CVIndependent

Sun05272018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

Locals often tell visitors to the Coachella Valley that they must sample the high-end shopping and dining experience that is El Paseo, in Palm Desert.

The pristine boulevard is the valley's answer to renowned destinations like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or Fifth Avenue in New York City. However, the stores and restaurants aren’t the only things worthy of the window-shopper’s attention; there’s also El Paseo’s incomparable 18-sculpture fine-art exhibition, which runs down the center median of the boulevard between the intersections with Highway 74 to the west, and Portola Avenue to the east.

“A lot of cities use Palm Desert as a model,” said Deborah Schwartz Glickman, of Palm Desert’s Public Art Department, who manages this ongoing exhibition. “For instance, someone looking to start a similar exhibition program contacted West Hollywood, which has an amazing program of their own. They sent that person to me for advice, so I know we’re a respected program within the art community, both by artists and art administrators.”

The exhibition program was initiated in the mid-to-late 1990s, according to Schwartz Glickman. The city is slated to spend $486,800 on its entire Art in Public Places program this year, according to budget documents on the city’s website; much of that money comes from a special fee for public art that’s levied on new development.

“It is structured as a two-year exhibition of 18 sculptures that are loaned to the city for that timeframe either by the artist or a gallery. The artwork comes from across the country and often from around the globe,” she said of the El Paseo exhibit.

It requires no small effort on the part of several city employees to bring each of the program’s iterations to fruition for the public’s enjoyment.

“It takes about a year to go through the whole process,” said Schwartz Glickman. “We start by putting out a call for artists. I always say it goes to anyone who will listen. Then artists apply either with existing artworks or proposals for artworks. All are reviewed by a subcommittee of our Art and Public Places Commission, which selects the 18 sculptures and usually two or three alternates. Those choices are taken to the full Art in Public Places Commission, which, after a review, recommends their choices to the City Council, which must approve the selections.”

Next is the logistical challenge of removing, or “de-installing,” the outgoing exhibition and installing 18 new pieces for the new two-year display. This year, that process began in October, and continued through mid-November. Brett Fiore, an experienced sculpture restoration and maintenance professional who owns Signature Sculpture in Palm Desert, managed the process, as he has done since 2008.

“This is now the fourth collection that I will have installed and had my hands on,” Fiore said. “I’ve seen all of these pieces come and go, and it’s nice. When the artists get their pieces here … they take a deep breath, and they can’t believe that they’re on El Paseo. They’re just overwhelmed that they’ve finally made it to the top of the mountain.”

But for Fiore, aided by friend and colleague Jeff Fowler (a sculptor and restorer), as well as the rest of his team, the work is just beginning.

“I tell the artists that the trip’s not over, because we need to make sure that the piece looks just as good two years from now as it does today,” Fiore said. “So I help formulate a maintenance program with the artist and the city to make sure that we do everything to keep the pieces in their best condition.”

What goes into that maintenance effort? “For every piece, there has to be some sort of washing or waxing or cleaning,” Fiore explained. “So, for instance, if the piece is made of glass, there has to be some basic dusting and washing. When you add on enamels or auto-body-type paint, you may take an approach to maintenance like you would with a Ferrari or a Porsche by washing and waxing it often, and in the same manner. For bronzes, we use special waxes that are made for bronze.”

Local artist Patrick Blythe, whose piece “Harvest” was exhibited during the last two years, appreciated the opportunity.

“It’s been a great adventure,” Blythe said. “I’ve loved having it here on El Paseo, and I think the city of Palm Desert Art in Public Places (Commission has) been a wonderful host. They’ve taken good care of the piece, and it looks as good as the day it was installed.”

The just-installed exhibition includes works by several area artists, including David Reid-Marr (who created “Cloud” specifically for El Paseo, pictured below) and Gerald Clarke, both of Idyllwild, as well as Mitchell Taylor of Joshua Tree, Janice Osborne of La Quinta, and Mario Pikus of Rancho Mirage.

For residents or visitors who would prefer a more-informed viewing, guided tours are available.

“We have a pool of trained docents, and we offer tours as part of our first-weekend event,” Schwartz Glickman said. “Every month September through May, there are tours on Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. of either El Paseo’s sculptures, the art work at Civic Center Park, or the art in the Palm Desert Library. But anyone who’s interested can schedule a free private tour just by contacting my offices.”

For more information on Palm Desert’s Art in Public Places program, visit www.palm-desert.org/arts-culture/public-art.

So here’s the good news: Coachella Valley residents and businesses have raced to take advantage of the turf-buyback conservation programs offered by both the Desert Water Agency on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District on the east end.

Here’s the bad news, especially if you’re a DWA customer: The agency totally underestimated how strong the customer response would be. With $250,000 earmarked this fiscal year to fund the turf buyback, DWA customers have already applied for $1.3 million in rebates—and that’s just in two months since the announcement of the inaugural plan on Aug. 1.

“As soon as we launched the program, we were absolutely flooded with applicants,” said DWA public information officer Katie Ruark. “I personally feel that’s incredibly encouraging. We wanted to take out grass, and, boy, are we going to do it.

“The bad news is there are people who didn’t get their applications in right away—and (people) who maybe got them in pretty quickly—who missed out on the funding. Of course, those people are disappointed. We’ve stopped accepting any more applications.”

The picture is brighter in CVWD territory, albeit still challenging. The agency allotted $950,000 specifically for turf-buyback rebates this fiscal year, and in two months, CVWD customer requests have burned through almost all of those funds—yet the applications keep coming in.

“We have seen such an overwhelming response to our programs,” said Heather Engel, CVWD’s director of communications and conservation. “It’s been amazing. In fact, we’re already almost out of money, and we’ve had 158,972 square feet of grass removed in our district just since July 1 of this year.”

The CVWD has offered some form of a turf-buyback rebate program to its customers, in an effort to decrease the amount of water-guzzling grass, since 2010. “In the first three months of fiscal 2014—that was July through September—we received applications for 2 million square feet of turf conversion,” CVWD conservation coordinator Dave Koller said. “It took us four years previously to reach the 3-million-square-foot total.”

The severe drought conditions prevailing in California have definitely impacted valley residents’ awareness of their use of water resources, and as a result, the turf-buyback program has become more popular.

“I think it’s because of the declaration of the drought emergency by the governor in January, and our board-mandated water restrictions in August,” Koller said. “Combined with the public outreach and publicity on the drought and turf conversions, I think it’s all just coming together. It’s a good thing, because once turf is converted, it saves 70 to 80 percent of the water that turf would need.”

What plans do the agencies have to increase funding to meet the unexpected demand? On the CVWD front, Engel said, “We’ll be going to our board on Oct. 28 to see if we can get a little more funding.”

Will there be a decisive vote at that meeting?

“Every time I’ve gone to the board for increased funding, they’ve been agreeable to it,” said Koller. “They put a high value on conservation, so I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.”

(Editor's note: The CVWD board did indeed approve more funding at that meeting. According to a news release: "The additional funding of $1.8 million will sustain the turf conversion, smart controller and nozzle programs until approximately Dec. 31, 2014. After this funding has been depleted, new applications for landscape rebates will be accepted beginning in the next fiscal year.")

Ruark said the DWA board “has sent the issue for research to the finance and conservation subcommittees and asked for them to come back with recommendations as to what they’d like to do. So that’s where we are right now. I don’t have dates as to when it will come before the board again or what the process will be from here.”

The DWA’s response to the buyback situation has irritated Paul Ortega, a longtime Palm Springs resident, a landscape design consultant and the co-founder of the Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella Valley.

“There’s a large group (of buyback applicants) that has been told they have been placed on a wait list—or (in) what I call ‘the limbo phase,’” Ortega shared. “They’ve been told that they are not going to get a site inspection, which is a critical part of the DWA’s application process, because without that happening prior to the work, if a customer should decide to move forward with their own turf-conversion plan, they would disqualify themselves from participation in the DWA rebate. This is unfortunate, because the DWA is not giving these people any incentive to stay engaged in the DWA turf-conversion effort.”

Ortega added: “I did meet with DWA board president Craig Ewing. He believes that a subcommittee recommendation will be made to the board to increase the turf-buyback funding allotment by at least an additional $250,000 or more in the very near term. But that action won’t address the other applicants who represent some $800,000 more in requested rebate funds. He’d like to see the board approve funding now that’s sufficient to cover all of the pending turf-buyback applications.”

What does the DWA advise their “limbo phase” customers with unaccepted applications to do? Wait to do the work until they can get an application approved? Move forward at their own expense?

“Those who can wait may do so,” Ruark remarked. “Those who cannot and can afford to do their conversion without a rebate should do that. Each homeowner should do what is best for them.”

Ortega believes that stance is inadequate.

“For the DWA to put so much effort into this whole initiative, only to shut the program down a couple of months after launch due to lack of funds, is really unfortunate,” Ortega said. “If they don’t give their ‘limbo phase’ customers some reason to hang in, then they’re not going to—and they’re going to be pissed. And they already are. I hear it a lot. People are disappointed, you know?”

Updated on Oct. 30 with info from the Oct. 28 CVWD meeting.

Between June 2011 and October 2014, 32 California cities eliminated their red-light-camera enforcement systems—including the city of Riverside in September, according to watchdog website Highwayrobbery.net.

However, the system continues to operate in Cathedral City.

The city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions (ATS) of Tempe, Ariz., expired back in February, but the City Council voted 4-1 to renew the contract in May, after negotiating more-favorable terms. Still, the program remains unpopular with segments of the city’s population (as well as residents of other desert cities who regularly drive through Cathedral City), particularly those who have been captured on video and in freeze-frame images that result in costly citations.

There are three cameras, watching the intersections of Date Palm Drive and Ramon Road; Ramon and Landau Boulevard; and Vista Chino at Date Palm.

“People don’t like getting citations and having to pay fines for violations,” said Cathedral City Police Department Operations Captain Chuck Robinson. “It’s funny, because a lot of times, we get folks who don’t like the fact that they got one, but when you go back and look at the video, it’s a clear red-light violation that they were involved in. So the question you have to put to them is: ‘Do you think it’s OK to run a red light? And if you had stopped, would you have gotten a ticket?’”

Robinson said Cathedral City police receive few complaints about the system.

“I would say out of 200 to 300 citations issued per month, we get a couple of complaints,” he said. “You’d be surprised. We’ve had this system in place since 2006, and we don’t get the number of complaints that you would think based on the attention that the media and other proponents or opponents pay to the system.”

A few months ago, Cathedral City Mayor Kathy DeRosa told local TV stations that the system was worthwhile, even though it was a money-losing proposition for the cash-strapped city.

What was the rationale that drove that one-sided 4-1 vote? “The program actually worked; it did exactly what it was designed to do for us,” said Robinson. “We saw the results that we were hoping to see, which was a reduction in collisions, which means less property damage, fewer injuries and fewer response calls from public-safety agencies. Then it came down to: ‘Was it worth the price for the benefits we were getting out of it?’ When the mayor commented that it was losing money, she was 100 percent correct.”

A request for statistics supporting the claimed decrease in accidents at the intersections in question could not be fulfilled prior to our deadline, reportedly due to staff reductions resulting from city government cutbacks. However, for an Independent story first published in September 2013, Robinson offered statistics that were mixed: The figures showed that the number of accidents at the three intersections were higher in both 2011 and 2012 than they were in 2010, the first full year that all of the cameras were operational. In 2010, there were 15 such collisions at Cathedral City red-light camera intersections. In 2011, that total rose to 25 collisions. In 2012, the number decreased to 17. He also said that the first year the red-light camera was at the intersection of Date Palm and Ramon, the city saw a 30 percent reduction in the number of collisions.

Can Cathedral City afford to support potential additional costs if the system does not pay for itself by taking in sufficient violation revenues? Robinson said new contract terms with ATS should keep the system in the black.

“We used to pay $15,000 total, per month, for the system, or $5,000 per camera. Now we’ve dropped the per-camera cost to $3,500 per month, which is more than a 30 percent reduction in the system’s cost,” Robinson said.

Another element in the cost-benefit analysis is a marked increase in violations revenue since the start of 2014. According to data provided by Robinson, in all of 2013, there were 1,237 red-light-camera citations issued to drivers, while through just September of 2014, 2,181 citations had been processed.

What’s driving this sudden increase? “I’m not sure of the actual time frames (in 2013) without going back to do a bit of research, but I do know that we had quite a bit of construction going on, and I know that as a result, we did experience a lot less violation activity,” Robinson said. “Now, all intersections have opened back up, and if we’re seeing increased activity, that could be the reason why.”

The Independent reviewed data provided by the website highwayrobbery.net, which indicates that construction closures affected two intersections from July to October of 2013. However, the data also revealed that a year-to-year comparison of the months January through May—when there was no construction—showed a substantial growth in citations.

Concerned citizens can take heart, though: The upcoming Nov. 4 elections are guaranteed to result in three new City Council members, so perhaps the council will have a change of heart.

“We built into the contract a clause saying that on 60 business days’ notice, we can terminate the contract,” Robinson said.

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.”

Sept. 11, 2001, started off as just another day for Dr. Harry Marshak.

“I was working then at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in Manhattan, which is maybe two miles away from Ground Zero,” recalled Marshak, who now practices ophthalmic plastic and facial surgery in Palm Desert. “We were in the middle of surgery when a nurse came in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Everybody thought, ‘Well, it’s just a small plane that must have gone into the building.’ But people kept coming in with reports, so (when) we were done with surgery, we went up to the roof.

“The tower that we could have seen had already fallen. Everyone was in shock. So the question was what to do next. The hospital had an emergency protocol which we went through—but we had only one, not-too-severely injured fireman brought in. And then it was quiet.”

Marshak had been living in New York City for 11 years at the time of the tragedy.

“We were watching TV at the time, and there was a call out that they needed doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was the closest hospital to Ground Zero,” he said. “So, with some other doctors, I went over. When we got there, they had discharged everybody from the emergency room. There were no patients. There were empty beds lined up in there. They had gurneys outside covered in sheets. They were expecting hundreds of patients, but there was nobody there.”

Marshak shook his head gently as he spoke. “Now, the inclination is to find where the need is. So next, I ended up at Chelsea Piers. The city took over these piers on the westside in the ’20s, and they had this emergency plan set up that went into action. There were maybe 50 folding tables set up as operating tables with some cushions, and they had surgical equipment. They were organizing teams of four doctors for each table: a surgeon, an anesthesiologist and two other medical professionals. We got assigned to these teams—and then we were waiting, and there wasn’t anybody there.

“But there was another room where people with minor injuries were just walking in or brought by ambulance,” Marshak continued. “I found all these people who had eye problems, because a lot of debris was getting in people’s eyes—fiberglass and chemicals were in the air—so I got involved in flushing out people’s eyes, and pulling things out of their eyes. I was the only doctor there with eye training, so I taught others how to flush out an eye. Some of the firemen had contact lenses and needed to get them cleaned out and put back in without losing them, so they could go back out and do their job. I mean, they were minor ailments, but if you didn’t know what you were doing, then you could do more harm than good.”

Marshak took a deep breath. “So I stayed there until pretty early in the morning (of Wednesday the 12th). Then I went home for a few hours, got up and went back. I took a bunch of supplies from that Chelsea facility, put them in my car and drove down to Ground Zero.

“It was kind of just chaos down there. I remember walking through thick muck on the ground. You would put your foot down, and it would just stick. It was debris and water from the fire hoses. And the air—I was carrying a heavy box of irrigating fluid, and I was having trouble catching my breath because of the smoke and the difficulty walking. Finally, I found other doctors, and there were people to treat, but, again, it was minor injuries. Most of the people we were treating were rescue workers.”

After a moment’s pause, Dr. Marshak added: “After two days, what became clear was that when the planes hit, either you got out of the towers, or you didn’t. We hadn’t seen injuries directly related to the tower strikes. Almost none.”

As the week unfolded, both the determination of New York’s citizens and the impact of the terrorist attack on U.S. soil were revealed.

“Now the rescue workers weren’t just professionals—they were all these people trying to go through rubble and getting hurt,” Marshak said. “Just anybody in New York was coming down. People weren’t looting. They were trying to help, but people were getting hurt.

“We ended up in the American Express building, which was right next to the WTC complex. There were makeshift triage centers. Hospitals were sending in supplies. And then they started giving us masks, so we started handing out masks to everyone. As time went on, we’d get better masks, and then (even) better masks. We began to wonder: What have we been breathing in? But that’s the way it goes.”

Marshak said the scale of the violence perpetrated on Sept. 11 became more evident as the days passed. “A morgue was set up in the atrium of the American Express building. I recall the remains of maybe 20 or 30 people, and there were priests giving last rites.” Marshak said. “When you were walking around down there, you can’t imagine the size of the rubble. ‘The Pile,’ they called it. I mean, the enormity of the destruction was beyond words—to see a building on its side across the West Side Highway. Tower 7 was tilted over and still smoldering. There were people climbing up the side of the building to see if anyone was inside. I mean, these were just civilians, you know. There was just so much destruction.”

Raised in the Los Angeles area, Marshak has now been a resident of the Coachella Valley for nine years.

“Before that day, I was complacent. I liked the ophthalmology and eye surgery that I was doing, but I wasn’t passionate about it,” the doctor said. “So I decided to do ocular or ophthalmic plastic surgery, which is reconstructive for the eyelid and the eye socket—basically, the upper two-thirds of the face. Also, how I approach medicine became more hard-core.”

He would soon leave New York for a fellowship at the University of Southern California, starting in July 2003.

“During my fellowship at USC, I was on call 24-7 for two years, and I operated almost every night in the middle of the night,” he said. “That’s what I wanted. I needed to immerse myself.”

And today? “People say that I’m a workaholic now. But I just like what I do, and I’m passionate about what I do now,” he said.

Why did he choose to set up his practice in Palm Desert? “I first came out here to do some training, and I saw the need for ocular plastic surgery out here. There are enough surgeons in L.A.”

For more information on Dr. Harry Marshak, visit www.drmarshak.com.

Since 2008, Republican Brian Nestande has represented much of the Coachella Valley in California’s Assembly.

However, that will be changing this year: Nestande—the former chief of staff for the late Congressman Sonny Bono, as well as Bono's wife, Congresswoman Mary Bono—is running for the U.S. House of Representatives against one-term incumbent Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, who upset Mary Bono Mack in 2012.

So the field was wide open during June’s primary election for Nestande’s District 42 seat. The contenders included two well-funded and politically established Republican candidates—Chad Mayes and Gary Jeandron—and one Democratic candidate, Karalee Hargrove.

Jeandron, a former Palm Springs Police chief, and Mayes, the current chief of staff for San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, each raised six figures plus for the race in the predominantly Republican district. Meanwhile, Hargrove, a member of the board of the Morongo Unified School District, barely raised five figures. So it was a surprise to many that, in a district (including the high desert and much of the western Coachella Valley) where registered Republican voters outnumber Democratic voters by a little more than 8 percent (41.7 percent vs. 33.8 percent, as of May), Hargrove was the top vote-getter in the open primary, getting 37.8 percent of the vote. Chad Mayes, with 34.4 percent, finished second and is now facing Hargrove in the general election; Jeandron was eliminated, with 27.8 percent of the vote.

“I chose to run way back before the primaries because there was no Democrat and surely no woman running for this (office), so why not give it a shot?” explained Hargrove during a recent interview with the Independent. “I think we’ve been lacking leadership in this Assembly district, and that’s something that I can bring.”

Make no mistake, though: Hargrove remains a big underdog in the general election, and Mayes is acting very much like an elusive front-runner: The Independent reached out to Mayes via both telephone and email for this story. In response, we received an email from Joe Justin, a Sacramento-based political consultant with a history of working for Republican candidates. He stated that Mayes would be unavailable to talk to the Independent due to scheduling conflicts.

On Mayes’ campaign website, we found this third-person analysis of what motivates Mayes to seek the District 42 office: “One overarching goal has defined public service for Chad Mayes: to bring a spirit of responsive servant leadership to every position he’s held.” Mayes was elected to the Yucca Valley Town Council in 2002, and was re-elected in 2006 and 2010. Mayes was twice chosen by colleagues to serve as mayor during those years.  

The candidates do share some mutual concerns. When asked what are the most important issues, Hargrove stated: “No. 1 is education. Second would have to be water, and third would be bringing jobs through renewable energy.”

The Mayes website lists campaign objectives as: “Deliver high performance government; fix failing schools; build a new jobs climate; step up the fight for local control.”

We asked Hargrove what specific actions she’d back to positively impact those issues. “With education, I’d like to see more money going to career technical programs,” Hargrove said. “I give out diplomas and wonder, ‘Well, this student isn’t enrolling in college, so what are they going to do?’ Also, we could get back some adult high school education funding, and for those adults who may not have their diploma, include them in the high-school courses and trade occupations we would offer.”

As for educational reform, Mayes’ site tells us, “California schools can regain their position as No. 1 again by giving parents a greater role and responsibility in their child’s education, returning local control to school boards, ensuring our schools are safe, and extending collegiate level choice to college bound students and a quality career technology courses that prepare graduates to compete for the best jobs.”

Returning to Hargrove’s platform, she told the Independent, “With the water issue, I’d really like to dig deep into how much water we’re using for agriculture. If 70 percent of water usage is going to agriculture, we need to focus on that first. Of course, conserving is huge, and I think the state of California is making good strides in that regard.”

Regarding job creation, Hargrove said, “I’d like to look at getting renewable-energy sources into the 42nd District while creating union, high prevailing-wage positions. Also, improving educational opportunities will help build the local economy.”

Regarding the same issue, Mayes’ website said: “We need to reform California’s job-killing regulations and reduce the tax burden to not only keep the jobs we have, but to expand and strengthen our economy.”

We asked Hargrove why she’s the best candidate for office. “I know I’m the best candidate because I have not been bought by special interests or corporations,” Hargrove said. “I have worked a minimum-wage job. I’ve been a single mother. I am still a double full-time college student, so I get these real-life issues that people in the 42nd District deal with, and I feel I’m very comparable to them.

“I’m not doing this for any glory. I’m doing this to see that things get done. Once I accomplish my goals I don’t intend to be in politics for 30-plus years.”

We don’t have Chad Mayes’ answer to this question. After all, he was not available for comment.

Much of the state of California is currently facing a water crisis, thanks to a record-setting drought. Yet here in our desert environment of the Coachella Valley, the happy anomaly of apparently plentiful and affordable water continues as the status quo.

However, that does not mean all is settled regarding water in the Coachella Valley.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (ACBCI) has filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court to obtain senior water rights over the shared Coachella Valley aquifer. The suit, filed on May 14, 2013, against the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA)—stewards of much of valley’s public water supply since 1918 and 1961, respectively—is expected to go to trial no later than February 2015.

On May 13, the latest legal maneuver occurred when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion, which has since been granted, to join the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of communications and legislation, said the agencies did not object to the move.

“The Department of Justice has a stake: They own the tribal land, so it makes sense for them to get involved,” she said.

Craig Ewing, president of the DWA board of directors, agreed.

“The federal government owns the tribal lands,” he said. “The fact that they want to join their tribal trustees in the lawsuit is no surprise. It poses no real significant change for us, so we didn’t oppose it.”

The Independent contacted Kate Anderson, the Agua Caliente director of public relations, to request a one-on-one interview with an ACBCI representative. That request was denied, and we were told to instead submit a list of questions.

We asked what the tribe’s objectives are in filing the lawsuit. The response: “The tribe’s objectives would be (1) having the court affirm the tribe’s preexisting, senior rights to groundwater; (2) having the court order DWA and CVWD to implement a plan to cease any withdrawals of groundwater that infringe upon the tribe’s rights or cause the aquifer to be in a state of overdraft; and (3) requiring DWA and CVWD to use high quality water—be it treated Colorado River water or water from another source—to recharge the aquifer.”

Engel explained some of her agencies’ objections to the tribe’s claims. “If we start with the senior rights, the CVWD believes that, based on current law in California, nobody owns the groundwater,” she said. “Anyone in the Coachella Valley, anyone in the state of California can drill a well and pump groundwater. So it’s not our water to give them senior rights.”

Ewing, again, agreed. “No one has the (exclusive) right to the water currently, because it is a public aquifer. Anyone can put a pump in the ground and pump it, including the tribe. So for them to say that they have a right to the water goes against our understanding of the legal status of the aquifer today.”

Why did the ACBCI choose this to file this lawsuit—which some say redirects resources that could be better spent on conservation and replenishment—at this time? The tribe’s response: “The water agencies admit that ‘overdraft’ (a condition created in the aquifer when water pumped out exceeds the amount replenished on an annual basis) has been a problem in the valley for over 75 years. The agencies are exclusively dependent on (an) imported water supply from the Colorado River, a known polluted water source.”

The tribe continued, “The agencies have turned a deaf ear to the tribe’s written complaints about this situation for going on 20 years.”

Ewing argued that the tribe’s claims that Colorado River water is polluted are off-base.

“Colorado River water helps recharge (replenish) the basin and has for 40 years,” he said. “That Colorado River water meets all federal and state clean water standards. So to suggest that it is somehow inferior water is to us just plain wrong.”

A report from the California Department of Water Resources released in April, “Groundwater Basins With Potential Water Shortages,” seems to refute the tribe’s claims that overdrafts are a serious problem in the valley, at least in recent years. A map of the monitoring of wells located in the area between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea indicates that from 2013-2014, an overwhelming majority of those wells reflected groundwater-level gains or minimal declines—which was not the case in much of the rest of California.

When asked about the benefits of cooperation compared to an expensive lawsuit, the tribe responded strongly.

“The tribe and the United States attempted for many years to work in concert with DWA and CVWD to address the issues in this litigation,” said the ACBCI response. “CVWD and DWA continually refused to acknowledge the tribe’s rights or to engage the tribe in any meaningful dialogue. The decision to initiate litigation came only after attorneys for the water districts informed the tribe that they saw no reason to continue discussions with the tribe.”

Finally, we asked each of the involved parties what they think will result from the lawsuit.

From the ACBCI: “By establishing its ownership interest in the valley’s groundwater, the tribe will have a seat at the table when it comes to the management of the aquifer. It is too early in the lawsuit to predict how these issues will be resolved or identify specific steps that the tribe will take at the lawsuit’s conclusion.”

Engel of the CVWD said: “The bottom line is that obviously the CVWD thinks we’re doing a good job managing the groundwater supply. There is a plan in place. This is not something that’s new to us. We’ve been managing the supply since 1918, and we think that we’ll continue to do a good job for all the residents of the Coachella Valley.”

The DWA’s Ewing speculated that the lawsuit could have a rather complex outcome. “Well, the courts will determine what the policy is. If they determine that the tribe does have senior water rights, then the thing to remember is that this is not an aquifer that is currently divided between (just the) Desert Water Agency and CVWD. There are lots of other players who have pumps in the ground—farmers, country clubs and some industries out in the more rural parts of the valley—and all of them will have to get in line with the courts to determine how much everybody gets if one entity gets something. It could take a long, long time to sort out who gets what should the courts decide that the tribe gets something.”

Ewing added that the legal wrangling could continue for many, many years.

“The tribe has raised several issues in their lawsuit, and if they take as long as they could take through appeals and further hearings and a full adjudication, in my own opinion, the lawyers who will settle this case haven’t been born yet.”

V. Manuel Perez was uncharacteristically feisty and aggressive when the Independent recently spoke to him about the final push in his campaign for the Riverside County District 4 Board of Supervisors seat, against incumbent Supervisor John Benoit.

“Benoit claims credit for efforts that are not even his, because I think he lacks substance,” said Perez, who is currently a member of the state Assembly. “He lacks vision, and he’s part of an effort that’s business as usual—and that’s getting old.”

Perez cites a bill that he sponsored as an example. “We passed legislation (AB 1318) for the Sentinel power plant,” built by Competitive Power Ventures in Desert Hot Springs and operational since May 2013, Perez said. “My opponent continues to claim that it was him who went to the east side of the valley and paved the road to the east side. Well, guess what? Where did he get that money from? That money came from the $53 million in mitigation funds that came from the build-out of that plant. We, at the state level, and I authored that legislation, and made sure that the money was in there.”

Benoit—a former member of the state Assembly and Senate—took exception to Perez’s statements.

“Well, first of all, the bill was Perez-Benoit, and I was the co-author, and I worked very, very hard with him, and, in fact, we could debate who carried more of the weight, but it was not just Mr. Perez in the Legislature passing that. There were a lot of people who weighed in,” Benoit said.

Benoit was a state senator when the original bill was introduced in the Assembly by Perez. A version of the bill listed on the Legislature’s website does cite Benoit as a co-author.

“The money was available, but it would not have happened without the county, at my request, putting together a single proposal for 31 parks that totaled over $4 million,” Benoit said. “So he can whine about not getting enough credit. I give credit to him at appropriate locations and times, and certainly everyone knows that he was the author of the bill.”

Perez also criticized Benoit for delaying the funding of renewable-energy projects in Riverside County. He spoke with pride about his Assembly initiatives and said they enabled the “fast-tracking, signing and permitting of renewable energy projects throughout rural California, and specifically in this (Riverside County) area, and that there was $7 million attached to that as well. … Imperial County applied for those monies a year ago and received $700,000, while Riverside County did not apply, because they were in the middle of a battle with the solar industry, because of John Benoit’s lack of understanding and stubbornness.

“He wanted to impose a property tax that was exorbitant that ultimately made the solar industry move to other areas, and we lost projects as a result of that. But finally, Riverside County did apply this year, because I reintroduced legislation, and they did receive $700,000 for the building of more renewables.”

Not surprisingly, Benoit had a different perspective. “That’s absolute nonsense,” Benoit said. “His bill contained so many flaws and required so much accounting in terms of matching funds and so forth that not only Riverside, but other counties, passed on the first go-around. He realized that, came back and drafted new regulations that fixed the problems in the first bill.

“The bill in its original form would have cost more than we would receive in benefits. So he fixed it, and now he’s claiming for political reasons that it was our lack of diligence the first year—but what about the other counties and all the other staff that looked at it and came to the same conclusion?”

As for property-tax initiative referred to by Perez: “My opponent has tried to make it sound like the only reason at all that any solar project in the last five years has been changed or didn’t move forward is this fee,” Benoit said. “Changing transmission rates for solar power, changes in the technology and the lack of available financing has caused many projects to change directions or go away. The fee had nothing to do with it.”

With the election in the winner-take-all primary just days away, how do the candidates assess their chances for victory?

“My team feels good about where we are and our position,” Perez said. “Our polling looks good. But ultimately, it’s about who gets out that vote, and that 15 to 20 percent who are undecided. Independents don’t care whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. What they care about is the one who produces.”

Benoit said that many people don’t realize the primary, since there are only two candidates, will determine the winner. “We’re working very hard right up to the end, but I’m confident based on polling that we’re going to prevail very strongly. I have had people say, ‘What do you think about your chances in November?’ And I say, ‘Wait a minute: You do understand that with only two of us, it’s going to be one of us in June?’

“But that will work itself out, because there are only two choices, and the one who gets the most votes will be the winner, because one of us will have more than 50 percent. Even my advanced math tells me that.”

Mark Twain was one of the first to publicly sing the praises of the California red-legged frog.

Back in 1867, in a short story titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” he wrote about a fellow “by the name of Jim Smiley … He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump.”

In 2014, the ancestors of that exceptionally “edercated” California red-legged frog became the catalyst for a local educational experience involving Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, and some inspirational students and faculty members at Salton City’s Sea View Elementary School: fifth-grade student Samantha Lambarena; sixth-grade student Freedom America Payne; teacher and faculty adviser Virginia Haddad; and principal Dr. Timothy Steele.

With stylistic apologies to Mark Twain, Mrs. Haddad begins our modern inspirational tale: “I have an after-school class named the ‘Prodigy Cats.’ Samantha actually named it that, and it’s a group of kids who like to dream—high-achieving kids who like to do projects.

“A couple of years ago when I was looking on the Internet for contests for my students to get involved in, I found one art contest through an organization called Save the Frogs. They put me on a mailing list. … One person mentioned their state amphibian, so I was wondering what ours was. I looked and saw we didn’t have one.

“So I presented this idea to them: What if we work on getting a state amphibian for California? They thought it was a great idea. … So I asked the head of Save the Frogs, Dr. Kerry Kriger, who’s a well-known expert on frogs: What do you suggest would be a good frog to be our state amphibian? He said the California red-legged frog. … He suggested we go to our local assemblyperson. Then last November, sixth-grader Freedom Payne wrote the letter; we all pitched in, then he typed it up; about 10 kids signed it, and we sent it up to Assemblymember Perez at his office in Indio.

The group didn’t hear back, so they sent a second letter to Perez’s Sacramento office.

Samantha takes over the story. “We did get a reply to that,” she says. “After that, we started working on our project and learning more about the frog.”

Perez picks up the narrative: “I really didn’t think much about it in the beginning, other than it was a cute idea. But it never left the back of my mind.”

Haddad and some students went to an open house at Perez’s Indio office back in January. “There was music and tamales and cookies,” she says. “But Mr. Perez was so nice to these kids. He literally took them under his arms. There were a lot of important people there, but Mr. Perez took time with these kids and showed us around his office.”

Perez says, “As a result of that, I thought, ‘You know what? Let’s give this a shot.’ This could truly be an educational experience for the students in which they can see how a bill becomes law and experientially go through it.”

Samantha says the students then got to work. “We learned more facts about the frog: its behavior, its habitat and what it eats.”

“It’s indigenous to California,” interjects Freedom.

It’s a threatened species which does not quite reach the level of endangered.

“The bullfrog has been eating the California frogs lately, and it’s our frog’s worst enemy now,” Samantha says.

Back we go to the unfolding story of the legislative initiative. “In February of this year, Mr. Perez came to Sea View Elementary and did a presentation for all of our fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students about how a bill becomes law,” Steele says. “Then, Mr. Perez announced that he was going to move forward and present this bill, which he identified as AB 2364. He invited us up to Sacramento.”

The students made the trip to the state Capitol and gave testimony. “In the committee session, I said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I waive my presentation. I have a couple of students here who would like to present this bill, and they’re ready for you.’ And they basically took over,” Perez says. “The assemblymembers were impressed. They really appreciated what the kids had to say, and they took a liking to the bill. On the Assembly floor, it was passed by a 52-10 vote, and now it’s going to the Senate.”

Steele says it was an amazing experience. “When you talk about learning being a part of students’ real lives, this was the epitome. You can’t get any more involved than sitting in the state Capitol in Sacramento, and you’re facing a panel of assemblymembers, and you’re in fifth- or sixth-grade.”

So what hurdles remain before the battle for designation of the state amphibian is won? “It’s going to the Senate, where it will be referred to a committee, in Natural Resources, perhaps,” Perez explains. “But that’s not going to happen until sometime in June. I’ll have to present the bill to the committee in the Senate as well at that time. It’s expensive to take the students up to Sacramento. It takes a lot of time and resources, so I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that again, quite frankly.”

However, Freedom and Samantha would jump at the opportunity. When asked if they’d be returning to Sacramento they reply in unison, “I hope!”

Has this ambitious enterprise changed their view on life at all? “Being a part of this whole experience has definitely changed my life,” says Freedom, “because not a lot of kids get this kind of opportunity. And getting this opportunity makes me happy and helps me move on. In my free time now, whenever I’m bored, I go on my iPad and start drawing frogs.”

As for Samantha: “It changed my life, because before, I used to feel bored and sad and not knowing what to do. But now, since Mrs. Haddad told me about the Save the Frogs website and because of what we’ve been doing, I stay involved and have been educated about this issue. And I feel better.”

The Salton Sea—the picturesque historical landmark located at the southeastern edge of Coachella Valley—is receding.

Will it survive? Or will it dry up and become a massive generator of harmful dust emissions—posing a serious threat to public health and the local economy?

This simple and important question has been debated for more than 20 years now, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Salton Sea Authority (saltonsea.ca.gov), a joint-powers agency chartered by the state of California in 1993 to ensure the preservation and beneficial uses of the Salton Sea. The SSA is composed of two representatives from each of five member agencies: the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe, Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District.

This still-unanswered question spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to recently sign Assembly Bill 71. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would authorize the authority (SSA) to lead a restoration funding and feasibility study, in consultation with the (State of California Natural Resources) agency. This bill would also require the secretary (of the CNRA) to seek input from the authority with regard to specified components of restoration of the Salton Sea. By imposing duties on a local joint-powers authority (the SSA), the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.”

In plainer language: The bill is intended to identify strategies to address the serious environmental and social challenges facing the Coachella Valley and the rest of Southern California due to the Salton Sea’s tenuous future.

The most immediate result of the bill was the earmarking of $2 million in the 2014 state budget to fund a study to determine appropriate restorative actions.

“AB 71 was successful, because after it was passed, we managed to get funding, which was a really good feeling,” remarked Roger Shintaku, executive director of the SSA. “We fought long and hard to get the funding.”

Keali’i Bright, the deputy secretary for legislation with the California Natural Resources Agency, is the point-person on the state’s involvement in the Salton Sea campaign.

“We’ve gone into contract with the Salton Sea Authority and their sub-contractor. … The study itself is very promising,” said Bright. “There’s an idea out there that we can encourage the development of a lot of geothermal and renewable energy resources around the Salton Sea, and that development can bring economic prosperity, and also provide revenues for further restoration activities.”

How would the revenue created by such development flow back into the restoration effort?

“More than 91 percent of the land under the sea basin is owned either by the Imperial Irrigation District or the United States government, so they would probably do some kind of leasing with development companies,” said Bright. “But one of the specific task orders in the study is to look at how you actually get revenue.”

Shintaku’s SSA is supervising the creation of an action plan as the first phase of the study.

“The first step in the feasibility study is to take the plan and make it more detailed and goal-oriented,” he said. “We’ve broken down specific tasks we want to accomplish along with the schedule, because we need to finish the feasibility study by May 2016.”

Of course, revenue and cost considerations can make or break any long term plans—especially when it comes to a project as daunting as saving the Salton Sea.

“We need to examine what was laid out in the past and then try to inject the reality of today’s finances in an effort to see what we can do,” Shintaku said. “The bottom line is that we want to advance ecosystem restoration, and we want to advance any mitigation efforts, but we have to look at our own financial ability first, because we can’t really count on anyone else coming in.”

What about the state budget funds earmarked to support SSA efforts? “The state is obligated to help out,” agreed Shintaku. “At the same time, we’re looking at what we can do locally without help from the state or federal governments. We’re doing what we can to move this forward.”

Everyone agrees that time is of the essence—as the Salton Sea’s water supply will soon decrease. In 2003, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the State of California and the U.S. Interior Department signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which requires that annual allotments of Colorado River water are diverted into the Salton Sea. However, that agreement ends in 2017.

Can anything be done in the near term to address the other challenges linked to this looming environmental, economic and public-health crisis?

“The renewable projects themselves could be dust-storm preventers,” Bright observed. “… By this autumn, the state will begin constructing 600 to 700 acres of projects on the ground. Our focus and investment is in habitat ponds, which are really the most difficult to build. They’re deep-water habitats designed to grow fish, basically, so birds have fish to eat. Meanwhile, (the Imperial Irrigation District) is focusing on shallow-water habitats that are slightly less challenging, but equally important.”

Curiously, there seems to be no serious discussion about delaying the QSA deadline on Colorado River-water allotments.

“That’s way above my pay grade,” said Bright. “But I don’t know if the benefits are really there, because the tipping point on the salinity of the sea is already being reached. Undoing the QSA would be a monumental feat. We’re trying to work within our current framework toward the best solution and give us some kind of pathway to the future.”

Shintaku said that no matter what is done, the Salton Sea will always be around, in one form or another.

“If nothing else happens, and there’s still agriculture in the area, there’s going to be water draining into the sea,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the real question. The real question is: What kind of sea will there be?

“As we move forward after the feasibility study, we’d like to try to improve on what’s happening with the species-conservation habitat and develop projects that maintain habitats and address future concerns of dust proliferation,” he continued. “We cannot say for certain that all 365 square miles of seabed will be a dust bowl. We won’t know until the sea actually recedes. That’s another challenge for us, to develop a program that will allow us to do dust control when such conditions arise, or avoid it by keeping areas wet or planting vegetation.”

Of course, all of this work is being attempted in the midst of the worst drought California has seen in recorded history. How could this reality not serve as an impediment?

“My feeling is that it’s been helpful, because it’s put the focus on water issues in the Legislature and where we put our priorities for water,” said Bright. “So in this year’s California Water Action Plan, the Salton Sea was put in as one of the priorities. … Other water areas have definitely been impacted by the bandwidth suck of the drought, but this is probably one of the few areas that hasn’t.”