CVIndependent

Thu05242018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

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.”

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.

Close to 1,000 young boxing hopefuls and proven amateurs this week are congregating at the 15th Annual Desert Showdown at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio—all in search of a title in their weight and age class.

For one local girl, the tournament means a return to the site of her first sanctioned bout and victory in her thus-far undefeated career.

“My first fight was when I was 12, and it was at the Desert Showdown four years ago,” said Citlalli Ortiz, of Coachella, during a recent training session at her boxing home, the Coachella Valley Boxing Club gym, run by the valley’s elder statesman of pugilism, Lee Espinoza.

Ortiz started boxing because she was dragged to the gym while her sister got into the ring.

“It was my older sister, Brenda, which was funny,” she said. “I would say, ‘No. I don’t want to go,’ when she went to the gym to train.”

Citlalli—pronounced “seat-lolly”—has been trained and managed by her father, Alex Ortiz. He explained the unlikely path taken by his younger daughter to the 2016 USA Boxing National Junior Championship at 154 pounds.

“It was not intended for Citlalli to be here at this moment,” he said. “My oldest daughter, Brenda, kept bugging me to bring her (Brenda) over to the gym so she could try boxing. Citlalli just came along because we had no one to leave her with.”

Citlalli eventually entered the ring because there were no other girls around to train with Brenda.

“Citlalli would get in the ring with her older sister and be like the punching bag,” said Alex Ortiz, who works as a substitute teacher. “And then one day, my dad brought some friends over to the house, and there were two boys about her age. They found boxing gloves lying around in the house, so the boys put them on, and they were both punching her. I got really upset watching her covering up, and not punching back. So I said, ‘You guys want to box? Let’s go out into the yard.’ I told her for the first time, ‘Just do the one-two. Left, then right.’ She knocked both of them out. One of the kids even spun around as he fell down. That’s when I realized that she really had potential.”

Those earliest boxing experiences with her older sister had a lasting impact on Citlalli.

“There’s a six-year difference between us,” she said. “But I tried every time, and even if I wanted to do something different, she would always have something better to do. I guess that’s how she helped me learn, and I was able to take a beating from anybody after that.”

Citlalli has not taken any beatings since she began her sanctioned boxing career. Still undefeated, Citlalli in the past year has won championship belts and medals at the 40th Annual Gene Lewis Invitational Tournament in Mesa, Ariz.; the 2016 USA Junior and Youth Boxing Championships in Reno, Nev.; and the 2016 USA Boxing Junior Olympic, Prep National and Youth Open Championships in Dallas. In the latter two events, she defeated former national champions to claim the titles.

Despite her undefeated record, Citlalli has definitely faced some challenges since she started boxing—including a battle with her weight.

“I was over 200 pounds when I started boxing,” she said. “So every time I would ask somebody to train me, they would say they couldn’t train me, because I wasn’t going to lose the weight.”

However, she has lost a lot of weight; all of her recent title victories have been in the 154-pound weight class. Still, Citlalli and her father believe her boxing future will be brightest if she gets down to 145 pounds. When does she hope to make that goal? Like ... immediately.

“I’ve been 154 for a while now,” Citlalli said, “but for the (Desert) Showdown, my goal is to be 145.”

Citlalli’s father also teased her about the fact that she’s trying to slim down for her upcoming quinceaneara.

“She wants to go down to 141,” he said. “So that’s another motivation for her. I told her she has to be at the weight (for the tournament), because if she tries on the dress she wants now and then loses 10 pounds, that dress is going to be too big for her.”

Once she makes her target weight, what will the rest of her future look like?

“I’ve heard that they’re going to let professionals compete in Olympic boxing, and if that’s official, then we want to go pro and then go to the Olympics (in 2020),” Citlalli said. “If it’s not true, then we would rather go to the Olympics.”

As she enters her junior year at Coachella Valley High School, Citlalli is aware of the importance of her education.

“I know I have to keep up with my grades,” she said. “I know boxing is not forever, so I’m going to have to look for a career that I like. But for now, I really want to focus on boxing.”

Citlalli’s father noted that her mother has always been wary of boxing. “But she’s been seeing Citlalli’s results in the ring, and that’s what makes her say, ‘I know that you’re good at this, but just don’t forget school.’ And we’ve got to respect that. I feel that way, too. I know it’s important and that you have to have that Plan B and be prepared. Time flies.”

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Hotels, resorts and other venues have been offering up all sorts of music and entertainment to keep the Coachella crowds rocking since they began rolling into the valley last week. As the party continues through Sunday, April 24 (with Stagecoach to follow), the Ace Hotel and Swim Club is offering some truly unique musical experiences as part of its eighth-annual Desert Gold event.

“We like to work with a lot of programming partners for this week,” said Ace Hotel cultural engineer David Knight. “Creative partnerships and collaborations for this event include the David Lynch Foundation, and all of the mini-programs we have happening during the week.

“(This coming) weekend, on Saturday the 23rd, we’ll have Nancy Whang from LCD Soundsystem doing a show and playing on the Moog 55 system that we have upstairs in the Clubhouse. And on Sunday the 24th, we The Gaslamp Killer and Daedalus.”

You can also book your own time to play on the Moog. From Wednesday through Friday, April 20-22, between noon and 6 p.m., anyone (yes … anyone!) can book a 30-minute time slot to visit the Ace and play the Moog System 55 synthesizer that has been set up in the Clubhouse, which overlooks the hotel’s pool area. Under the guidance of a Moog sound engineer, you can sit in the seat of music greats like award-winning soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer; Keith Emerson of the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer; or Rick Wakeman of YES, to name a few.

There are original works by artist Jenny Sharaf to check out, too.

The Ace has numerous cultural events coming up beyond Desert Gold. “We do a lot of music programming, so we have DJs or bands appearing here in our Amigo Room on most weekends,” said Knight. “We have a great lecture series that we’ve been doing with Kim Stringfellow from the Mojave Project. It’s about the history of the Mojave Desert, covering different points of interest throughout the Mojave that most people might not know about. Kim does what she calls her field dispatches once a month where she combines video and audio with her lecture, and it’s all content that she creates herself.”

Access to Desert Gold is free, but RSVP to confirm your attendance. For weekend 2, visit the Ace webpage

On Saturday, March 19—after a spirited men’s semifinal match in which eventual 2016 PNB Paribas Open champion Novak Djokovic defeated longtime rival Rafael Nadal—two local Coachella Valley High School students joined Jean Yves-Fillion, CEO of BNP Paribas North America, on the Stadium 1 show court.

Brianda Beltran and Miguel Alvarez, winners of the inaugural BNP Paribas Annual College Scholarship Award, each received recognition for their accomplishments—both on the tennis courts playing for their Coachella Valley High School team, and in the classroom.

“We’ve been supporting this tournament since 2009,” Fillion told the Independent after the ceremony. “I myself have had the privilege to be here pretty much every year. I know it’s a wonderful tournament. You have superstars, but you get to know the people when you come eight years in a row. (At BNP Paribas), we felt, I felt, we are all part of a community. It’s one thing to say you want to be part of a community, but it’s another thing to do it. We felt this scholarship program supporting students was actually a very sincere and truthful way to do it and not to just say it.”

Each year starting this year, one male and one female senior student/tennis player will be selected from local valley high schools to receive a $15,000 scholarship to help support their college educations.

We asked Fillion if it was a rigorous selection process. “Very, very,” he replied. “When I went to the school yesterday (Coachella Valley High, in Thermal), what I told the students there was I was actually impressed and moved by many of these applications. But this being like life, you always have winners. Obviously, Brianda and Miguel happen to be excellent.

“Tennis was an important factor, and these two students are excellent tennis players who play in public schools, but it was also academic. It was maturity and leadership. When you look at what Miguel and Brianda have done beyond just being very good tennis players and (helping) the team, it’s very nice.”

Brianda said she embraced tennis with academics in mind.

“My friends told me, ‘Oh, you should join tennis, because you’re going to need this when you’re applying to college, and it looks good on your resume,’” she said. “I hadn’t done a sport in awhile, so I went to practice, and I stayed there, and I did it and did it. Eventually, it did help me, because I received the BNP Paribas scholarship. So I don’t think I could be anymore grateful.”

Miguel said he started playing tennis when he was a sophomore.

“I started because my coach, Larry Salas, who is also a counselor at my high school, mentioned the importance of academics in being at school and activities like being in clubs, extracurriculars, community service and volunteer work, too. Also … he said, ‘What sport are you planning on playing in high school?’ I honestly never considered myself an aggressive-enough person for most other sports. I considered golf and tennis. Since he was the tennis coach, he asked me to go practice one day with them—and I loved the sport. That two-hour practice on that one day was it for me.”

Both student-athletes said they don’t anticipate playing tennis seriously beyond high school—although the sport will remain part of their lives.

“Since I was introduced to the sport when I was already 15 or 16 years old, my hope is that my kids are able to start when they are little so they can be pros,” Brianda said. “I hope to play in my free time and when I come back home in the summer. Obviously, I want to help the incoming freshmen or meet up with the girls I’ve played tennis with.”

As for Miguel? “I’m really going to focus on getting the best education I can and getting the best out of school. But I will continue to play tennis recreationally. I guess if I could make the college tennis team, I wouldn’t deny that opportunity.”

How will the scholarship money impact their college aspirations? “Both my parents came here to look for a better job, so they didn’t finish college,” Brianda said. “So I really want to get my bachelor’s in psychology and minor in communications. Then I want to get my master’s, and my dad says he’d be really, really proud of me if I got my doctorate, which I’d be willing to do.”

Miguel shared a similar story.

“When my parents came to America, they always hoped for us to live the American Dream, where we would find success and where we would work hard to be somebody in this world,” he said. “Now I want to enter USC (where he’s been accepted) as a business major and attend their world-business program, where I would attend USC for two years, spend one year in Hong Kong, and a year in Milan.”

As things came to a close, Miguel had one last message: “Just for the record, I do have something I want to say. Where we live, in Coachella … it’s a little sad that in our entire city, the only courts that we have to play on are the ones at our school. I know that in other cities here in the valley, like La Quinta or Palm Desert, most of their parks have tennis courts here, there, everywhere. So if anyone really wanted to play tennis in our community, it’s very limited, considering that the only courts are at our school.”

Sounds like the young man thought of another community project worthy of the attention of PNB Paribas and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

The second and final week of Coachella Valley’s prestigious BNP Paribas Open typically delivers sharp tennis play and competitive drama as sports media and fans around the world focus on the on-court action.

This year, that unfortunately was not the case.

As Sunday’s first match began, hopes ran high that top-ranked Serena Williams would reclaim the championship she last captured in 2001. But a curiously subdued and somber Williams offered little resistance to No. 8 Victoria Azarenka’s determined if less-than-dominating performance. With 33 unforced errors, Williams squandered a multitude of break-point opportunities throughout both sets. Even so, she did manage a short-lived comeback in the second set before succumbing to now second-time BNP Paribas champion Azarenka in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4.

That set the scene for heavily favored and top-ranked Novak Djokovic to take on No. 12 Milos Raonic of Canada. Despite plenty of Canadians in the stands to offer support, Raonic could never gain an advantage in the match. He underperformed throughout, committing 27 unforced errors while managing a mere four aces with his vaunted serving game. As the second set began, he left the court for an elongated injury play stoppage, and when he returned, he lost every game in a convincing 6-2, 6-0 Djokovic win.

But by far, the biggest unforced error of the strange day went to none other than Raymond Moore, the BNP Paribas Open tournament director and CEO. At a morning news conference, Moore was asked about prospects of elevating his tournament to the status of a fifth major title for the pros. Saying that the men’s tour was on board for that opportunity, he then offered this evaluation of the WTA and the women’s tour players: “In my next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions, and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky,” he said.

Moore continued: “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.”

Both Azarenka and Williams expressed their displeasure with Moore’s remarks during post-match interviews. “Why do you have to make the comment? Who cares?” Azarenka asked rhetorically. “I mean, if that makes that person feel better or bigger or whatever, it’s a pretty sad person.”

Williams said, “Obviously I don’t think any woman should be down on her knees thanking anybody like that. If I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister … you know, I couldn’t even bring up that number.”

When asked if she thought there might be a misunderstanding regarding how people were interpreting Moore’s comments, Williams replied, “Well, if you read the transcript, you can only interpret it one way. I speak very good English. I’m sure he does, too.”

Later in the day, Moore had the BNP Paribas public relations staff issue a statement on his behalf which stated, “At my morning breakfast with the media, I made comments about the WTA that were in extremely poor taste and erroneous. I am truly sorry for those remarks, and apologize to all the players and WTA as a whole. We had a women’s final today that reflects the strength of the players, especially Serena and Victoria, and the entire WTA. Again, I am truly sorry for my remarks."

(Update: Moore resigned on Monday, March 21.)

With all of Sunday’s controversy and uncharacteristically tepid competition, it would be easy to overlook some of the sparkling play that took place earlier in Week 2. Arguably the best tennis of the entire tournament was played on Wednesday, in the round of 16 match between No. 5 Rafael Nadal and No. 52 Alexander Zverev. Perennial fan favorite Nadal defeated the 18-year-old German phenom, who had thrilled crowds with upset wins over Grigor Dimitrov and Gilles Simon, both Top 25 players. Stadium 1 was packed for their battle, and the crowd roared throughout in appreciation of the competitive fire displayed by both players in the 6-7, 6-0, 7-5 Nadal comeback victory.

As the 2016 edition of the BNP Paribas Open got under way last week at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, two topics dominated the conversations of players, the media and fans alike: Maria Sharapova’s recent alleged doping infraction (leading to her absence) and the return of Venus Williams after a 15 year boycott of the tournament where she enjoyed some of her earliest career triumphs.

Two-time defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic told the media he was sympathetic regarding Sharapova’s situation. “I know that she has always been very responsible and aware toward herself, toward the sport—very disciplined, very … hard working, hard-working ethics, and (she) loves what she does.

“I thought she was very courageous, and it was very human, brave of her, to go out and take the responsibility and say what has happened. She did admit that she made a mistake with her team. But certainly if there was a mistake, and if she was caught to be positive on doping for a certain substance, then there should be certain kind of consequences for that.”

Consequences seemed to be on Venus Williams’ mind as she stepped back into the Tennis Garden surroundings.

“I think when (Serena) came back, it wasn't an easy decision. You never know what was going to happen,” Venus said regarding her sister’s return to Indian Wells last year. “But she had so much courage to do so. It made it so easy for me. I felt like when I came out here, I was able to focus on the tennis and not on, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s gonna happen?’”

What did happen when she finally set foot on the Stadium 1 show court for her Friday, March 11, match? A standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

“Yeah, I did get emotional,” Venus Williams said. “When we were doing the coin toss, I got a little watery eyed. Your opponent—you don't want to give them any more encouragement. It was wonderful. I think I smiled the whole warm-up. I had to get my game face on. It was tough to do.”

Shortly after the start of her first match, against 89th-ranked Kurumi Nara of Japan, the wind kicked up, and a burst of rain rolled across the Tennis Gardens grounds, blowing objects around. The storm chased players off all the courts—and it’s possible the disruption contributed to Venus’ early exit from this year’s tournament: She would go on to be upset, 6-4, 6-3.

“The crowd rooted me on because it was a tough day and tough conditions and brutal out there,” a positive Venus Williams remarked in her post-match media conference. “It was wonderful to feel the love. You know, I would love to come on back.”

As the winds dissipate and the second week of play gets under way, all five of the top-seeded men are still alive (including No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Andy Murray, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, No. 4 Rafael Nadal and No. 5 Kei Nishikori), while just three of the top 5 women (No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 5/defending champ Simona Halep) are moving ahead.