CVIndependent

Sun02252018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

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.”

As she teed off Thursday morning, April 3, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Nicole Castrale had a lot to prove.

The 11-year LPGA veteran and onetime Palm Desert High School golfer needed to show that any physical concerns caused by her September 2013 hip-replacement surgery were behind her. She has been swinging the club again for just three months, after all.

By the end of the day, she had proven a lot, turning in a one-under-par 71 that put her five strokes off the lead and in a tie for 14th place.

“I now have a right hip that works, so it’s nice,” said the Palm Desert resident. “I’ve been able to pick up some speed, which is good, so I’m hitting further off the tee.”

To what did she attribute her opening round success? “I just played real solid,” Castrale said. “I hit a lot of fairways, a lot of greens. I didn’t make problems worse, and I just stayed real patient out there.”

Playing just down the road from her home also seems to agree with Nicole. “I’d say it took us 11 minutes to get here this morning. It’s nice to sleep in your own bed,” she said.

Is there added pressure to perform well in front of family and friends? “I always thought this golf course set up well for my game,” she said about the Mission Hills Country Club. “It’s a great course. One of the best we play all year.”

She then admitted that she does tend to force things a bit when playing at home. “My parents are here, and I’ve been here since eighth-grade. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s an easy place to get around. My golf coach is here. I’ve got a great golf course I practice at, Toscana Country Club. It’s just home.”

In fact, family is never far away from Castrale when she’s at work: Her husband, Craig, doubles as her caddie. So how did Craig feel about their first day’s results?

“It’s a great start at any tournament, especially at a major, to get anything under par,” he said. “Long way to go, but definitely nice to have it under our belt and get the afternoon to rest.”

What do the Castrales do in the Coachella Valley when it’s time to kick back and relax?

“Basically, we hang out at our house with our daughter,” said Castrale, laughing. “We’ve gone to The Living Desert, but we’re homebodies.”

Husband/caddie Craig agreed. “I’m just excited to spend as much time as possible with my wife and our daughter and all the family and friends. It’s great.”

Monday marked the beginning of the now 42-year-old LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship, and the event began with a one-day tournament featuring California’s top young amateur female golfers.

The prize for the winner of the KNC Champions Junior Challenge: the final qualifying spot in the major championship’s field.

This year marked only the third anniversary of this new tradition and offered 39 excited young golfers—selected by a committee of the Southern California Golf Association—a special opportunity. Two of the talented amateurs—15-year-old Jiyoon Jang, of Rancho Mirage, and 17-year-old Mackenzie Raim, of Palm Desert—are locally grown, and both were members of the Palm Desert High School varsity girls’ golf team.

Each team of three players was accompanied by a previous winner of the prestigious Kraft Nabisco Championship, which was founded by Dinah Shore back in 1972. This year’s champion coach squad included, among many others, LPGA legends like Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez, Amy Alcott and Pat Bradley, who mentored Jiyoon Jang’s team as the players made their way around the Arnold Palmer Course at the Mission Hills Country Club.

“These young ladies are the future of our game,” said Bradley, the winner of the 1986 tournament, at the end of the round. “This game has given me so much, and to help these young ladies today was a great thrill for me.”

Jiyoon Jang shot a 3-over-par 75 on the day, and finished in a tie for 17th, five strokes behind the winner.

“I could have made a few more putts and gotten a few more chips, but this was an unforgettable memory for me,” she said after her round. “Pat Bradley said to us on the first tee that it’s not life and death—it’s just a game, honestly. I’m just going to take one shot at a time and just keep going.”

Bradley said she was impressed by the 15-year-old golfer.

“Miss Jang played great,” Bradley said. “I was very proud of her. She missed a couple of putts that I know she thought she’d made, and of course, this game can beat you up if you’re not careful.”

Bradley noted that Jang finished strong. “I was very pleased to see her stay positive, and when she made an eagle on 18, that was her reward for staying positive today.”

Jang said that eagle was the highlight of her round. “I wasn’t really going in to make an eagle. I just hit my fairway wood and tried to keep a smooth tempo. Then when I hit my putt, I just stuck with my line, and it dropped right in the center of the hole. It was really exciting, because Pat Bradley just started cheering and screaming.”

Meanwhile, Jang’s Palm Desert High teammate, Mackenzie Raim, enjoyed an even-par 72 finish, which put her in a tie for fifth. Lilia Vu, of Fountain Valley, was the winner at -2.

All in all, not a bad day for the local challengers. Scroll down to view an image gallery.

On Friday, March 14, the women’s singles semifinals at the BNP Paribas Open were played under relatively cool and star-filled skies at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Both matches were decided in straight sets, with Agnieszka Radwanska moving easily into the finals, and Flavia Pennetta overcoming a stiff challenge from 2014’s best women’s player, Li Na.

On Saturday, it was the men’s turn on the Stadium 1 Court. First up in the ATP singles semifinals under the blazing noon sun was the pairing of No. 7 Roger Federer and No. 28 Alexandr Dolgopolov; Federer won convincingly. During the next match, temperatures on the court pushed well past 90 degrees, and the brilliant sunshine glared into the eyes of both players when they were serving. John Isner and Novak Djokovic battled hard through three sets, with Djokovic finally pulling away to deliver a fans’ dream matchup when he faces Federer in the finals on Sunday.

No matter how challenging the conditions get for the pros, they have help: The BNP Paribas Open “ballkids,” whose job is to tend to each player’s needs.

“Our ballkids figure out the players’ idiosyncrasies so they can service them as well as possible,” explained 2014 BNP Paribas Open ballkids director Adam Jasick. “‘Do they want two towels, or do they want the balls here?’ There’s more complexity than you would imagine.”

Candidates for the tournament’s 400-member ballkid corps must be between the ages of 12 and 20 and undergo a minimum of four 2 1/2-hour training sessions before moving on to a court. One of the toughest tasks to learn: the choreography of team actions involved in retrieving and redistributing the balls when the pros are serving. That activity and others are overseen by 75 ballkid-team coordinators who range in age from 21 to 80.

“The coordinators provide the ballkids with what they need to make sure they can go out and be successful,” said Jasick. “They turn our kids into superstars and make them the best ballkids on the tour.”

In the tournament’s first week, when the tennis action is spread over nine stadium courts during both day and night sessions, the demand for ballkids is greatest. While most of the kids come from the Coachella Valley or elsewhere in Southern California, teams of trained participants come from as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska. During that first week, the ballkids are rated on their performance and attitude, with the best performers invited to stay into the second week of play. Further judging results in the selection of the elite corps of four ballkid teams who work during the semifinals and finals matches.

Joshua Phillips, of Palm Desert, is a veteran at the tournament. So what’s his favorite part of being a ballkid?

“I like to get out of school,” joked Josh. “It’s really cool. I started five years ago, and it’s nice to work my way up. And this year, I’ve gotten so close to the players. It’s a nice opportunity.”

His most memorable moment to date? “I was working a nightshift last year, and all these moths just started landing on the court,” recalled Phillips. “The chair umpire called time and asked us to pick up the moths, but I didn’t want to touch them. I wasn’t much help. I got maybe two off the court.”

Ballkid teammate Emon Shaaf, of Rancho Mirage, is also a five-year vet. The most memorable moment of his tourney experience involved one of his tennis idols.

“I was in the men’s locker room,” explained Shaaf. “And I had to use the bathroom. So while I was in there, I looked to my left, and there was Roger Federer. I was surprised.”

More great tennis action—and an unusual public moment of recognition for the ballkids—were yet to come. On Sunday, the day began with Flavia Pennetta facing Agnieszka Radwanska in the women’s final. Unfortunately, toward the end of the first set, Radwanska injured her left leg and succumbed quickly to Pennetta’s aggressive game.

Next came the much-anticipated faceoff between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic—and it provided all the thrills and tense moments one could want in a top championship match. After splitting the first two sets, Federer battled back from one break down late in the third set to force a tiebreaker. However, Djokovic regained control and grabbed the trophy by overwhelming Federer at the end.

Prior to each of the finals, the Ball Girl of the Year and Ball Boy of the Year were introduced to the crowd in Stadium 1. Winning ball girl Ally Ryan from La Quinta stepped in to flip the coin to determine the first serve in the Pennetta-Radwanska match before posing for photos with the two players. At the start of the Djokovic-Federer contest, ball boy Drew Matthews was honored in the same fashion, with renowned tennis champion and TV announcer John McEnroe getting into the photo op as well.

But once the balls started flying, everything was once again as it should be for these ballkids: They faded into the background as they did their work.

“The greatest compliment the kids can get is not to be recognized,” Jasick said. “The hope is that nobody realizes the kids are there—and then they’ve done an excellent job.”

Original version posted at 2 p.m., Sunday, March 16; revised version posted Tuesday, March 18.

As the 2014 BNP Paribas Tennis Open moves into the fourth round, many big names on the men’s side have tumbled in the heat and swirling breezes at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Only five of the Top 10 players have survived. Among those already heading home are No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych, No. 9 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and most shockingly, No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal.

But Team Fed remains in the game.

That’s the name the worldwide tennis media has given to Roger Federer and his coterie of coaches, family and friends. This year's No. 7 seed and a four-time BNP Paribas Open champion, Federer is a perennial fan favorite. He is lionized by legions of loyal fans who track his every move around the expansive Tennis Garden grounds. For them, Coachella Valley’s two-week tennis fest is a chance to enjoy all the pleasures of “Club Fed”—and it doesn’t matter whether Federer is scheduled to play on a particular day or not. In fact, a Federer day-off practice session provides devotees with an opportunity to get even closer to their idol.

Roger Federer was slated for a 4 p.m. workout in Stadium 8 one afternoon this week. Almost all of the other players, even top seeds Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, practice on the practice courts. Seems logical, right? However, spectator space on these courts is limited—so Federer often practices in an open stadium.

How popular is Federer? The stadium was 90 percent filled an hour prior to his scheduled practice start time. When he finally rolled up in his cart, 15 minutes late, an overflow, standing-room-only crowd awaited him.

As soon as he began walking into the stadium, murmurs turned into a swelling round of applause. Fans lucky enough to find themselves along side his path of entry excitedly held out pens and objects to ask for an autograph.

“Hi, guys. Not now; maybe later,” he said, smiling.

He moved onto the court—as the applause surged and then subsided—before picking up a racket, grabbing some balls and starting to volley with his hitting partner. Silence surrounded him as his legion of followers, many sporting baseball caps with Federer’s trademark script logo, soaked up these special moments.

“Roger is the best athlete ever,” declared one young fan. “Tennis is the most difficult game, because it is one-on-one, and Roger is the greatest player and gentleman.”

As the practice session wore on, seemingly no one in the crowd left—not until Roger was finished.

For Club Fed, the fervent hope is that he’ll be the last man standing at this BNP Paribas Open.

Scroll down to see a photo gallery.

Despite last weekend’s helpful storms, it’s a fact: There’s a water shortage in California.

Depending on your news source, we’re told that the state is suffering either through its worst drought ever, the worst since the 1880s, or—at the least—the worst in the last 15 years.

“Not only was 2013 one of the driest years on record in California; it followed two dry years in 2011 and 2012,” said Craig Ewing, the Desert Water Agency’s president of the board, during his opening remarks at a recent DWA public workshop regarding water conservation and management.

Concern is highest in communities farther north, like Santa Barbara, where water restrictions mandated by a Stage 1 drought alert were initiated on Feb. 4. Customers there are being asked to reduce water usage by 20 percent. But even as such measures are being taken, some projections say that available water resources for that city could run out as early as July. “I am not calm and collected,” said Ray Stokes, manager of the Central Coast Water Authority, the agency responsible for importing state water into Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, to the Santa Barbara Independent.

Here in the Coachella Valley, the news is comparatively good news for Desert Water Agency customers. The agency serves customers in Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. “We have underground storage called the aquifer here,” explained Ewing at the workshop. “Ninety percent of our water comes from that; 10 percent comes from snows and the creeks. So we aren’t in the desperate condition they’re in up north.”

The good news continues. Due to the combined efforts of the DWA on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District agency—which services most of the communities from Cathedral City to the Salton Sea—the water level in the aquifer has been supplemented frequently since 1973 through “recharging” of the supply with water obtained from the Colorado River as part of an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

“We started banking natural runoffs during wet years,” Ewing said. “Now we’re trying to maintain a stable supply. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, since they’re telling us that the 21st century will be drier than the 20th. This comes down to some big issues around climate and geology and water availability, and your role as a human being to leave a smaller water footprint as we go forward.”

Ewing noted the fortunate reality at play in the Coachella Valley. “We live in a desert, and yet we have direct access to the California State Water Project, so we don’t pay a middle man,” he said. “We have this aquifer that actually filters the water so we don’t have to spend money on treatment, and it provides a valuable natural storage resource. We have to recognize that we are probably the most fortunate people out there with regard to water—but that’s no reason to ignore the drought problem.”

Also in attendance at the public workshop was Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who is currently running for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. “I’m here because I felt it was important to hear about the concerns that our constituency may have and to hear from the DWA what they are proposing. Everyone has to do their part at the end of the day. We have to do everything we can to protect our most important natural asset.”

DWA officials discussed some of the water-conservation efforts currently under way. The first is operational efficiency, which involves the water agency’s efforts to make sure it saves water in the way it’s delivered to the customer. This includes replacing damaged water mains, providing homeowners with smart water meters, and identifying irrigation-system leaks, among other initiatives.

Other efforts include educational outreach, customer incentives or rebates, and regulatory restrictions on water usage. Another conservation strategy, tiered-rate billing, is under serious consideration and study by the DWA.

For CVWD customers, tiered-rate billing is already business as usual.

“We started tiered rates in 2009,” said Heather Engel, CVWD director of communications and legislation. “And we didn’t get a lot of resistance from our customers. We did a pretty heavy education campaign, which included sending ‘shadow bills’ to every customer for three months prior to implementation. They got to see if their bill would go up, down or stay the same. And for 80 percent of our customers, the bill actually went down by a couple of pennies.

“Some people did accuse us of just trying to make more money,” Engel continued. “But it really was an education program. People maybe thought they were being very conscientious with their water use, but here was a guide that they could look at and say, ‘Wow! I’m being excessive.’ Maybe they had leaks they didn’t know about and could now address.”

Are tiered rates definitely in the future for DWA customers?

“If you ask me, I’d say yes,” said DWA board president Ewing. “But it will be a discussion for the board. I think we need to go there.”

Barbara Ojena, a Palm Springs citizen, seemed pleased that she attended the workshop.

“I was very impressed how on top of things the organization is. Personally, I’d like to see a few more regulations put in place at this time, because we are in a severe situation statewide. I think we need to make people more aware of that and conserve what we’ve got.”

A good time for a good cause was the goal at the Will Powered Golf Classic, held Monday, March 3, at Palm Desert’s Bighorn Golf Club, and the Desert Smash tennis tournament, held Tuesday, March 4, at the La Quinta Resort.

The events were hosted by actor/comedian Will Ferrell and cancer survivor Craig Pollard, the founder of Cancer for College.

Players competed in a “shamble” format in the annual golfing fundraiser, which has been funding scholarships for cancer survivors since 1994. The golf tournament kicked off Cancer for College’s 2014 Desert Showdown, which continued on Tuesday, March 4, with the Desert Smash tennis tournament, as well as a concert featuring Nelly and Boyz II Men at The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa.

Ferrell and Pollard were joined this year by Kevin Spacey, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor and star of the hit Netflix series House of Cards. Since 1994, Cancer for College has granted more than $2 million in college scholarships to more than 1,000 cancer survivors.

At an impromptu press conference on his way to tee-off on Monday, Ferrell touted all of the charity-centric activities included in this year’s expanded Desert Showdown. In particular, he expressed excitement about the concert at The Show, modestly called Will Ferrell’s Epically Awesome Desert Showdown Concert Extravaganza.

“I don’t think that Coachella music fest will be able to compare! And that’s a scoop, by the way,” he said.

Regarding the serious cause underlying the fun and games, Ferrell explained the perspective he and Pollard share.

“We use humor to kind of talk about cancer,” said Ferrell. “You know, it’s such a taboo subject, because people don’t want to talk about having gone through the disease, but we kind of mix it up. One of the best parts is hearing the recent scholarship recipients’ speeches, where they talk about everything they’ve gone through, and how motivated they are to make a difference.”

Moments later, just after the celebrity groupings were announced on the first tee, the crowd was told that Will Ferrell would face the No. 2-ranked tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, at the Desert Smash tourney on the next day.

“I’m going to be playing with my driver,” deadpanned Ferrell as he waved his golf club in the air.

On Tuesday, March 4, however, that driver was nowhere to be seen, as fans of tennis and celebrity star-gazing flocked to the La Quinta Resort’s tennis club. Desert Showdown Day 2 got under way with celebs and amateurs filling many of the back courts for short doubles matches. Comedian/actor Jon Lovitz, singer Redfoo, actor Joel McHale of Community and actor Timothy Olyphant of Justified were among the stars who participated.

In the afternoon, fans ringed the stadium to watch the featured matches. Ferrell decided serenade the crowd during his opening remarks with a flawed rendition of the Canadian national anthem. No. 2-ranked tennis pro Novak Djokovic, who was teamed with Ferrell in one of the most entertaining doubles matches, played while wearing a wig as an homage to Will Ferrell’s character Jackie Moon from the film Semi-Pro.

Also competing were Bridesmaids actress Rebel Wilson, two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, 2014 Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka, the top-ranked doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan, and former BNP Paribas Open winners Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova, among others.

As play was about to begin, Will Ferrell told the crowd, “I’ve been practicing for this moment my entire life! Make sure you hydrate. I’m doing that by drinking a lot of tequila and vodka.”

The contests were frequently interrupted by impromptu fundraising auction events, the proceeds of which all went to Cancer for College. One highly successful auction was inspired by valley resident and WBO world welterweight boxing champion Timothy Bradley, who provided two ringside tickets to his upcoming bout with Manny Pacquiao. As bidding escalated rapidly, Kevin Spacey taunted his doubles opponent Ferrell to bid higher, saying, “Come on, Will! Anchorman did better than that.”

Ferrell responded by urging Spacey to pony up some of his earnings from his Netflix series House of Cards.

“Netflix only pays us in DVDs,” quipped Spacey.

It’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.

Scroll down to view a photo gallery.

Original version published at 10:45 a.m., Tuesday, March 4; updated version published at 10:15 a.m., Wednesday, March 5.

It’s going to be a busy election year in the Coachella Valley.

Residents of Rancho Mirage will kick things off with a municipal election on April 8, before the spotlight moves to the hotly contested big-name races. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat, will be opposed by Republican State Assemblymember Brian Nestande in a fierce battle that could help determine which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives. And Gov. Jerry Brown will be seeking his second term as the 39th governor of California against an as-yet-undetermined Republican candidate.

Down the ballot a bit is the election for Riverside County District 4 supervisor, featuring Republican incumbent John Benoit, and Democrat V. Manuel Perez, who is currently serving as the state assemblymember for the 56th District (which includes the Salton Sea area and much of the northern and eastern parts of the Coachella Valley, including all or parts of Coachella, Indio, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs). However, both of the seat’s announced contenders insisted that their race is just as important—if not more important—than the bigger-name contests.

“This seat is very important. In my opinion, it is one of the most important seats in government, if not the most important,” said Perez, who, like Dr. Ruiz, is a graduate of Harvard University and is considered a rising star in Democratic circles. “Many people don’t understand that. For all the policies that I’ll decide at my level, or Congressman Raul Ruiz will decide at his level, county government is where the rubber meets the road.”

Benoit, on this point, agreed with Perez.

“I enjoyed being a senator, and (serving in) the State Senate was an honor and a privilege,” said Benoit. “But nothing I did in the Senate even comes close to the impacts I have, sometimes every week, in the decisions I make here as a member of the Board of Supervisors—real impacts on real projects that are going to have real significance.”

The office of county supervisor is considered a nonpartisan position, although the office can be attained only by enduring a political campaign and an election process. Benoit addressed this contrariety.

“Because this is a nonpartisan office, and most of what we deal with is nonpartisan issues, I would think the biggest distinction between myself and my opponent is that I have 42 years of public-service experience,” he said. “That all helps a lot when you’re managing an office as part of a board responsible for 58 departments and 18,000 employees.”

As for the “nonpartisan” nature of the office he’s seeking, Perez mused: “It’s supposed to be. You know, I’ve been approached by many different entities and different allies on both sides of the aisle—Republicans and Democrats—to run for this seat. I feel that’s because of my work in Sacramento and because of my strong ties within the networks of the leadership there. I’ve worked in a bipartisan way, where (most) of the (policies) I’ve passed have been bipartisan, so I’ll definitely bring independent thinking to the county Board of Supervisors. I feel I’m the person who can bridge through and build up the Coachella Valley.”

What initiatives will be the focus of their respective campaigns? Benoit cited work he’s been doing in Mecca and the East Valley.

“We have the (66th Avenue) overcross and the Comfort Station, which is a legacy issue that we’re working on with the Galilee Center,” he said.

The Mecca Comfort Station would provide “restroom, shower, laundry, and adequate parking facilities to migrant farm workers in Mecca and the surrounding communities,” according to a county document. The Galilee Center assists the underprivileged in the East Valley.

He also pledged to work on the economy of the district.

“Every where you look, there are initiatives for growth and, in particular, solar projects and a vast array of potential renewable projects involved with the Salton Sea moving forward,” Benoit said.

Perez also said he’d focus on the economy.

“Ultimately, jobs and the economy are the No. 1 issue, because we still see a major gap between the rich and the poor,” he said. “In Riverside County, the largest number of poor exist here compared to every county in California, except Imperial County. I’ve got to make sure I deal with regulation, incentives and credits to lure in business.”

Both candidates are acutely aware of the see-saw voter-registration struggle going on in the Coachella Valley. Democrats have been whittling away at the Republican advantage in the county in recent years, although Republicans seemingly stopped that trend in 2013; as of Dec. 31, 2013, Republicans had a 5.14 percent voter-registration edge, according to the California Secretary of State.

“I’m pleased to see that the Republican registration numbers have come back some,” said Benoit. “But frankly, I’m not worried about that. I’m spending as much time or more talking to Democrats, talking to folks in the western part of the valley where I’m not as well-known—and when I talk to them, it has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat. I talk about all of my experience during four years in this supervisor’s office, and that I’m the right choice to continue what I’m doing.”

However, Perez pointed out that District 4 bucks the county trend; according to those same Dec. 31 figures from the Secretary of State, there were 3,600 more registered Democrats than Republicans in District 4.

“We have a 4 percent advantage in District 4,” Perez said. “… Earlier, we laughed about how this is supposed to be a nonpartisan race. Ultimately, we’re going to win this not because of those numbers, but because we’re going to out-work them. The numbers, be what they may be, do exist. But this campaign is going to be won on the ground.”

How do the candidates view their position in the race at this point? As of the end of 2013, Benoit had about $57,000 more in the bank, but Pérez was closing that gap.

“We know we’re way ahead in endorsements … and we certainly have an advantage in fundraising,” said Benoit. “Also, we’ve seen some polling numbers that indicate we’re in very good shape. But we’re putting all that behind us and running like we’re losing, to win.”

Perez also said he expects a close, challenging race.

“Ultimately, people are going to have to make a decision between two individuals who are going to work hard to win this election,” Perez said. “For some voters, this decision may be a tough one. They may have to break loyalties. So, yes, it’s going to be a campaign that, in my hope, causes people to reflect and dig deep inside—not only into their pocketbooks, but into their hearts and minds. They know that I actually care, and they’ll come out and vote for me.”

Below: V. Manuel Perez: "I’ve worked in a bipartisan way, where (most) of the (policies) I’ve passed have been bipartisan, so I’ll definitely bring independent thinking to the county Board of Supervisors. I feel I’m the person who can bridge through and build up the Coachella Valley.” Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald.