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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

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