CVIndependent

Mon06012020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Water infrastructure is finally coming to three underserved portions of the eastern Coachella Valley—if state budget cuts don’t get in the way.

After nearly six years of work by Castulo Estrada, the rest of the Coachella Valley Water District board and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, the water district announced in early May that the State Water Resources Control Board had approved two construction grants, totaling about $3.3 million. The funds will be used to complete three projects that will bring safe, reliable water service and fire protection to two disadvantaged communities and one elementary school in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The reason we put out the press release was because the financial agreement was executed,” said Estrada, the CVWD board’s vice president, during a recent phone interview. “Once an agreement has been executed, it’s a contract between the state of California and the CVWD for the execution of the project (for which) the money had been requested, in this case the three east valley projects. That allows us to move forward with bidding the project, so that we can move on to construction. We’ve initiated that (bidding) with money from the CVWD’s own budget. I believe we’ve begun advertising, and these three projects are being presented as a package. The same contractor would construct the necessary works for connecting these systems the public system. The last I heard, we were shooting to award the contract sometime in July, and start construction sometime between the end of July and the fall.”

Garcia, who chairs of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, welcomed the funding in a news release.

“Together with partners like the Coachella Valley Water District, we have been leading a concerted effort to address the eastern Coachella Valley’s severe water disparities,” he said in the release. “Last year, we focused our legislative endeavors (on) creating a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to ensure that California dedicated investments towards long-standing water infrastructure needs of underserved areas like ours. I am proud to see our advocacy and hard work result in these state grants that will go a long way in supporting our goal of improving water connectivity and public health for our families and students."

However, the good news arrived just as the state and country were falling into the deepest and most-sudden recession in history, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Estrada if he was concerned state budget cuts could possibly negate the funding commitment.

“No, these monies have been accounted for,” he said. “But what I think might be at risk—not just for water-related projects, but for all budgets within the state of California—are those (grant applications) that will come up in next year’s budget process. These (projects) have already been encumbered. So, I don’t have any worry about these projects stalling.”

The Independent reached out to the SWRCB to verify that the grant funding was, in fact, completely secure. Public information officer Blair Robertson responded via email: “The bottom line is that there is no irrevocable commitment. That said, we are not aware of the funding for the Coachella projects being proposed for cuts by the governor.”

According to the SWRCB, all grants are subject to a set of terms and conditions, the 18th of which states: “The State Water Board’s obligation to disburse funds is contingent upon the availability of sufficient funds to permit the disbursements provided for herein. If sufficient funds are not available for any reason, including but not limited to failure of the federal or state government to appropriate funds necessary for disbursement of funds, the State Water Board shall not be obligated to make any disbursements to the recipient under this agreement. … If any disbursements due the recipient under this agreement are deferred because sufficient funds are unavailable, it is the intention of the State Water Board that such disbursement will be made to the recipient when sufficient funds do become available, but this intention is not binding.”

Once the connections are built between the CVWD’s existing water-delivery infrastructure and the Oasis Gardens Mobile Home Park, the Thermal Mutual community and the Westside Elementary School, the district will add roughly 200 new customers. While, without a doubt, these projects are necessary, the Independent asked Estrada if he was concerned the new clients may have difficulty keeping up with the monthly water-service charges, especially given the economic downturn.

“That hasn’t been a concern,” he said. “Obviously, before the project moves forward and the monies are appropriated, there is a need to enter into consolidation agreements. There were a number of workshops put together to engage the community and let residents know exactly what it means to get hooked up. Information about bills, and things like that, are explained up front, so that there are no surprises and so that there’s buy-in. All of that took place. Our water (comes) at a very affordable rate, and I think folks are happy when they’re able to connect to our system. I think that their concern about not having access to safe drinking water for themselves, and their families and their kids, outweighs any concern that they might have about a bill.”

While the financial crisis is obviously a huge concern, Estrada said he was confident other needed infrastructure projects in the eastern Coachella Valley would receive strong consideration from the state whenever funding is available.

“When the new funding called the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund was created and signed into law last year … (the legislation) created the fund, but it also directed the SWRCB to put together an advisory group, because there was no (statewide) plan. What gets funded? What is the expenditure count? What are the priorities? … It’s made up of 19 people from across California, and I’m one of them. I think we’re very well represented in Sacramento now. We are at the table, and we’re constantly engaging with the SWRCB and their staff. Personally, I now know the SWRCB members in Sacramento, and I’m very happy to know them. We’re in constant communication to the point where (the SWRCB) advised us that … since we have (over the last several years developed detailed) water- and sewer-project master plans (identifying roughly 40 water- and 80 sewer-hookup projects in the east valley) that total multi-millions of dollars in infrastructure investments, they want to help us enter into bigger financial agreements (with the state). So rather than doing small agreements almost on a per-project basis, the next thing that we’re working on is an application for a group of water-related projects that would require a $20 million grant.”

Published in Local Issues

I have a slight bone to pick with Dr. Cameron Kaiser.

I say “slight,” because overall, the public health officer for Riverside County has done a fantastic job of handling what is, most certainly, an unprecedented health crisis. He was quick to declare a public health emergency. He’s been ahead of the figurative game on many moves—like a mandate to wear masks when leaving home. And the county health system has been good about updating the COVID-19 case numbers on a daily basis, and even including city-by-city breakdowns—something that’s not being done in many places.

So, to repeat: He’s doing a fantastic job overall—but when it comes to keeping the public informed, in some ways, he and his staff could be doing better.

On April 7, his office released some information that was well, scary as hell: a projection that the county, at current capacity, would fill up all 131 ICI beds by April 14; we’d run out of hospital beds by April 23; and we’d run out of ventilators by April 26.

The county also projected that by early May, the county would need 3,000 ICU beds. Again, the county’s current capacity, 131.

Excuse my language … but holy shit! The graphic made it clear that the projections would change based on reported cases, bed availability and resources, but still, there’s a huge difference between 131 and 3,000.

As April 14 has come closer—that’s four days from now, AKA TUESDAY—I’ve been watching for an update to the information. But … there has been no update. Yes, the main counts have been updated daily, but not the pants-wetting ICU-bed projections. Given that we are hearing better things on both a Coachella Valley-specific level and a statewide level, I’d really like an update.

A footnote: It’s also worth noting that one of our writers reached out about a week ago to Dr. Kaiser’s office for an interview. Our writer received a two-sentence response: “I'm sorry. Dr. Kaiser is not available.”

I have no doubt that Dr. Kaiser is bonkers-busy right now. I can’t imagine how busy he is right now. I understand.

But there aren’t that many functional news operations these days in Riverside County—sad, but true—and all we need is 15 minutes, tops. So on Monday, I am going to personally call Dr. Cameron’s office and ask for an interview. I’ll let you know how that goes.

And hey, if Dr. Cameron or someone on his staff is reading this: Can we get an update on those ICU beds, please?

Today’s links:

• I have mixed feelings about this: According to The Verge: “Apple and Google announced a system for tracking the spread of the new coronavirus, allowing users to share data through Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmissions and approved apps from health organizations.” At least there are fewer privacy concerns with this method than the methods used in other countries’ tracking apps.

• The Riverside County mobile app has been updated to allow people to report people and businesses who are not complying with health orders.

• Important, if you didn’t file taxes for 2018 or 2019, and/or you don’t receive various federal benefits: The IRS has set up a website for you to sign up to get your stimulus payments.

• One of the biggest unknowns in this pandemic: How many people may have had COVID-19, but never knew it? A test in Los Angeles County of 1,000 people will help us start to figure out how much the coronavirus has really spread.

• Remember the jackass biotech exec who was sent to prison after jacking up the costs of HIV/AIDS medications? Martin Shkreli wants to be furloughed from prison to help with the fight against COVID-19.

• Even though nursing homes have been the sites of some of the worst coronavirus outbreaks, the federal government isn’t doing a great job of tracking them. So NBC News did their best to fill that gap.

• The Greater Coachella Valley Chamber Commerce is having a call-in legislative and COVID-19 update with Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia at 11 a.m., Wednesday, April 15. Details here.

• KESQ News Channel 3 talked to Coyote StageWorks founder Chuck Yates about the financial havoc the pandemic is causing for local arts organizations. You can read about the week when local theater came to a halt in this Independent piece.

Confused about face coverings, and good practices when it comes to using them? Eisenhower Health has some answers.

• I found this piece fascinating: You know which groups are doing a fine job at combating the spread of the coronavirus around the world? Some militant and criminal gangs!

• The pandemic has ripped a hole in the budgets of many LGBT pride organizations. They’ve banded together to create a Pride Operational Support Fund—and they need donations.

• It’s undeniable: Some people have been hit harder than others by the pandemic and the resulting health and financial crises. But, as this Wall Street Journal piece eloquently points out, this has been hard on almost all of us, in some way.

• The Camelot Theatres at the Palm Springs Cultural Center have joined other art-house theaters in offering a curated selection of indie films that you can purchase tickets for to watch at home! Not only can you watch great films; you can support the Palm Springs Cultural Center while doing so!

• Yesterday, we talked about the new Palm Springs Zoom backgrounds being offered by the local tourism bureau. Well, if those aren’t your cup of tea, Nickelodeon is offering some backgrounds that are a little more, well, cartoony.

• You know things are tough when the Hilton corporation, in a lovely gesture to help us feel better (if perhaps a bit fatter), releases what was heretofore a fiercely kept secret: The recipe for the famous DoubleTree chocolate-chip cookies.

• Wiping down food containers after going to the grocery store? Good idea. Washing your fruits and vegetables with soap? Not so much.

• Stressed? Well, calm down by getting together, for free, with the immortal Bob Ross, and paint some happy trees.

• By the way, if you wanted to submit art for our Coloring Book project, but haven’t gotten around to it yet, good news: A couple of artists asked us for more time, so we have extended the deadline to Tuesday, April 14. Get all the specs and details here.

That’s all for the traditional work week! Wash your hands. If you have a virtual event—a Facebook live concert, or a drag show, or a story time, or whatever—add it to our online virtual event calendar. Then go wash your hands again. Then if you value local, independent journalism, and are fortunate enough to have the means to do so, please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent, so we can keep what we’re doing, and making it free to all—at a time when most of our advertisers have had to go on hiatus. Now make sure you’ve properly washed your mask, and make sure you wear it out in public. Tomorrow’s my sanity day off; we’ll return Sunday.

Published in Daily Digest

Understatement alert: Things are weird for all of us right now.

On a personal level, this fact really hit home for me when it was a relief and even a pleasure—a temporary return to normalcy, if you will—to spend two hours today editing/proofing 8,000 words of question responses by Rancho Mirage City Council candidates.

Yay, journalism!

Normally, an editor such as myself would find a task like this to be about as enjoyable as dental surgery without anesthesia. (No offense to the Rancho Mirage candidates; the case is the same with full Q&A interviews with candidates for each and every office. The responses are important and interesting, albeit a bit rambling in some cases, but the task of carefully proofing the text is, well, bleh.)

But today, it was … nice.

A hat tip to Kevin Fitzgerald, the Independent’s staff writer, who had to transcribe all of those 8,000 words. Buy him a drink the next time you see him out and about. Y’know, in a few months.

Sigh.

Anyway, on with the news:

• Yesterday was the first time in the Independent’s history that we’ve ever sent an email to our e-subscriber list that was not specifically related to Independent content. Instead, it was about the vitally important work the Desert AIDS Project is doing now—and the fact that the organization, due to a loss in revenue and a huge rise in expenses because it opened a whole, new clinic to respond to the COVID-19 crisis—really needs our help. Find that message here, and go here if you can help: https://desertaidsproject.salsalabs.org/covid19fund/p/coachellavalleyindependent/index.html

Eisenhower has put out a call for donations of personal protective equipment. Call 760-837-8988, or click here for details. 

The city of Palm Springs has clarified the temporary rules on short-term rental and hotel bookings. To paraphrase: They’re not allowed, save for some very specific exemptions.

• Some, but not all, of the big banks have agreed to a 90-day moratorium on mortgage payments if you’ve been affected by COVID-19. As of yet, alas, the state has yet to take firm steps to protect people who rent—but Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and others are calling for action.

• However, the city of Rancho Mirage has already taken action by issuing a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions.

• Here’s more info on what the city of Rancho Mirage is doing to boost the takeout-offering restaurants in that city.

Confused about what’s an essential business, and what isn’t, and what this all means? The city of Palm Springs has posted this helpful breakdown regarding the state order means.

The Desert Healthcare District has allocated $1.3 million to help with various issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic locally.

• From the Independent: Coachella and Stagecoach have been moved to October this year. Our Kevin Carlow thinks that should be a permanent thing.

SunLine is offering free fixed-route rides during the pandemic. Just make sure you board in the back.

• Fox and iHeartRadio are teaming up for an all-star concert, hosted by Elton John. It’s called the Living Room Concert for America, and it airs this coming Sunday on Fox.

• The Conversation brings us this fascinating piece on the mad-dash effort to find existing drugs that will help patients suffering from COVID-19.

• Meanwhile, the FDA is allowing doctors to use the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat people in the midst of the battle with the virus.

• The California Desert Arts Council has compiled a list of resources offering financial relief for artists and art organizations.

Stephen Colbert is the latest talk show to announce a return to the air—just with everyone working from home.

• Theater fans: The Tony Awards, to nobody’s surprise, have been postponed. In other, awful theater news, the coronavirus has claimed the life of the Tony Award-winning writer Terrence McNally.

• The Wall Street Journal suggests these home workouts you can do to keep yourself in shape.

• Remember that kid in that viral video who refused to stop partying, saying, “If I get corona, I get corona?” Well, he’s apologized.

• Some local restaurants including Jake’s and Dringk are starting a very cool thing: Selling food essentials in addition to prepared dishes.

• In related news, our friends at the Purple Room are offering an online virtual show tonight to go along with takeout food.

• Local treasure Joyce Perry—you may remember her as Joyce Bulifant, of Airplane! and Match Game fame—has posted this hilarious (if oddly violent video) of her son trying to show her how to use Tinder.

• DJ Galaxy—our readers’ pick in the Best of Coachella Valley as the Best Local DJ—made this video of shuttered spaces in Palm Springs and Cathedral City that are beloved by the LGBT community. I’ll admit: It made me cry.

That’s all for today. Wash your hands. Eat good food. Call someone you love. More tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

Local news reports as of late have included alarming updates on a spate of disputes that have cropped up involving local water agencies.

For example, there’s the outrage expressed by the Desert Hot Springs-area’s Mission Springs Water District over what it refers to as the west valley-area Desert Water Agency’s “seizure” of groundwater management.

Or perhaps you saw a headline regarding the Imperial Irrigation District’s concern over the recent legislative action taken by local Assemblymember Chad Mayes (right). His Assembly Bill 854 proposed forcing the IID to expand its board of directors from five to 11 members, with the six new members all coming from Riverside County, whose IID electricity customers pay 60 percent of IID’s power-related revenues. Currently, only Imperial County constituents elect the IID board members, which leaves Riverside County customers with no voice in their power company’s operations.

Then there’s the biggest local water dispute—which began in 2013 with the filing of a lawsuit against the east valley’s Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The suit claims the tribe possesses “senior water rights” to all the groundwater in the aquifer under the entire Coachella Valley. The tribe has been seeking control over all decisions, policies and groundwater-management strategies that either agency might implement.

Why is this all happening, and why is it happening now? What is causing this hyper-sensitivity among water stakeholders? What does it all mean for residents?


John Soulliere is the Mission Springs Water District’s conservation and public-affairs officer. During a recent phone interview, I asked what led to the recent lawsuit and public attacks against the Desert Water Agency.

“What we’re talking about here is removing the ability from the five elected board members of the Mission Springs Water District to determine how we will develop our local water supply to meet demand and meet (the requirements) of economic development and growth,” he said. “That right was taken away through a unilateral action of the DWA board, and through a somewhat stealth action by the state, to include (the DWA) in a new state law as an exclusive Groundwater Sustainability Agency without notification to the city of Desert Hot Springs or our water agency.”

The “stealth action” Soulliere refers to was taken by the DWA board back in 2015. So why the aggressive posture now—four years after the fact?

“Prior to taking the action they did in 2015, we had a court settlement with DWA and CVWD, who does pump and serve up in our area (as well). That court settlement put the three of us at the table to jointly manage. We spent $1.3 million developing a management plan. Within that plan, MSWD retained its rights to manage its local water supply and to develop the water as it saw fit—within state law, of course. DWA was, and continues to be, the state water contractor. They are here for the purpose of replenishment. We were functioning under that agreement just fine, (but the DWA’s) 2015 action basically threw that settlement off to the side. The management plan that came out of that settlement may still be in play, but the difference now is that we (MSWD) are removed from the governance and the authority. So it was a very divisive and hostile act that they’ve taken to move us out of the equation so that they can make autonomous decisions related to water in our basin.”

Kephyan Sheppard is the pastor at the Word of Life Fellowship Center in Desert Hot Springs, and the chair of the Mission Springs Water District’s Water Rights Study Group, which just issued its final report. I asked him why this issue had taken on such a sense of urgency now, when the action in question took place in 2015.

“Being a pastor in this community, I’ve been hands-on with the residents for seven years, and for the most part, it appeared that many didn’t even know that there was a dispute going on,” Sheppard said. “Recently, in like the last year and a half, people are starting to find out, and there’s a sense of pride and entitlement saying, ‘Keep your hands off our water.’ There’s a growing understanding of what’s at stake.”

I asked him if he could point to any examples of the DWA not fulfilling its responsibilities, or the DWA doing anything harmful to the interests of DHS residents.

“No, not necessarily,” Sheppard said. “The study group was formed because of the unprecedented action taken (by the DWA) without discussion with MSWD, and so for (DHS residents), that was the main thing. I know (Desert Hot Springs) is projected to have an economic and growth boom over the next decade, and I know that water is integral to everything that’s getting ready to take place. So, we need to make sure that we control our water.”

“Our” water? Doesn’t the water the DWA is managing as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency belong to all Coachella Valley residents?

Obviously, the Desert Water Agency views the dispute differently. Ashley Metzger is the outreach and conservation manager of the DWA.

“The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is a law passed (by the California State Legislature) in 2015,” Metzger said. “We are one of approximately 20 or so agencies statewide that are actually designated by law as exclusive groundwater-management agencies. If you look at the language when we were established in 1961, it was for the purpose of (providing) groundwater replenishment and management. That is part of the reason why we have this exclusive designation. We have the unique ability within our boundaries to provide for both supply and demand management. The MSWD is missing a key part of the equation (replenishment capabilities) if we are not involved. If we are involved, as we have been for decades, then you have both sides of the equation.”

I asked Metzger about Mission Springs’ claim that the Desert Hot Springs agency has been effectively removed from any role in planning for future water-development needs.

“We are and have been a part of the Desert Hot Springs community,” Metzger said. “We have facilities there, and we have the authority to manage the groundwater there by statute. There’s a water-management agreement that’s been in place since 2004. As part of (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), you have to submit a plan to the state, and the foundation for that plan was the agreement that MSWD, CVWD and DWA had all signed onto.

“We’re not proposing anything radical. We’re not trying to take any water away. Groups come to our board meetings saying things like, ‘You’re trying to take our hot springs water and provide it in Palm Springs,’ and that’s certainly not true. We’ve been fighting a bit of confusion and misinformation, which has been a challenge. I think our biggest message to people is that we’re planning for the future. That’s a key part of our organizational role. … You know that Palm Springs and Cathedral City are largely built out. So when we talk about planning for growth, we’re thinking about the northern area of our boundary, where there is the most room for growth, which is the DHS area. We’re putting dollars out and committing to spending more money in the future to make all that possible.

“We’ve been communicating with stakeholders in the community and letting them know. I think we may have done ourselves a little bit of a disservice in the past by letting MSWD take the lead on being the face of water in the community out there. So we’re changing our approach, and we’re more active and engaged in the community.”


“Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” This quote—attributed to Mark Twain, although there’s no evidence he actually said it—seems to apply to the Coachella Valley of today. How else might one explain the recent controversy over District 42 Assemblymember Chad Mayes and his AB 854?

Neighboring District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (right) recently stepped into the fray, tabling the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee (on which he sits), in a successful effort to get the Imperial Irrigation District and the east valley’s Coachella Valley Water District into discussions about “extending the (1934) electricity-service agreement in the Coachella Valley service area.”

The controversial bill was sponsored by Mayes, a Republican, to rectify what some perceive to be an injustice: Some Coachella Valley residents receive their electricity service through the IID, but they are not allowed to vote for any IID board members.

The IID provides no water to Coachella Valley residents, just electricity. This is one reason why Mayes’ call to increase the IID board size from five members to eleven, with the six new members all being from Riverside County (in other words, the Coachella Valley), drew public cries of outrage from multiple directions—including threats that the IID could pull out of the Coachella Valley.

Emmanuel Martinez is the IID’s government affairs specialist.

“The position of the Imperial Irrigation District is that this legislation completely ignores a longstanding relationship and agreement between the CVWD and the IID,” Martinez said during a recent phone interview. “The long and the short of it is that through this contractual relationship, which is the 1934 compromise agreement expiring in 2033, the Coachella Valley was allowed to get water via the IID, and in return, the CVWD leased their power rights to the IID. So, this new legislation proposes to add six new directors to the IID board and is a complete takeover, in our opinion.”

I asked Martinez if it was unfair that Coachella Valley residents had no right to vote on the makeup of the board of the IID, to which they pay their electric bills.

“IID and CVWD are similar agencies in that they are both water districts with competing interests for the same source of water, which is the Colorado River water,” Martinez said. “By virtue of that, this legislation would give double representation to the people of the CVWD, who would vote for CVWD board members and have control of that board, and also vote for IID board members.”

The Independent asked Mayes what prompted him to sponsor AB 854; he responded via email.

“IID has the ability to change utility rates, determine investment in communities, or cut service altogether,” Mayes wrote. “This power over 92,000 disenfranchised voters must be balanced with representation. An individual’s right to a voice in any government exerting powers over them is one of the founding principles of this nation. AB 854 was introduced to honor this fundamental right and extends it to all IID ratepayers.”

We asked Mayes what his next steps would be, now that the bill has been tabled, at least temporarily.

“In order for this bill to pass the Legislature, we must ensure water rights are protected; representation is extended to those currently disenfranchised within IID’s service territory; and there is a strong and dependable public electrical utility in perpetuity in the IID service area,” Mayes wrote. “I’m committed to finding a common ground that both sides can agree on and amending this legislation to reflect that. From day one, I’ve said that IID’s water rights are sacrosanct. I did so publicly, and I did directly to IID. The final version of this bill will not infringe on those rights.”

Assemblymember Garcia, a Democrat, took credit for quelling the tensions raised by AB 854. “Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia Engages to Bring Parties Together for Talks on Future of IID’s Electricity Service in Coachella Valley” was the headline on the press release issued by his office on May 16.

It went on to say: “After speaking with both Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District, they have both agreed to begin meetings to examine the 1934 agreement and the possibility of extending the electricity service agreement in the Coachella Valley service area. The willingness of parties to come to the table demonstrates good faith efforts on all sides to resolve this matter locally without the need for legislation.”


Last, but certainly not least, is the recent development in the battle between the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the valley’s water agencies.

The tribe’s suit, seeking power over the groundwater underneath the valley, hit a significant wall in April, when U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal dismissed portions of it because the tribe could not prove it had been significantly harmed.

The Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency claimed victory in an April 22 statement.

“The Agua Caliente Tribe was not harmed, because it has always had access to as much high-quality water as it needs,” the statement said. “The judge ruled that the tribe does not have standing, the right to pursue a lawsuit against the local public water agencies, Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency. The only claim remaining in the tribe’s lawsuit is the “narrow issue” of whether the tribe has an ownership interest in storage space for groundwater under its reservation, the court wrote.”

This ruling is as close to a total victory as the water agencies could have hoped to achieve.

“Our top priority is and always has been to protect our groundwater supplies to ensure a sustainable, reliable water future for everyone in the Coachella Valley,” said John Powell Jr., the Coachella Valley Water District’s board president. “We are part of this community, and we are committed to its environmental and economic success.

The statement went on to read: “The water agencies have spent decades ensuring a safe, reliable water supply to all users in the Coachella Valley, including the five tribes in the basin. Both agencies remain committed to long-term water sustainability.”

The Agua Caliente tribe has not said what its next steps will be.

Several days later, the Coachella Valley Water District boasted in an April 30 statement: “An annual analysis of groundwater levels shows significant increases over the past 10 years throughout most of the Coachella Valley.”

The statement discussed studies done on both the Indio and Mission Creek sub-basins, which account for much of the valley’s aquifer. The Indio Sub-basin is located under the vast majority of the Coachella Valley; over the past 10 years, there were increases in groundwater levels between two and 50 feet. There were localized portions of decreased water levels in the range of two to eight feet in the mid-valley area, which will soon benefit from the CVWD’s Palm Desert Replenishment Facility.

Meanwhile, the Mission Creek sub-basin, located under Desert Hot Springs and the unincorporated area of Indio Hills, showed increases in groundwater levels of up to 28.5 feet in most of the area.

So, there you have it: The Coachella Valley’s water supply is in good shape. But don’t expect fights and power struggles over it to end anytime soon.


Coachella Valley Water History Timeline

1918

Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) is created.

Feb. 14, 1934

Signing of the Agreement of Compromise between the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) governing access to Colorado River water.

1953

Mission Springs Water District (MSWD) is created.

1961

Desert Water Agency (DWA) is created.

2004

An initial MSWD lawsuit against DWA and CVWD is settled requiring the Mission Springs Sub-basin to receive supplemental water from the other two agencies.

May 14, 2013

Lawsuit filed by Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians against CVWD and DWA seeking groundwater rights, superseding all other water users in the region.

2013

The Mission Creek/Garnet Hill Water Management Plan is adopted by the boards of CVWD, DWA and MSWD.

2014-2015

California State Legislature passes the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2015; it is amended in 2015.

Nov. 13, 2015

DWA holds board meeting and votes itself to be the groundwater management agency supervising MSWD.

2016

MSWD files suit against DWA opposing designation of DWA as the Groundwater Sustainability Agency over DWA and MSWD boundary areas.

Nov. 27, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court decides not to review the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision granting superior rights to groundwater to the Agua Caliente tribe.

Feb. 20, 2019

AB 854 introduced by Assemblymember Chad Mayes.

April 19, 2019

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal dismisses a significant portion of the Agua Caliente’s suit against DWA and CVWD, saying the tribe has not been substantially harmed by the agencies’ actions.

May 16, 2019

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia issues statement as a member of the Assembly Appropriations Committee placing a hold on AB 854 with the intention of holding negotiations between IID and CVWD.

Published in Local Issues

On March 29, Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia set out to tour multiple mobile home parks and schools in the eastern Coachella Valley—places where there is no reliable access to clean drinking water.

Garcia—the current chair of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife—was not alone: He was joined by 57 others, including fellow members of the state Legislature; an eight-member complement from the State Water Resources Control Board, led by Chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel; and representatives of the Coachella Valley Water District, including board Vice President Cástulo Estrada, who helped arrange the tour.

“There’s this perception that the issue of accessibility to clean water is only a problem in rural parts of California,” Garcia said later, during a phone interview. “There are clean-drinking-water issues up and down the state, whether you’re in a small or big town, a larger urban city, a rural community or an Indian reservation.

“We were able to demonstrate to members of the Legislature, as well as other stakeholders from the Sacramento area, just how important fixing this statewide issue is, and how it ties in to the water-quality problems we have here in our own backyard in the Coachella Valley.”

Estrada later said the tour was instrumental in showing that a number of Coachella Valley residents still don’t have access to safe drinking water.

“The purpose of the event was not just to highlight the lack of access to safe drinking water across the state, but primarily to highlight the particular needs here in the eastern Coachella Valley,” Estrada said. “I think that was the purpose—and that’s what we did.”

Estrada said it’s important for the Coachella Valley to get state help.

“Two years ago, the conversation started, and it got really heavy, and folks were trying to create a bill to address this issue,” Estrada said. “My concern at that time was that (the legislative effort) was too heavy in trying to address the needs in the San Joaquin Valley. Although they were trying to create a statewide solution and extract revenues from all of California, the highlighted problem was in the Central Valley as it relates to the agricultural contamination of groundwater and the (resulting) high level of nitrates in the water in those areas. So at that time, I started to get more involved with Assemblyman Garcia to make sure that, as this conversation continued in Sacramento, we had a seat at the table, and that folks understood our particular situation here in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Local needs—and solutions—have been summarized and organized in a master plan drawn up by the Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force of the Coachella Valley Water District.

“Through the (task force), we’ve been able to work with county departments, local nonprofits, concerned community members, the assemblymember’s office, the congressman’s office and the supervisor’s office,” Estrada said. “Now, this is the story that we tell folks: (Residents of the eastern Coachella Valley) have more than 100 small water systems that are scattered across thousands of acres of mostly agricultural lands. These communities didn’t just pop up yesterday; they’ve been here for decades. They are in rural areas, and they’ve been left to their own devices to understand water, and water quality, and dig their own wells and take ownership of them. But it’s come to a point where these wells are not sustainable, and as a result, there are folks drinking unclean and unsafe water.

“So we created this master plan where we took these 100-plus small water systems scattered across the eastern Coachella Valley and created about 42 projects out of them. … These 42 projects will consolidate all of these mobile home parks and other small water systems that we have identified and make them part of the CVWD infrastructure. We put a rough (cost estimate) on the master plan of about $75 million. So the story we are telling in Sacramento is, ‘Look, we have a master plan. We’ve done the needs assessment, and we need funding in order to execute on these projects.’”

To this end—and to create a fund to help secure safe drinking water statewide—Garcia is sponsoring Assembly Bill 217, the Safe Drinking Water for All Act.

“AB 217 establishes a funding mechanism,” Garcia said. “It’s a combined effort of general-fund money and fees on (the agricultural industry), pesticides (producers and users) and the dairy industry. There will be a public benefit fee for clean water that is paid through the water agencies. As you can imagine, this is a very difficult conversation for folks to have: People will say, ‘I have clean drinking water, so why should I have to help provide clean drinking water for the people who live in Thermal or Mecca? We’ve heard that said time and time again.

“California boasts the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Garcia said. “But in spite of the amount of wealth that exists in the state, there’s still a significant amount of people living under the poverty line. We believe that (on behalf of) those folks, the state needs to address these issues. No one in California should have to go without safe clean drinking water, whether it be at their school or at their home.”

The bill is currently making its way through the Legislature.

“The bill got out of its first committee several weeks ago, and I believe there’s more work that needs to be done on the legislation,” Garcia said. “Specifically, there are the questions of oversight and accountability of funds—where they go, and how they get used. If I’m going to spend money to improve the water quality for over 1 million people by connecting them to clean drinking water, how and when would we know that we are hitting our benchmarks? We are working with a wide array of stakeholders on language that will do that.”

Meanwhile, Estrada wants start working on those aforementioned 42 projects as soon as possible.

“For years, (the CVWD has) been applying for grants. … We’ve gone after (U.S. Department of Agriculture) money. We’ve been pretty aggressive as an agency to seek grant funding, and we have been successful—yet we’ve been moving very slowly.”

Estrada said the water district is ready to begin work on two projects.

“For these top two projects, we are going to use the funding we currently have to get them through preliminary engineering, the environmental documentation and the application process to apply for construction funding,” Estrada said. “In the case of the Valley View Project, which was one of the stops on the March tour, we’ll be consolidating nine small water systems in mobile home parks. It covers a huge area, and we’re connecting about 136 families.

“The other one is St. Anthony’s, where we’re consolidating around the same number of families by hooking up just three small mobile home park water systems. So we have a road map now, and that’s our master plan. When funding becomes available, we’ll just continue to the next (project) and the next one and the next one.”

Published in Environment

Alan has now lived in the Coachella Valley for 17 years, ever since he was 17 years old.

Even though he has always worked hard and played by the rules—at least the rules that aren’t stacked against him—he doesn’t want his last name used in this story. The reason: Both he and his wife are undocumented immigrants. They have a son, 10, who is a U.S. citizen by birth.

“Since President Trump has been in office, we have seen all the anti-immigrant statements and all the news coverage on TV of what’s happening,” he said. “We’ve been afraid to go out and go about our normal life routines, because if a cop stops us, they will call the immigration (agents), and we will be taken away.

“We’re very uncomfortable, and it is not easy for us to live every day. We always have to be looking behind our backs.”

The government under Donald Trump seems to be quite proud of such discomfort. On Feb. 16, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a news release stating that the agency’s personnel had arrested 212 individuals for violating federal immigration laws, and had served 122 notices of inspection to businesses in the Los Angeles area. On March 16, another ICE news release trumpeted the arrests of 115 individuals in San Diego and Imperial counties, again for violating federal immigration laws. On June 14, yet another ICE news release announced the arrests of 162 individuals in Los Angeles and surrounding counties, including 15 people in San Bernardino County, and 12 here in Riverside County.

Yet another ICE news release, from May 14, proclaimed that between Oct. 1, 2017, and May 4, 2018, Homeland Security had opened some 3,510 worksite investigations, and had made 594 criminal and 610 administrative worksite-related arrests. Compared to the entire previous fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, the number of investigations had more than doubled—and the number of arrests had quadrupled.

Anyone believed to be in this country illegally is fair game. “ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” ICE Director Thomas Homan said in a statement. “All those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

It’s clear: Not only is the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration violations intended to identify and remove convicted criminals from American society; it’s also designed to create a climate of fear in the daily lives of all undocumented immigrants—including many of our neighbors here in the Coachella Valley.

“The U.S. Border Patrol has jurisdiction over our streets and our community; that’s why immigration has always been a problem, and our community continues to be at risk,” said Luz Gallegos, the community programs director for TODEC Legal Center, an organization with offices in Perris and Coachella which seeks to empower disenfranchised immigrant communities, according to its website. “But what has changed lately is that a lot of the rhetoric is creating more fear, and all of the political division at the federal level is really impacting people at the grassroots level.”

This rhetoric has brought out a lot of hate—and it’s plaguing both undocumented and documented immigrants in our community, Gallegos said.

“We hear from students what they are going through in their schools,” she said. “Even kids are emboldened to talk on their hate, saying things like, ‘Go back to Mexico!’ and calling them wetbacks. We see that people now feel empowered to speak out about feelings they’ve carried their entire lives.

“Having grown up here for my whole life, as a child, we heard that the KKK would gather in Rainbow (in northern San Diego county), and we always feared the KKK growing up. Back then, we didn’t know who they were, because they wore robes and covered their faces, but now, you really know who these people are, right? People are coming out, and now we can really see where people stand.”


Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia represents the state’s 56th District, which includes much of the eastern Coachella Valley. He said the hatred being openly expressed toward immigrants ignores the valuable contributions they make to our community.

“It’s important to highlight just who we are talking about,” Garcia said. “We are talking about people who work in very significant and important industries to the Coachella Valley economy—folks working out in the farming fields of the eastern Coachella Valley who are putting food on people’s tables, along with the men and women who make up a large part of the hospitality and service industry that is essential to our economy in California. So we’re talking about just putting a face to the subject. These are the working people who help drive the economic engine of our region.”

Megan Beaman-Jacinto is an immigration-rights attorney, activist and candidate for the Coachella City Council.

“A lot of things that this president has tried to do against immigrants have not been able to proceed, like trying to end DACA,” Beaman-Jacinto said. (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allows some younger people who came to the United States without documents to stay and work legally in the U.S.) “But other things have happened—things like people being denied immigration benefits at higher rates now (than under previous administrations). And (President Trump) is trying to pass new regulations that will make it harder for even permanent residents to become citizens if they used certain public benefits, even legally, in the past.

“Every day, almost, there’s a new attack on immigrants—and the media’s exposure of that is definitely having mixed results. On the one hand, it’s great that people are finally seeing this and paying attention when they didn’t before. But on the other hand, for people who are personally impacted by it, it is really stressful to see all the time, everywhere you look. I went with some clients to a citizenship interview a few weeks ago in the immigration offices in San Bernardino. In that lobby, there are two TVs, and they’re always on CNN. So the whole time we were waiting there, it was like, ‘Trump says this about immigrants, and Trump says that about immigrants and this about the immigration department.’ … I’m thinking, ‘Well, at least my client is about to become a citizen,’ but who knows what other status everyone else in that room has? That’s really terrifying if you’re one of the people directly impacted, and it goes on nonstop.”

The nation’s immigration system has been broken for a long time, since long before Donald Trump became president. In fact, some immigration activists referred to President Barack Obama as the “deporter-in-chief” due to his administration’s high number of deportations.

However, the intensity of the rhetoric is indeed new.

“Now you get an administration that begins to utilize the state of fear—(saying) that illegal immigration is taking over, that illegal immigration is the reason for increases in violent crimes. … ‘They are rapists, murderers, etc., etc., etc.,’ Garcia said. “The fact that we still remain with no comprehensive immigration reform policy creates a huge level of uncertainty for a lot of people in this country, in California and in the Coachella Valley.

“I’ve got to imagine that this type of fear-mongering has disrupted our economy to some extent. Perhaps people are not presenting themselves for work. Perhaps the kids are not showing up at school. (There’s a) decrease in the number of people who want to access health-care services due to the concern that they may be ‘outed’ for being here undocumented. I would even argue that our public-safety services suffer, because the cooperation between our residents and law enforcement is impacted negatively. For instance, a victim of crime or a witness to crime, who might be here undocumented, might not be willing to cooperate with law enforcement. So it’s a very huge issue, and it goes back to the inability of a U.S. Congress and an administration to put together what would be a comprehensive immigration policy that would bring about certainty for the people in our valley, our state and in our country.”

Gallegos said she and her colleagues at TODEC have seen the damage this rhetoric is causing.

“There is a lot of fear out there, and (at TODEC), we believe that our role is to educate the community,” Gallegos said. “But that fear still exists, and it even impacts our local economy. We talk to the farmers in the east end of Coachella Valley, and they tell us they’re concerned that they are losing their workforce. The stores, like Cardenas, tell us that they’ve lost a lot of business because of this whole fear factor. It’s affecting our community and the local economy.”

The hyper-politicization of the immigration issue has also led to another type of fear—a fear of speaking out. The Independent reached out to numerous agricultural and retail businesses, and they all declined to go on the record for this story.

The same thing happened when we tried to talk to valley health-care providers about the effects ICE enforcements have had on immigrants seeking treatment and services: Only one person agreed to go on the record, and that was Doug Morin, the executive director Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, an organization in Indio that offers no-cost health care to adults who are uninsured or underinsured. He said his clinic has noted a substantial and ongoing decline in patient visits since the Trump administration took office in January 2017.

“I would say we’re still 20 percent below the number of patient visits we had during the pre-Trump days,” he said.

The decline has continued despite a concerted effort on the clinic’s part that included hiring an outreach specialist to make door-to-door contact with underserved populations to assure them that both they and their personal information would be safe if they came to get medical attention.

“We even changed our fliers that we had out for patient recruitment,” Morin said. “They used to just say, ‘Your health is our number one concern,’ and now it says, ‘Your safety and your health is our number one concern.”


So … where do we go from here? After all, Trump’s four-year term is less than half over, and there’s no hint that his administration will ease up on either the enforcement actions or the rhetoric anytime soon.

“We tell community that ‘our faith will keep us strong,’” Gallegos said. “There are a lot of young people coming up who want to make change. They see how this uncertainty and fear is impacting their family, friends and (everyone’s) mental health, and they’re taking it very personally. We tell them, ‘We have to continue resisting—and the way you’re going to resist is go to school. Finish your high school; go to college; and be a professional. You will prove everybody wrong,’ and that’s what our kids are doing. They are people of character, with morals and compassion. It’s become personal to them.

“Most importantly, we tell them to make sure to vote because that’s the way you create change.”

Garcia said some actions can be taken on the local and state levels.

“It is a federal question, but you know, states have rights,” he said. “When we have an emergency in California—as we’ve seen in recent months with the fires, the droughts and other natural disasters—we have the ability to declare a state of emergency and have the federal government support that position via policy and/or resources needed to address that emergency. In California, I believe that the issue of labor shortages in very specific industries that are highly occupied by immigrants could be considered such an emergency. I think that in itself is reason to work as a state in addressing our labor needs. These labor shortages are having a significant impact on our local economy right now—and not addressing the immigration issue ties into this threat very closely.

“I made an effort this past year to exercise that states’ right and develop a working group (in the state Legislature), that would ultimately need the blessing of Homeland Security and the federal government, to put together a program that would bring certainty of legal status, allowing those California residents working in these critical industries to continue contributing to our economy. Also, it would address ways to ensure that people are being paid salaries, receiving benefits and having housing that are respectable by California’s high standards. Stabilizing the existing unpermitted workforce by removing their tremendous fear and giving them and their families some certainty would be the first objective, and the second would be to develop a framework that would allow for us to address the real labor shortages that exist for these industries. I just think there’s a better way to go about this than disrupting the economies of the country, state and the Coachella Valley.”

Garcia’s effort did not get very far; his Assembly Bill 1885 didn’t even make it up for a vote in a committee.

“It continues to engage a number of individuals in a dialogue,” Garcia said. “… Unfortunately, we had a lot of people who got stuck on the notion that this issue is a federal issue only. They would not look at it as an economic and labor-shortage issue in California, as well as a national food-security issue. You know, we feed a large part of the world, and if our agricultural industries see a significant decline, because we can’t get enough people to do the necessary work, then we’re looking at being dependent on other nations for our food and commodities, which should be a major concern for people from a security standpoint, a health standpoint, and because we would be supporting other countries’ practices of underpaying and undervaluing their workforces.

“So the bill did not move. Next, we introduced a resolution, (Assembly Joint Resolution) 34. The resolution took a strong position supporting the same principles we supported in the legislation, and it had bipartisan support built around a coalition of assemblymembers and senators from farming communities throughout the state. This resolution would send the message to Washington, D.C., about what California is thinking, and wanting to do, and we encouraged our federal counterparts to engage with us in this conversation. It was passed and sent to the governor’s desk. Resolutions are position papers. As a result, they are not as controversial as trying to set something in stone as a law.”

Meanwhile, Coachella Valley residents like Alan and his wife continue to live in fear.

“Thank God I haven’t had to go to the hospital or seek medical services of late, but if we had to, we would go to get medical help here. My son is attending school,” he said. “What upsets all of us the most is that we feel like we’re being held back, and we’re not able to move forward with our lives. (The federal government) now is putting all these obstacles in our way.”

Upper right—Immigration-rights attorney and Coachella City Council candidate Megan Beaman-Jacinto: “Every day, almost, there’s a new attack on immigrants—and the media’s exposure of that is definitely having mixed results. On the one hand, it’s great that people are finally seeing this and paying attention when they didn’t before. But on the other hand, for people who are personally impacted by it, it is really stressful to see all the time, everywhere you look. Below—“We talk to the farmers in the east end of Coachella Valley, and they tell us they’re concerned that they are losing their workforce,” said Luz Gallegos, the community programs director for TODEC Legal Center. “The stores, like Cardenas, tell us that they’ve lost a lot of business because of this whole fear factor. It’s affecting our community and the local economy.” Photos by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Local Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garcia said he’s confident things will work out.

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

Published in Local Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garcia defended the changes made to the bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Local Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Local Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Politics

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