeting with the CVWD Task Force, which is charged with making sure that all these goals are accomplished. … General Manager Jim Barrett is working with engineers for water, or for sewers, the environmentalists, and any other CVWD staff required to meet the goals. We wanted to involve all these key people, because we don’t want to have a committee just for the sake of having a committee. We want it to be effective.”

Part of the outcome of that meeting was a name change for the committee to reflect its new reach and wider umbrella of participants. Now called the CVWD and Disadvantaged Communities Task Force (CVWD-DCITF), Estrada and board President John Powell (pictured right)—who back in April insisted on becoming the second required director on the committee—are excited about the possibilities ahead.

“These challenges have not really ever been a directive of the CVWD in the past,” Powell said. “We (the CVWD) really just serve our customers, and as people apply for new service, typically, they pay for it (through the developers). That model has really left out those folks who don’t have that type of upfront development plan and the financing to go with it. So you have communities with excellent services, while right next to them, you find communities that don’t have any water, sewer or flood-control services. Now we have made a new priority, really due to the leadership of director Estrada, that has elevated this particular topic for the board to consider.”

The officially adopted mission statement for the newly minted CVWD-DCITF is: “The mission of the CVWD and Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force is to secure access to safe, affordable drinking water, wastewater and flood control services in historically disadvantaged Coachella Valley regions through strategic planning, funding procurement, needs assessment and reporting—all in collaboration with community members and stakeholders.”

Estrada said it’s vital that the new task force meet its goals.

“There are a lot of folks out there living with a contaminated well that they use for cooking and showering,” Estrada said. “We want to take it a step further and make it a CVWD mission to do more.”


Estrada’s board responsibilities don’t end with helping those East Valley residents who lack proper water and sewer services.

During the June 14 CVWD board meeting, when some of the hotly contested CVWD water-rate increases were passed, Estrada became frustrated with what he called “maneuvering” by representatives of more-affluent West Valley customers—and he is not being shy about that frustration.

“Our vote (back in June) tabled the question of what the new fixed-rate level would be,” Estrada said. “(The vote) required the board to strive for a less-drastic rate structure than the one put forward in the original rate-increase proposal. The revenue we collect through monthly billings is to keep the current system operating and provide water at the actual cost of the service to each existing customer. … We have current existing water and sewer systems on the east side of the valley in Mecca, Thermal, Salton City and Bombay Beach. There are projects that need to be supported in these areas in order to maintain a quality service level. That’s what the recurring revenues are meant to support.

“Most of the pressure to reduce the fixed-cost portion of the monthly bills was coming from the landscape-customer class, which includes (homeowners associations) and golf courses, and actually makes up a very small percentage of the CVWD’s total customer base. So if we accept their objection and reduce their rate below the actual cost of the service provided to that class, then funds available to support the necessary projects across the valley—and in the east-end communities in particular—may have to be cut back.

“That’s the source of my frustration and concern. There are no golf courses or HOAs in Thermal, or Mecca, or Oasis, or Bombay Beach. So if the result is to cut the revenue coming from this one customer class by lowering their rate and thus eliminating necessary projects on the east end of the valley, that makes me sad.”

Could water politics such as this water-rate issue derail the good that can be achieved for struggling East Valley residents via Estrada’s CVWD-DCITF mission?

“We need right now to survey the situation and figure out where we are, and where we can reasonably go,” said Powell, the board president. “You know, it really takes leadership. This is how things get done in the world. Somebody needs to make it a priority. I think the fact that we now have our first Latino director on our board, and he’s a very capable person showing great leadership skills—along with others in the community, like Sergio Carranza of Pueblo Unido Community Development Center, and members of our CVWD staff—(shows) this effort is in really good hands.”

Estrada expressed confidence that his efforts will lead to much-needed changes within the CVWD.

“I’m really happy, and a lot of the community is really happy to see that the CVWD is willing to hear our concerns and has shown that they want to participate and help us out,” Estrada said. “I think that’s what we’ve wanted for a long time. Just as the CVWD has put so much effort and attention into addressing the concerns of the golf-course communities and the HOAs’ concerns, we’re happy to know that the issues of the folks out here in the East Valley are now being considered as well—at the same level.”


Getting Ready: The CVWD Is Working to Make Sure Life-Changing Projects Are Ready to Go When Funding Becomes Available

As the work of Castulo Estrada and the CVWD and Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force truly gets started, it’s worth looking at one “immediate action” goal

“The Coachella Valley Regional Water Management Group (CVRWMG) obtained a grant a few years ago of about $500,000 to work with (nonprofit organizations) to run a survey across the Coachella Valley,” Estrada said. “People went door-to-door to identify where the disadvantaged communities surviving without safe accessible water and sewer service existed. As a result of their report, communities were identified. … So by using that work and overlaying it with current CVWD utility infrastructure maps, we’re able to start chopping off some of the low-hanging fruit.”

This process has resulted in a priority project for the CVWD’s new task force: The hook-up to proper water infrastructure of multiple mobile-home parks along Avenue 66 in the Thermal-Mecca area, which account for between 300 and 500 living units.

“There’s about $1.1 million in Round 1 funds that have been directed to the CVRWMG in our region from California Prop 1 (the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014),” Estrada said. “The CVRWMG, which is made up of the five local water agencies, has undertaken a process of reviewing various projects which have been submitted by all of these agencies. We’re trying to obtain about one-third of that $1.1 million to go toward the development of our projects.”

These state grant funds would enable the CVWD to complete preliminary engineering and environmental requirements, and acquire any necessary permits. The strategy is for the CVWD-DCITF to have projects to present that are “shovel-ready” when implementation funding becomes available.

“When all of this preparation work is done,” Estrada said, “potentially there may be other grants we could qualify for from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could equal $3 million to $5 million or more. So when we hear of funds being available, we’ll be able to submit the plans—and boom, we can qualify.”

Published in Local Issues

The initial East Valley goal of the Agua4All campaign: Bring relief to thousands of students who had no access to safe drinking water by installing 60 bottle-filling stations at the schools of the Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD).

An April 8 rally at Toro Canyon Middle School in Thermal celebrated success: By the end of March, that goal had been eclipsed, as 75 stations had been set up. As a result, students now have free reusable water bottles and on-campus access to one or more Agua4All stations, providing safe drinking water on a continuous basis.

“It’s been an extremely important effort that was initiated by the California Endowment, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Community Water Center. Now we want to take it statewide,” said Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, of the East Valley’s 56th District, in an interview. “We introduced a piece of legislation (AB 2124) that allocates the resources to enable taking this effort across the state of California.”

The bill is currently in the hands of the state Assembly.

Sarah Buck, the RCAC Agua4All campaign supervisor and rural development specialist, said she hopes the program will be expanded to other Coachella Valley schools.

“One of our goals down the road is to get the interest and attention of the Desert Sands Unified School District to create a partnership and replicate what we’ve done with the CVUSD so that we can install filling stations in all of their schools as well,” she said. Desert Sands operates schools in parts of Bermuda Dunes, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indian Wells. “But that may be a little ways out. Right now, we’re in the phase of looking for and waiting for funding to continue those efforts.”

Still, a lot of work remains, especially when it comes to the numerous unpermitted trailer parks where so many families live without infrastructure.

“We have installed at least one filling station and up to six at every single one of the schools in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, with the exception of Westside (Elementary School in Thermal),” Buck said. “But we’ve only put a few stations in community access sites. We put two at the Mecca Boys and Girls Club and two at the San Jose Community Learning Center. So in this next phase in Coachella, the goal is to put them in more community places so that not just kids have safe water access … but that their families (do) as well.”

Victor Gonzalez, a Coachella resident, shed more light on the depths of the problem. “I lived in Lake St. Anthony trailer park from 1992 all the way up to 2015, so I grew up in those conditions,” he said. “We were not connected to the (Coachella Valley Water District) system, so a lot of these trailer parks resorted to using wells. For a long time, we were getting water in our homes that had dirt in it. This was the water that we would be drinking. We’d shower in it, and my mom and my dad cooked with it.”

Fortunately, recent actions have improved life for Gonzalez’s sister and friends who still live at St. Anthony’s.

“About two years ago,” Gonzalez said, “Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation established a reverse-osmosis center in the trailer park where people can go to get safe water for cooking or brushing their teeth, for example. But the tap water is still untreated.”

Is it possible to bring about permanent and convenient solutions that would deliver safe drinking water to the homes of all residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley? Garcia said he could foresee such a reality. “I do. In some places far sooner than others, but I really do. I think the Flint, Mich., case has shed light on what I call the smaller Flint, Mich., communities throughout the country—and I’m speaking specifically of those in California.

“California adopted a position that water is a right, and everyone should have access to safe water. Last year, we were successful in getting a bill signed by the governor that would allow very specific point-of-use technologies to be utilized in remote, rural areas to address the high levels of arsenic being found. This bill was directly beneficial to households in the communities of the eastern Coachella Valley, and it was sponsored by Sergio Carranza (executive director of PUDC) and the Pueblo Unido Development Corporation out of the eastern valley.”

The Coachella Valley Water District must play a prominent role in implementing permanent long-term solutions for the communities of the eastern valley it serves. Toward that end, a Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Committee was established within CVWD late in 2015. Garcia said the committee came into existence “thanks to the leadership of (CVWD board member) Castulo Estrada, who represents the district that has the majority of these communities being affected by the lack of infrastructure. He’s to be credited for that effort. He’s spearheading the CVWD efforts to address these issues in a timely and responsible way.”

Gonzalez also said Estrada’s election to the board in 2014 is leading to positive change. “For a long time, our area was not really represented by the board members we cast our votes for,” he said. “But in these last elections, we were able to vote for someone who really represented the people of our community. And it came as a result of community input and advocacy to change the voting mechanisms.”

Published in Local Issues