CVIndependent

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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

In 1948, the Desert Healthcare District was created by the state of California. Health-care districts were intended as a “response to a shortage of acute care hospitals as well as minimal access to health care in rural parts of the state,” according to the DHCD website.

In the ensuing 70 years, the service portfolio of the DHCD has evolved and expanded. Today, with an annual operating budget of roughly $7 million, the DHCD provides support to a variety of organizations (such as Find Food Bank, Volunteers in Medicine, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, etc.) that provide health and wellness services to residents in the current district—some 515 square miles of the western Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and the portion of Palm Desert west of Cook Street.

While a Riverside County property-tax allocation paid by all county residents helps fund the DHCD, it serves only this relatively limited portion of the county’s population. However, that is about to change.

In February 2016, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia—representing his eastern Coachella Valley constituency—introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 2414, mandating the DHCD to annex an additional 1,760 square miles of territory—and to provide health-care support to residents of eastern Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, Bermuda Dunes, Mecca, Thermal, Oasis, North Shore and Vista Santa Rosa. The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016.

Today, a concerted effort is underway to bring the vision of an expanded DHCD to fruition. The next important milestone: Having the voters of Coachella Valley approve the expansion by passing a measure. Spearheaded by DHCD CEO Herb Schultz and the health district’s board of directors, the “One Coachella Valley” approach, as CEO Schultz calls it, did not arrive at this point without struggle against resistance.

“This has been (the subject) of an ongoing conversation for about 15 years that, finally, required us to pass legislation to get to this point,” Garcia said. “Are you aware that this effort now underway could have been accomplished by the DHCD taking the initiative and applying to the Riverside County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to expand their territory? I hate to say this, but we almost had to force this issue via the legislation in order for us to get to where the voters can approve it in November.”

That struggle seems to have given way to a new spirit of mutual cooperation.

“The (DHCD) board’s focus, and the advocates’ focus, is squarely on getting this) on the ballot this year,” said Schultz, who has been the district’s CEO since late 2016.

But in order to accomplish that goal, a resolution offered by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors must be approved by LAFCO—and, LAFCO has indicated to the DHCD board that it would only support a proposal that was accompanied by a list of potential quantifiable funding sources.

The district has estimated it will need to increase its yearly budget by about $4 million in order to provide the new expanded territory with the same level of services it delivers to its current, smaller district. But so far, in the district’s search for increased revenue sources, it can only point to a generous, but limited, self-funding commitment: In late February, the DHCD board announced a $300,000 per year donation, which would last for a period of 20 years, equaling a total investment of $6 million. Will that be enough for LAFCO to sign off and allow the initiative to be placed on the ballot? “I can’t conjecture at this point what the LAFCO staff is going to say in its analysis,” Shultz said. “I can’t conjecture what the LAFCO commission is going to say when it gets to vote on that staff report.”

Garcia said the LAFCO commission’s opinions may not matter.

“In the law, LAFCO was stripped of its (ability) to deny the actual application,” Garcia said. “Therefore, their process is very procedurally driven. There is nothing in that process that can cause this application to be declined. So, what the job of both the Desert Healthcare District and Riverside County has been, is to identify a (single) funding source to get the DHCD expansion up and going. Given those circumstances, we believe now that, with the recent action taken by the DHCD (to allocate and accrue a self-funded total of $300,000 annually for 20 years), they’ve done that. They’ve identified a funding source—perhaps not the total amount that would be the ultimate operating budget of the expanded health care district, but it certainly is enough to get some programs up and going. And they’ve identified a series of other funding sources that would be able to augment the level of commitment that they’ve made. So, from all perspectives on this end, we are on track to meet the goals of the bill and to be able to give the voters of eastern Coachella Valley the opportunity to expand the health care district.”

Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez said he expected the forward momentum toward the expansion to continue.

“We’re taking it step by step, or bite by bite, if you will,” Perez said. “The first thing we have to do is get this resolution through LAFCO. We’ve finally got the language down for the resolution. It’s going to go to LAFCO when they meet (potentially on April 26). We’re very committed to this effort. This is an ongoing struggle that goes back many years—and as a person growing up on the eastside (of Coachella Valley), I can say that obviously, the time has come.”

With all the parties coming together, it appears the objective of providing more inclusive health-care services throughout Coachella Valley may be within reach.

“There are no guarantees, obviously,” Schultz said. “But the important thing is that this process has brought together what we call the ‘One Coachella Valley’ approach. It’s not about the west, and it’s not about the east. It’s about the valley.”

Garcia said he’s confident things will work out.

“The reality is that, if and when the voters approve this expansion, the DHCD’s entire (current) $7 million annual operating budget will become part of the (new overall) DHCD operating budget. So it isn’t going to be that $7 million will be only for the west valley, while $300,000 is used for the east valley. It will be a budget that encompasses everything. … The desire to increase the budget in order to reach more people is the goal that’s on the minds of the DHCD leadership. I believe we’ll get there.”

Published in Local Issues

Since 2007, the California Legislature has worked to encourage the development of telephone and Internet access through the California Advanced Services Fund. The fund provides financial assistance to both large telecommunications companies—including Frontier, AT&T, Charter and Cox—and independent broadband projects driven by community organizations that partner with smaller Internet service providers.

Thanks in part to the fund, the Legislature has grown closer to its goal of deploying broadband Internet service to 98 percent of Californians by 2017. But as the end of 2017 drew closer, many California legislators wanted to update the broadband-support program. The result: AB 1665, aka the Internet for All Now Act, which was authored by eastern Coachella Valley Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia.

After overwhelming approval in both houses, the bill now sits on the governor’s desk, as of this writing.

“We know that having broadband Internet access improves the state’s economy, enhances educational opportunities, and benefits public safety, (as well as) our medical field and patient care,” Garcia said during a recent phone interview. “Even in the Coachella Valley, civic participation requires a connection to the Internet now. So this law supports a program that invests in and ensures that the infrastructure is in place for the purpose of allowing carriers to connect all these homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, clinics and public safety services in remote areas, allowing them to communicate. It’s vital to what we all do on a daily basis.”

Garcia said the Legislature set the 98 percent connectivity goal about a decade ago. “We have now gotten to about 94 percent or so, and that last (unconnected) percentage happens to be in mostly underdeveloped areas like the eastern Coachella Valley, Imperial County and other rural parts of the state. So that’s what this program will do.”

However, the bill did not make it to the governor’s desk without controversy.

Stephen Blum is an executive team member of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, a California Public Utilities Commission-funded group engaged in broadband planning and development in the state, He’s also the president of Tellus Venture Associates, his own broadband-development consulting agency. He is not fan of the Internet for All Now Act version that made it to the governor’s desk.

“There have been attempts in the last legislative session and the two previous sessions to put more money into the (CASF) fund, more or less keeping the program as it was,” Blum said. “This year, things changed. The incumbents (large corporate ISPs) including AT&T, Frontier and the California Cable and Telecommunications Association jumped in and said, ‘We want the bill to be X, Y and Z.’ … Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia took it and started adding language that reflected the desires of these cable and telephone company incumbents.

“The bill went through three revisions, and each time, more perks were added for the incumbents. So as it’s written now, AB 1665 is going to put $300 million into a CASF infrastructure grant account and make it virtually impossible for independent projects to be funded. Essentially, then, it becomes a fund for AT&T and Frontier to use at their discretion.”

Blum said some of the changes made to the act baffled him.

“One of the things this bill does that boggles my mind is it lowers California’s broadband speed levels—and it’s a significant change,” he said. “Right now, an area is fundable if there’s no existing service that provides 6 mbps (megabits per second) download and 1.5 mbps upload speeds. That’s the standard. This bill changes it to 1 mbps up. Now, that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is, because the difference between 1.5 or 1 mbps up is the difference between 1990 DSL systems and contemporary copper system architecture and electronics. You can take a 1990 DSL system, do relatively minimal upgrades to it, and reach the 6 down, 1 up speed standard required. You can’t get 6 down, 1.5 up without going in and doing substantial work. That’s the change that AT&T and Frontier pushed very hard for, because that allows them to do minimal upgrades in rural areas to meet their obligations. Now they’re going to have to invest even less money—because the state will pay for it.

“If you’re in an area that falls under the CASF umbrella … you’re looking at a future where you’re going to have service somewhere in the 6 to 10 mbps download range, and 1 mbps upload range, and that’s not going to change for 10 to 20 years, because once this stuff is in, there’s no point in upgrading it.”

Garcia defended the changes made to the bill.

“There are places throughout the state that still have absolutely no Internet service whatsoever,” Garcia said. “The intention of the bill is to get people connected. The debate was: Why would we allow for certain areas that are already connected to increase their speed capacity? We laid out a goal, through a bipartisan effort of Republicans and Democrats from both rural and urban parts of the state, to make sure that the primary focus of this legislation was to serve the unserved populations. We had people push back, saying that we should be trying to get higher network speeds in places that already had connectivity, and we wrestled with that. What we decided is that we could (try for higher network speeds) after we connect everybody to some service in the areas still having no service. So, modifications to the bill were made where we were not able to appease everyone, but get enough support to move the bill forward.”

Another controversial aspect of the bill: For “last mile” projects that connect established “mid-mile” broadband pipelines to end users like homes, hospitals or businesses, those end users will have to participate financially in the funding of their access. Is that reasonable or fair when the target population is disadvantaged?

“The thought was that there should be some investment, or ‘skin in the game,’ on everyone’s part in order to be considered for access to CASF grants, and ultimately be connected,” Garcia responded.

The Independent asked whether there is some sort of means test built into the bill in order for disadvantaged end users to obtain financial support via the CASF.

“There is a means test through the CPUC,” Garcia said. “There was some confusion that this bill was attempting to just give people free Internet access—that it was like a welfare-type of program where if you signed up, you got free Internet. That’s nowhere near the real case. We’re talking about infrastructure being developed, and that makes it that much more accessible for people to connect to some type of broadband service.”

Blum said when we spoke that he was hopeful the legislation was not a done deal.

“When it gets to the governor, I think there’s a conversation to be had at that point,” he said. “We think that’s where the final decision will get made, and we feel that’s still an open question.”

Published in Local Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Local Issues

This has been one of the most highly charged and controversial election years in recent memory.

However, all is calm in State Assembly District 56, which includes Imperial County and much of the Eastern Coachella Valley. That’s the realm of Democratic State Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, who is facing no formal opposition for a second two-year term.

In 2015, Garcia reportedly made history by becoming the most successful freshman California assemblymember ever: The Democrat authored or co-authored 14 bills and two resolutions that were signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Independent recently chatted with Garcia about his first term, as well as his plans for his second.

What would you identify as the highlights of your legislative accomplishments to date?

There were a couple of different things. There were some environmental bills. Assembly Bill 1059 was introduced by our office, but it was an idea that came from a local organization. That’s an important bill for a place like Imperial County, which suffers from some of the highest asthma rates among children because of poor air quality. It became effective this year, and it is going to put air-monitoring systems along the California-Mexico border to begin quantifying and collecting the necessary data to make the case that there are emissions along the border that are in excess of safe levels. Because of border-crossing wait times due to a lack of infrastructure, those living in this region are subjected to this poor quality of air. Although this bill doesn’t address those problems directly, it positions this region to go after greenhouse-gas-reduction funds through the Air Resources Board of California.

In the East (Coachella) Valley, a bill that stands out to me is adopting the new regulations for the purpose of installing new water-filtration systems in the rural parts of the district that do not have centralized water and sewer infrastructure. These filtration systems protect people from consuming contaminated water. In this case, it’s water with high levels of arsenic.

Jumping back to Imperial County, we passed AB 1095, the Salton Sea projects. The bill required the Natural Resources Agency to report to the Legislature by March of this year a list of shovel-ready projects that are now going to be part of the execution of the $80.5 million in funds that we successfully included in this year’s state budget.

How do you feel about whether real tangible progress is being made to improve the fate of the Salton Sea, and remedy, or at least mitigate, the dangers its dissipation would pose?

I feel good, because through our legislation, we outlined what the shovel-ready projects are, and I feel good because now there’s some money available to be able to execute those projects. Also, I feel very optimistic about the state’s commitment moving forward, because $80.5 million has been allocated. But, look: For the first time, the state of California has committed a significant amount of money to a problem in our region, in this case the Salton Sea, so there’s a lot of optimism. But there’s still work to be done, and for some of us, it’s not happening fast enough. So now our message is beginning to change, from, “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” to, “Here’s what’s going to happen over the course of the next five to six years.”

What issues and challenges concern you the most during the remainder of this term, and looking ahead into your second term?

This year, we’ve got some tough bills that ask for money. I can tell you that our parks bond, asking for $3.2 billion, is probably going to be a heavy lift for the governor to sign. He’s not a big fan of going out and borrowing money, even if the return on the investment is good. But I’m confident that the bill will get through the legislative process.

For us in the 56th Assembly District, the bill has about $45 million that will go directly to programs, projects and services in our area. One example is that there is a direct allocation of an additional $25 million to the Salton Sea restoration efforts that would be very welcome. There’s another $5-$6 million that is going into the restoration of the New River. … That’s in the final stages of executing a strategic plan to develop the infrastructure to clean up the water and ultimately to develop a parkway in the city of Calexico, which would be beneficial to the entire Imperial County. Also, there’s $10 million for the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy to address their land acquisitions for the purpose of habitat conservation in the Coachella Valley. We’re going to keep our push going over the next couple of weeks as it makes its way through the Senate. It’s a two-thirds bill, and it required me to get a few votes from Republicans to get out of the Assembly and move to the Senate. We’ve got the backing of six Republican assembly members, which is unheard of. So we have a reputation in Sacramento thus far of collaboration and (taking) a bipartisan approach, and I think that, too, has helped us.”

What are your thoughts about the famous proposed Donald Trump wall between Mexico and the United States?

Mexico is a very important economic partner to the state of California and to our nation. Mexico is also an extremely important partner in the case of our national security. Our relationship with Mexico can determine the safety and well-being of this country. For those concerned with terrorists from other parts of the world entering the United States, I would think that our foreign policy with our neighbors to the south and our neighbors to the north would be one of cooperation, collaboration and good communication, to ensure that we all have each other’s backs. So I think it’s really ridiculous to try to continue the rhetoric of alienating our neighbors to the south. Our foreign policy needs to be a constructive and productive one with our neighbors to the south—and building a wall does not get us to that point.

Published in Politics

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

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

In 2003 and 2004, an ambitious group of young Latino community organizers and activists, all raised in the eastern Coachella Valley, returned home after earning college degrees.

They were known as over-achievers in their hometowns, and they searched each other out, they say, because they were determined to make a difference. They wanted to improve the lives of their friends and loved ones in the barrios and farm fields of the eastern valley, in part by gaining power via the political process.

A decade later, it’s clear: These organizers and activists, all Democrats, are making a mark and attaining many of their lofty goals.

V. Manuel Perez recently was elected to the Coachella City Council after three terms in the State Assembly. Eduardo Garcia swapped places with Perez, sort of: He just joined the State Assembly after serving as Coachella’s mayor. Maria Machuca is the president of the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board. Most notably, Dr. Raúl Ruiz is beginning his second term representing the Coachella Valley in Congress.

We talked to these young leaders about how they attained their current success—and what they have in mind for the future.


“I grew up in Cochelita, which was one of the toughest areas in Coachella Valley at the time, and we saw the injustices at an early age,” recalled V. Manuel Perez, who successfully ran for a Coachella City Council seat this year after a failed bid for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. (He was term-limited out of the Assembly.) “Why was it that in my barrio, there weren’t any parks, so we had to play football and tag in the middle of our street, where drive-by shootings were ongoing? And why was it that my parents would come home from work as farmworkers late in the day, only to go to work early the next day so that they were too tired to help me with my homework? And why, whenever I had a toothache, did we have to wait until the end of the week to go to Mexicali to see the dentist, because we didn’t have health insurance?”

Garcia was first elected to the Coachella City Council in 2004 and became mayor two years later, not too long after finishing college. “What I remember quite vividly is that there was a group of us who happened to be returning to the Coachella Valley from other endeavors,” Garcia said. “In my case, I was returning from finishing my undergraduate work at UC Riverside. Manny (Perez) had been organizing and working in the central and Northern California areas (after his graduation from UC Riverside and Harvard University post-graduate work), and a few others were returning from college. We all got together and really started organizing community events in and around the cultural and art arena, with a specific objective to raise consciousness about issues affecting our community.”

Machuca (right) graduated from Coachella Valley High School and continued on to Cal State San Bernardino. “And I always said that my goal after getting a college degree was to come back home regardless,” she said.

Josseth Mota, the current community services coordinator for the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, introduced Machuca to the group of young men, including Perez and Garcia, who had started meeting regularly to launch a community-service organization that could make a difference in their hometowns. She was already doing work with the Fair Housing Council and the Mecca Community Council.

“They told me they’d really like to get some women involved in their group, because then, it was a whole bunch of guys,” she recalled. “They said, ‘We need mujeres (women), because when a movement is going on, it’s pretty much the mujeres who move things forward. So I was interested, but I was going to be the only girl in this group with these guys who I’d only heard of back in high school.

“I knew Eddie Garcia, because he was a year ahead of me at Coachella Valley High School. Victor Manuel (Perez), I had heard about when I was in elementary school, because he was the guy who went to Harvard, and that was huge for us. And Raúl Ruiz, I knew because when we were in high school, some of us wanted to start an Aztec dancing club, and Joe Mota said he knew this guy who could teach us how to do the Aztec sun dance. The problem was that this guy was waiting to hear if he would be accepted at UCLA to go to medical school. … Back then, really, nobody from our background made it to that kind of college.”

After teaching several lessons, Ruiz indeed went off to medical school. “The next time I saw him was when he came back after he’d gotten his medical degrees. He was working at Eisenhower Medical Center, and he joined our Raices meetings,” she said. (More on those meetings later.)

Perez has known Ruiz—whose office did not respond to an interview request for this story—since he was a kid.

“Raúl and I grew up together and played Little League ball together,” Perez said. “We were in high school for four years together, and he was always president, and I was his secretary, treasurer and director of assemblies. When he went to UCLA, I was at UC Riverside, where I was an organizer, and he was organizing at UCLA. So we would have lots of discussions, but once he went off to Harvard Medical School, I kept strong ties here locally. Then I went out to Harvard as well, and Raúl and I were roommates there for a short time. So we would talk about these issues, but as far as the strategy to run for office and build a political infrastructure in Coachella Valley, that began in 2003-2004. When Raul came home, that’s when he began to engage. That was in 2008, and that’s when he decided to run for office as well.”

By the time Ruiz returned to the valley, Perez, Garcia, Machuca and others had already started building what they called their Raices infrastructure.

“Its emphasis was to educate politically, perform community outreach, and find individuals who we can transition from the conscious to the critical consciousness—so that perhaps they recognize their self-power, their self-agency, so that they can say, ‘You know what? There are things that we can change here. There are things we can transform,’” Perez said.

However, Perez was quick to point out that Raices also stemmed from the efforts of leaders from generations before, “from the Coachella Valley Voters League organization, whose members really put an emphasis on building political capital in the eastern Coachella Valley, to the movement of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, in which many of our parents were engaged.”

Perez was the president of Raices when it was founded in 2004.

“I always felt while organizing that we have to hold ourselves accountable to each other, and the best way to do that is by having an infrastructure, an organization that has a mission,” he said. “Because what I’ve learned through organizing in other areas throughout California is that if you identify someone who should run for office, and if these individuals are not accountable to an entity larger than themselves, they stop working with the collective and for its goals.

“We felt we had to form an organization that would do three things. First was to build and develop the political voice of the eastern Coachella Valley; second was to develop and create access to healthier communities; and the last was to utilize the cultural arts for social activism. Those were the three points of emphasis for Raices that exist to this day.”

Machuca said the development of Raices into a fully formed nonprofit organization was the organic result of the group’s shared aspirations.

“When we started meeting around founding Raices, it was weird how we had known of each other years ago, but now we were connecting to do something for our communities,” Machuca said. “So it felt genuine; it felt real; it felt like we were going to make a difference for the generations that came after us and give them something that we couldn’t have, and didn’t have. We were meeting once a week, and then it became twice a week, and then it became almost every night, because we were that passionate about putting this organization together and getting it off the ground.”

The group was initially called Youth for Change, but the members eventually decided the movement needed to involve everyone, not just young people.

“It was at one of those meetings that we came up with the name Raices,” she said. “It was supposed to be an acronym for something, but we never came to an agreement on what those words would be.”


Garcia said a key moment in Raices’ history came when the group screened a documentary by Antonio Gonzalez Vasquez called Living on the Dime: A View of the World From Along the I-10.

“This video had to do with the growth and development of the Inland Empire and the impact of building the Interstate 10 freeway right through those communities,” he explained. “And by impact, I mean how the I-10 divided communities into east/west/north/south, how it brought about different socio-economic groups in the region, and how the political structure began to govern in a way that gave us a division between the haves and the have-nots.

“We showcased the film at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Coachella with the idea of beginning a conversation among the residents about the importance of growth and development in Coachella and the eastern end of the Coachella Valley. This was at a time when we were just beginning to see all the development and building activity that was going to occur. So that was our first real ‘action’ that triggered the discussion about responsible growth and development strategies for the city of Coachella, and whether areas of the city were being planned out responsibly to benefit both existing residents and the new residents in terms of developing public amenities like city parks and community centers.

“From there, members of the group moved on to discussions of direct involvement and representation of our Latino citizens at the government level. So, I’m simplifying things here, but that really was the first action that led ultimately to several of us running for public office.”

In 2004, Perez ran for the CVUSD school board, while Garcia ran for the Coachella City Council. Their campaigns did not go off without a hitch.

“As we started organizing some of the campaign events and actions, we began to feel the division between us and some of the elders in the community,” Machuca said. “We wanted to work with them, but it seemed that they saw us either as young and naïve, or as being in over our heads, as we were trying to change our world. At first it, it wasn’t too bad, but then as people began declaring that they were going to run for so many local positions, the division became a reality. It became: ‘How dare you disrespect us elders by running against us!’ Although it was never really said in so many words, it felt that way.”

Still, Perez and Garcia went on to win their races.

“We bonded even more during the real grassroots effort of those campaigns,” Machuca said. “We learned so much about the dos and the don’ts of campaigning and just how dirty things can get. We tried to play nice, because at the end of the day, we didn’t want the community to be divided. And we had a lot of community support, which showed in the results of the elections. We were young, had new ideas, and we grew up there. Some of the opposition ran their campaigns on platforms criticizing the fact that we left our communities to get college degrees. … But we came back!”

Despite the political wins, some of the people within Raices did not like the political direction in which the group was going. “They wanted to stick only with the arts, culture and community-building aspects of our mission,” Machuca said.

Ultimately, those dissenting members prevailed, as the original organization has been transformed into Raices Cultura.

“Today, Raices is focused on its nonprofit work and bringing about opportunities for Latino youth by utilizing our indigenous art and culture as the anchor,” Garcia said. “But everything is done with a community focus to create a critical consciousness in our youth to look at ways to improve their lives and the lives of others in their community, despite the barriers and challenges that many times exist in communities like ours. That is the focus of Raices today.”

While Perez may see more of a link between the nonprofit and the development of future eastern Coachella Valley community leaders than Garcia does, he perceived a change in direction as well.

“It’s morphed over the years,” Perez said. “When we first started, we recognized that we needed to continue to think of ways we could change things politically and change the institutions of power. But at the same time, we knew that as we grew older, eventually, the next generation will need to take the lead. So back in the day, what we would do, for example, is bring in computers and provide tutorial services on how to access higher education in the hope that afterward, they’d come back home. Now it’s more about offering instruction concerning cultural identity, and for that matter, self-love. A lot of courses are based on spirituality and the teachings of the Aztecs and the Mayans, a lot of indigenous culture … .

“Also, there’s an emphasis on trying to influence individuals toward self-love as opposed to self-hate. What we’ve seen for years is youth violence—youth-on-youth shootings, and gangs, drug abuse and domestic violence. A lot of that comes from the anger that develops in a person because of the oppression that they’ve had to endure for so many years. So the teaching that goes on today is helping to develop individuals with more positivity in their lives. That spirituality piece is really, really important.”


What’s in store for the political arm of this heavily Latino community-service collective? Perez said there’s a lot of work left to do.

“We identified people over the years who have engaged in our campaigns,” he said. “In the Ruiz campaigns and also in mine, you’d see a lot of youth out knocking on doors, passing out literature and phone-banking. So that’s kind of a training ground where the young people get to see up close what we as candidates go through. … Some of these youngsters have gone on to higher education and are now leaders with organizations that are registering people to vote, like Voto Latino, or for that matter, are doing organizing work with UFW (United Farm Workers).”

Perez said he always made it a point to offer internships to youths who wanted to learn about the policy-making process.

“What does it really mean when you work on an issue, and then pass a policy?” he asked. “How do you connect those dots? For instance, what does it mean if we pass legislation on a safe route to school that has some funding attached, but in Coachella or Mecca or Thermal, there’s a lack of sidewalks? … It’s not about an individual; it’s about a collective, a movement. And ultimately, it’s about achieving social justice through policy, organizing and developing the human being’s capacity as social capital, and to finally turn our community around in ways that are very positive.”

To accomplish those ends, the policy-making representatives of these eastern valley communities need to maintain their political presence. Garcia envisions a solidification of power in a more formal organization informed by the Raices Cultura ideals.

“The question is: Will Raices Cultura programs and participants influence the development of a democratic political structure that weighs in on issues of local, state and national significance? The answer is yes,” Garcia said. “It happens by natural progression, and I think what’s missing here is the actual organization of an official Democratic club which attributes its beginnings to the formation of Raices 10 years ago, and is a political organization and framework … able to lead the charge on issues of policy and importance to our community. I think we’re getting there, and will very soon create an organization from the eastern Coachella Valley that is strictly political and on the Democratic side of the spectrum.”

Below: Eduardo Garcia: “I think what’s missing here is the actual organization of an official Democratic club which attributes its beginnings to the formation of Raices 10 years ago, and is a political organization and framework … able to lead the charge on issues of policy and importance to our community.” PHOTO BY KEVIN FITZGERALD

Published in Politics

After the November election, California Assembly District 56 will have a new representative, because incumbent Democrat V. Manuel Perez has reached his term limit.

That new representative will be either current Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat, or Republican Charles Bennett Jr. The heavily Democratic-leaning district covers much of the north and east portions of the Coachella Valley, including parts of Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Indio, Coachella, Thousand Palms, Bermuda Dunes, Thermal and Mecca.

Bennett is a self-proclaimed political neophyte.

“This is the first anything I’ve run for,” said Bennett.

That’s not the case with Garcia.

“It’s been an ongoing process that goes back to 2004, when I ran for (Coachella City) Council. Manny (Perez) ran for the school district. We shared a vision that if we set good groundwork and assisted in electing good, quality candidates to these organizational bodies, then we could build toward a higher goal—and back then, that was the California State Assembly. Then in 2006, I ran to become the first (elected) mayor of Coachella. … I’ve been in office in Coachella city government for a total of 10 years. Fast forward, and here we are today.”

What motivated Bennett to jump into politics?

“I do security and public-safety consulting and advising,” he said. “A year and a half ago, I joined the Indio Chamber of Commerce. As I started going to events and meeting more people currently elected, or people running, I started seeing more of the political end of things, and what people were doing, and weren’t doing. Then I found who my opponent was. You know, he’s a career politician, and he wanted to move up in politics and take over the district. With his background (on) the City Council, (the district) was just going to keep going in the same direction—or down even further. So I decided to go ahead and jump in.”

The candidates have differing perspectives on the challenges facing the 56th District.

“The most important issue right now is the economy and jobs, especially in this district, because this district has the highest unemployment rate of all the districts in the state,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s correct: As of August, the unemployment rate in the district was a state-worst 16.3 percent, compared to 7.4 percent for the entire state, according to the California Center for Jobs and the Economy.

Garcia’s perspective on these numbers is slightly different: “A couple of years ago, the unemployment rate in this district was close to 20 percent, and we’ve dropped that down … (with) a significant decrease, although still not where we need to be,” he said.

Garcia is also correct: District 56 unemployment in July 2011 was actually 23.2 percent, according to the California Center for Jobs and the Economy.

Bennett said burdensome government intrusion was harming the business climate in the area.

“We have fewer businesses wanting to come here, while some are unable to expand, or some are just leaving,” he said. “I’ve talked to business owners who have been here 15 to 20 years who told me they’re just so sick of all the regulation, the taxes and just red-tape for everything, that they’re waiting for the outcome of this election to decide if they’re leaving the state or not.

“We have to work on lowering our tax rates, and pulling back on environmental regulation and permitting requirements. If we can improve those conditions, we can start drawing businesses back to California.”

Not surprisingly, Garcia has a much more positive view of business development in the district.

“We’ve been able to build an infrastructure worth $150 million to $160 million in our city alone over the course of the last six years,” said Garcia about Coachella. “We’ve been able to beautify the city and bring some national brand businesses to the city, like Big 5. There’s a new grocery market on the corner of 48th Avenue and Jackson Street that has a couple of hundred employees. We brought in some medical services, which was at the top of our economic development priorities (list). We’ve targeted these various industries and tried to facilitate this growth process at City Hall by cutting red tape and making sure they can get in and get out and start delivering services.”

What makes Bennett think he’s the best man to represent the district?

“I’m a leader,” Bennett said. “I’m not a politician, OK? Politics and career politicians have gotten us into the condition that we are now, both in the state and in this district. We need somebody who’s not afraid to bring forth new ideas, and to fight for things, politics aside.

“The time for change is now. It’s time to end politics and career politicians. Let these career politicians go get a real job in the economy that they’ve created. It’s time for leadership, and it’s time for the Democrats to go.”

Garcia answers the same question this way: “I believe I’m the best candidate based on my accomplishments and my connection to this district. As a Democrat, I recognize that this region (Coachella Valley as a whole) is, by majority, Republican. I’ve been working with my elected Republican officials as colleagues for eight years, and I want to build on that. Although I am the Democrat running for this position, the issues that are important to the Coachella Valley are not partisan issues. From a pragmatic standpoint, having someone like me in Sacramento from the party that’s going to be able to get things done is extremely important. I think I’m in a better position to deliver for this entire region.”

Published in Politics

Fish-farming—also known as aquaculture—was the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the United States back in 1998, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

At that time, the Imperial and Coachella valleys generated roughly 70 percent of the farm-raised fish coming out of California, according to the same Times story. In 2012, the production of farmed fish worldwide surpassed the production of beef for the first time in modern history, according to an article from environmental think-tank Earth Policy Institute. That same piece notes that this year, the worldwide consumption of farmed fish may surpass the consumption of fish caught in the wild.

But here in the Coachella Valley, the aquaculture industry has suffered setbacks as the demand has grown.

"The whole fish farm industry in the U.S. has been hit by high feed costs and energy costs," said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO and inventor with OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company that develops water-cleanup technology. According to him, the problem got so bad that some California fish farms closed as the Great Recession set in back in 2007 and 2008—including some here in our valley. But Riggs Eckelberry and his brother Nicholas, OriginOil’s co-founder and chief inventor, believe that their new technology can bring about a resurgence of aquaculture in Coachella Valley.

On Wednesday, Dec. 18, the pair were present at Thermal’s Aqua Farming Technology fish farm, which farms tilapia and catfish, as OriginOil unveiled its relatively new Electro Water Separation (EWS) Algae screen S60 process, which couples with the Aqua Q60 water-purifying process to form the foundation of a relatively inexpensive solution to sustainable organic fish farming here and around the world. Aqua Farming Technology has partnered with OriginOil to become their permanent showcase facility.

“This farm is owned by a company that is trying—with the combination of solar panels to provide cheaper energy—our algae feed for nutrition and our inexpensive water cleanup solution, to create a package that will enable the restart of all the fish farms in Coachella Valley,” explained Riggs Eckelberry. “They want to make us part of their secret sauce. Hopefully, it won’t be so secret soon.”

The media event was attended by State Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia.

“Today’s a good day,” Mayor Garcia (right) said. “Anytime we can introduce a technology that is clean and green, and can address a wide range of issues here in our region, such as job creation and environmental matters ... it’s a good day.”

Of course, the other big-picture environmental matter that was discussed most frequently on this day was the threat to the survival of the Salton Sea.

“Working with partners like OriginOil,” said Pérez, “we can integrate and bring in academicians, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs and those who believe in sustainable communities to advance efforts to restore the Salton Sea.”

In fact, Nicholas Eckelberry said he already has at least a partial solution to the Salton Sea problem. The lake’s future is being threatened by a decreasing water supply, and increasing salinity and pollution.

“I’ve designed a system for ocean cleanup which could effectively clean up the Salton Sea—at least all the suspended solvents,” said Eckelberry. “The technology we’re showcasing today is applied to algae-harvesting. Then we apply this same technology in a different format to ammonia-reduction. And we apply it in another format to frack-water-cleaning in the oil industry. And in another format, we can apply it to waste water treatment as well.”

One immediate positive local impact resulting from the OriginOil presence is a newly established alliance with the Green Academy of the Desert Mirage High School in Thermal. Lead teacher Tony Korwin brought nine of his pupils (below) with him to gain some first-hand knowledge of this new technology in their neighborhood.

“The Green Academy is a school within a school,” said Korwin. “ These students study green energy—solar, wind, geothermal. We were invited to come down here today, and they want to partner with us for continued education and potential scholarships for my students.”

Riggs Eckelberry said he sees real value for all participating partners.

“The Coachella Valley can be a source of organic fish-farming, which is not only invaluable to this community, but will set an example for the rest of the world and change perceptions of farmed fish. We’re super excited.”

Published in Environment