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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

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

Agua4All is a program with a catchy, informative name and an inarguably laudable objective: delivering safe drinking water to every resident of the state, regardless of location or income level.

The program aims to provide this necessity via its proprietary water-filling stations, which are being installed in schools and community-meeting areas like parks, youth clubs and libraries. For too many Californians, the only accessible source for safe drinking water is commercially sold bottled water—an unaffordable solution for many underprivileged families.

Currently in its pilot phase, Agua4All is focusing on disadvantaged communities in southern Kern County—and right here in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The original idea was actually conceived by The California Endowment, which has been the major funder of the program,” said Sarah Buck, rural development specialist for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), which is charged with supervising and coordinating efforts around this program. “They have given us the opportunity and responsibility of designing it in a way that makes sense. Once this current pilot phase is over, we can replicate it and continue this work throughout all of rural California.”

From January through early March, the RCAC ran a fundraising campaign, the second in the last year, on the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform. Unfortunately, the donation response was dismal, with just $575 raised.

“I think the first one was more successful because it had a very targeted goal and message,” said Buck; the first effort raised more than $5,600. “For the second Indiegogo campaign, The California Endowment thought that because (celebrity chef) Jamie Oliver was going to be introducing our campaign while making an appearance in Sacramento, the campaign might take off because of that. Although the campaign didn’t raise very much money, we did have a huge bump in awareness and social-media chatter about the program.”

Fortunately, Agua4All has received support from other corners. “We have been able to secure other funding from a number of foundations and banks,” said Buck. “For instance, we got funding from the Weingart Foundation for the work that we’re doing in the eastern Coachella Valley. We’ve gotten funding from the California Bank and Trust, from Rabobank, and we got almost $450,000 in funding from the state of California, with the support of the State Water Resources Control Board, to put in arsenic filters for Kern County’s city of Arvin, where they have arsenic in the water. So we’ve been able to leverage the endowment’s original funds to access a lot of other different types of funds.”

Specifically in the eastern Coachella Valley, the RCAC is excited about how the program is expanding rapidly.

“We have definitely fostered a great relationship and partnership with the Coachella Valley Unified School District,” Buck said. “They’ve been very supportive, and the vast majority of the taps (water-bottle-filling stations) that are going into the Coachella Valley are in the schools. We’ve started by concentrating on the schools that are in the unincorporated areas, especially because a lot of those kids, when they go home, don’t necessarily have safe drinking water. So we have been putting our stations in a lot of the schools in Thermal, Mecca and Oasis. Toward the end of this pilot phase, we’ll probably be putting some into West Shore or the city of Coachella.”

As of the deadline for this story, the RCAC had installed 11 water-bottle-filling stations in Coachella Valley locations through Agua4All.

“Our original goal from The California Endowment was to put 60 stations into the Coachella Valley, and 60 into Kern County,” Buck stated. “So we’re on the way there. They just got a new order at the Coachella Valley Unified School District. Every weekend, they’re putting in some of the new units. … They just finished up with John Kelley (Elementary) School (in Thermal), and they are starting … with the Cahuilla Desert Academy.”

There are other facets to the Agua4All program. Those include the distribution of free plastic water bottles, provided by Nalgene, to potential users of the safe water being provided.

“We have formed a fantastic partnership with Nalgene (a maker of a wide variety of BPA-free plastic bottles),” Buck said. “They have donated 1,500 bottles so far, and they are committed to donating at least 5,000 bottles for this pilot project. We’ve been doing a purchase and donation match. Also, they’ve given us a hugely reduced price to make it affordable. We got funding from the Weingart Foundation to buy extra bottles, and those will go into the schools in Coachella Valley.”

Another valuable relationship for Agua4All is a tie to first lady Michelle Obama’s Drink Up campaign, which is designed to promote increased water consumption by individuals to improve their health.

“All of the safe-drinking-water-filling stations that we are installing will carry both our logo and the Drink Up logo,” stated Buck.

These two initiatives share common goals, too. “We’re intending to do a lot of water promotion, education and outreach on why it’s important to drink safe water instead of soda,” Buck said. “We’re trying to get a behavioral change in motion, because a lot of people in these communities haven’t had accessible safe drinking water for their whole lives, so getting them to trust that the tap water won’t give them cancer is going to be a challenge. But it’s something we know is really important. We want these communities to drink more water and be healthier overall.”

Published in Local Issues