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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 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

After months of rain—and increased revenue from last year’s rate increases—both the western Coachella Valley’s Desert Water Agency and the eastern valley’s Coachella Valley Water District find themselves wading in more riches than they could have imagined just one short year ago.

However, that does not mean that all of the water-conservation mandates are a thing of the past.

“The drought is over, but conservation isn’t,” said Ashley Metzger, the DWA’s outreach and conservation manager. “That’s the big message.”

While Gov. Jerry Brown declared on April 7that the drought was officially over in most of the state—including Riverside County—many of the water-usage restrictions imposed during the drought may be with us for some time.

“We live in the desert, and we’re always in a drought,” said Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of conservation and communication. “Even though there were many areas of the state that were facing unprecedented circumstances, for us, this is how it is all the time.”

Coachella Valley residents are continuing to conserve. According to the CVWD’s March conservation report, customers used 24.5 percent less potable water than compared to the same period in 2013, while the DWA reported a 23.6 percent decrease.

“There are still prohibitions on water waste, water runoff and watering during or soon after rainfall. These are all things for which the DWA will cite people,” Metzger said. “We see the drought as having been a good learning opportunity for our customers, and we want to keep that message going in terms of water use efficiency.”

However, some of the most onerous water restrictions may be eased.

“Any restrictions that local water agencies imposed above and beyond the state’s, according to my understanding, can be eliminated,” said Engel. “That’s where you see that some of the local time or day-of-the-week outdoor-irrigation usage restrictions are being lifted. But the state restrictions are pretty much common-sense restrictions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the governor and the State Water Resources Control Board make those kinds of restrictions permanent.”

Still, the local agencies are celebrating the results of all the recent precipitation.

“The big and good news is that, with the state getting plenty of rain and snowmelt runoff in Northern California, we are expecting to get 85 percent of our imported water allotment from the State Water Project this year,” Engel said. “That’s huge. If you’ve driven over that Whitewater Bridge lately, you’ve seen the water flowing down, and it’s going to be flowing all year. We’re thinking that we might be able to put about 300,000 acre feet of water into the aquifer, which is huge for all of us here in the Coachella Valley.”

The last year in which the valley received a noteworthy imported water allotment from the state was 2013.

“The only downside is that we have to be more diligent in our messaging concerning safety,” Metzger said. “You know during the summer when people want to get a reprieve from the heat out here that the river flow is alluring. But we want to point people to the reserve to experience the water resource—and not have them go into the river.”

The CVWD may also receive an unexpected revenue windfall. Last year, the CVWD board of directors approved aggressive incremental rate increases over five years. Engel explained: “When we pitched the need for these rate increases to the community, we said there were three key reasons: chromium 6 treatment (required by new state regulations); reduced revenue due to conservation; and the third had to do with a number of other capital-improvement projects, some of which had been deferred during the recession years.”

However, CVWD staff members last fall—after the rate increases were enacted—became aware of test results involving an alternative chromium 6 treatment program.

“We decided to take a timeout and do a pilot study of this alternative treatment method,” Engel said. “If this doesn’t work, we probably won’t meet the deadline to be in compliance with state-mandated chromium 6 levels by 2020. So there’s a bit of a risk there, but the savings to our customers would be so significant, and the positive impact on our communities and the environment so significant, that our board decided it was a risk worth taking. Since the report came, a handful of water districts in the state, and the city of Coachella, are looking into this other method.”

Could this new treatment option lead to—at least—lower rate increases for CVWD customers?

“The board could reduce rates back to 2010 levels if they wanted to do that,” she said. “Or they could say they don’t need any increase this year. Or they could increase any amount up to the total that was published.”

At 8 a.m., Monday, May 22, the CVWD Board is holding a public meeting to review a presentation on next year’s fiscal budget, effective July 1.

“Certainly, we did not spend the money in the last year on the chromium 6 treatment project that we had planned, but we’re uncertain about that future,” Engel said. “People are still conserving, and that’s good, and we do still have these additional projects that we need to do. For instance, we’re in the planning stages for the construction of a new aquifer-recharge facility in Palm Desert, where subsidence of the aquifer has become an issue. So there’s still a need to fund these other projects, but whether or not we can do it with or without a rate increase is still undecided. Based on what the board has said in recent public meetings, it’s clear they’re hoping that staff can come up with a plan (for the next fiscal year) that does not require an increase.”

Meanwhile, the DWA and other local water agencies have found a way to lessen the impact of rate increases on some customers. Partnering with the United Way, the DWA formed the Help2Others program, which provides financial aid to help lower-income residents pay their water bills.

“We have a lot of seniors and some lower-income neighborhoods. … it was really important to get a program like that set up, and we did,” Metzger said. “… Now all five public water agencies in the valley have this program in conjunction with the United Way.

This valuable assistance is funded differently through each of the participating agencies. “Here at the DWA,” Metzger said, “our vendors and our employees have contributed funds to make our program possible, which I’m super-proud of. I think we all realize what we do wouldn’t be possible without the residents paying our rates, and if you need help, we understand water is one of the most fundamental things you need.”

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

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

Since March 24, the Coachella Valley Water District management team has been conducting a series of public presentations billed as “Water Rate Workshops.”

The managers’ goal of these presentations: Cnvince wary customers to go along with a proposed four years of considerable water-rate increases, slated to start on July 1.

The CVWD board of directors will decide on the first year of proposed increases on June 14.

At the May 2 workshop, many customers of the utility—which provides water to most of the valley from portions of Cathedral City eastward—left unconvinced about the need for the rate hikes, despite the arguments made by CVWD General Manager Jim Barrett and Conservation Manager Katie Ruark.

The CVWD cites three main factors in the increase request: a decrease in revenue due to successful conservation efforts which obviously reduced water sales; water treatment needed to meet newly adopted state drinking-water standards for chromium 6, which will cost the agency about $250 million; and system maintenance and upgrades needed to serve the 318,000 residents who rely on the agency for reliable and safe water.

Many audience members had legitimate questions regarding the proposed CVWD responses to these financial challenges.

It was obvious from the start of the state-mandated water-conservation effort in 2014 that all water agencies’ revenues would decrease if customers’ water usage decreased. The CVWD relied on budgeted reserve funds and customer over-usage penalty fees to bridge the gap, and understandably, those resources will not be sufficient to cover costs moving forward.

But are there other areas in the current CVWD budget where money might be saved? Employee-compensation costs make up 39.2 percent of the domestic-water-service expenses at the agency. Barrett mentioned that more employees had been hired in the past few years after a decrease in staff following the Great Recession, but he indicated that employee costs were not a factor in the move to increase rates.

On the other hand, in a recent interview, Heather Engel, the CVWD director of communication and conservation, recently told us: “When those chromium 6 treatment plants are built, we’re going to have to hire a lot more people, because we will need them to operate the plants.”

That leads to an interesting question regarding the proposed $250 million chromium 6 treatment plan: A customer at the May 2 workshop asked if the utility had considered pushing back or initiating a lawsuit against the new state mandate. The response: After serious consideration, the board chose not to push back, and instead to implement the costly treatment solution.

The chromium 6 situation happens to be much different on the Coachella Valley’s western end, where water customers are served by the Desert Water Agency.

“The DWA is extremely fortunate, because a lot of the (aquifer) recharge happens right in our own backyard,” said Ashley Metzger, the DWA outreach and conservation manager, in a recent interview. “One effect of that process is to dilute the naturally occurring chromium 6 levels, because the Colorado River water has no chromium 6. We’re actually below the (state’s new) 10 parts per billion threshold level, so we’re not going to have to treat anything.”

However, Metzger did express doubts about the need for the new strict state standard.

“I would argue that we don’t know if there’s a threat at all,” she said. “Our federal level is currently 100 parts per billion, and (in California), we’re now talking 10 parts. A part per billion is like if you had $10 million worth of pennies, you’re going to be able to find one of those pennies that’s different than the others. Science has evolved very quickly, and because we’re able to detect minute traces of substances, there’s a tendency, I think, to regulate based on the ability to detect. But sometimes (that tendency to regulate) is for the good of the community, and other times, all the factors are not evaluated.”

Back to the Coachella Valley Water District: Are these proposed rate increases a foregone conclusion?

“(The board has) a proven history of listening to the customers and trying to be responsive to their feedback,” Engel said. “But let me say that this is not a popular rate-increase proposal. This is going to mean that most homeowners will see an increased rate of about $6 per month, but (homeowner associations) and businesses are going to see a much more significant increase on their bills, and we know that. So we have not proposed this plan without a lot of thought and consideration from CVWD.

“The challenge that we face results from the cost-of-service studies. In order to have rates that are defensible against any lawsuits, we have to base any increase on a cost-of-service study. Our consultants came back and said that we are not charging customers what we should be.”

Do the CVWD’s domestic water customers have any real voice in this debate? They do, according to the agency’s “Important Information About Your Rates” brochure, recently mailed to all invoiced customers.

In the section titled “How Can I Participate?” there is this clause: “At the time of the public hearing, the board of directors will hear and consider all written protests and public comments. After the hearing, if a majority of the property owners of the impacted parcels or tenants directly liable for the payment of the charges submit written protests in opposition to the proposed rate increases, the increases will not be imposed. If a majority protest is not received, CVWD’s board of directors may adopt the proposed changes, though they are not obligated to.”

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

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

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