Brittny Mejia
A truck drives through standing water on Avenue 69 in Thermal, days after the Sept. 8 storm flooded portions of the East Valley community. Credit: Brittny Mejia

While a storm-water master plan exists for some undeveloped areas of Coachella Valley, residents will continue to suffer from the consequences of inadequate storm-water infrastructure for years to come, due to a lack of funding

Portions of the east valley learned this lesson the hard way on Monday, Sept. 8, when storms—including the remnants of Hurricane Norbert—flooded portions of Mecca, Thermal and other communities.

In many of the unincorporated communities, storm-water systems have yet to be installed, said Mark Johnson, director of engineering for the Coachella Valley Water District.

Mecca and North Shore, for example, are both subject to flooding, even though the master plan for the areas identifies what is needed to provide necessary flood protection. Needed flood control systems would be designed and constructed in the future in accordance with master planning for the area, Johnson said.

“I think the (residents of) unincorporated areas are aware of the fact that they don’t have regional storm-water protection, and hopefully, their homes are built above the 100-year storm levels,” Johnson said. “Until regional flood protection comes for these unincorporated areas, they’re really subject their local environment.”

Mecca and North Shore do receive some flood protection from the East Side Detention Dike. However, the dike is not recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a flood-control facility to provide regional flood protection, according to Johnson. The district plans to get the dike certified in the future, he added.

The Coachella Valley Water District has five master-plans projects: North Cathedral City, Thousand Palms, North Indio, Mecca/North Shore and the Oasis area. However, the district doesn’t have the funding to complete the plans; the total cost is estimated to be more than $1 billion, Johnson said.

Therefore, except for a few select projects, the current infrastructure is expected to remain relatively unchanged, and future projects will need to be funded through the water district and/or developer projects, Johnson said.

Johnson said reviews are done to ensure homes constructed in unincorporated areas are located above flooding areas, he said.

Some of the issues with flooding and water buildup are due to homes being built without a permit, and the fact that some were built before permits were required, according to Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit.

“There was no requirement or planning or retention basin put in place on those properties,” Benoit said. “You can’t put people out on the streets, but you can’t force them to improve it now. It’s unfortunate in some cases, but there’s not a lot the county can do, particularly where housing has been developed without proper engineering.”

Margarita Gamez, a Thermal resident, said she sees issues arise whenever there is heavy rain or flooding. She said kids are sometimes unable to make it to school because of the water, and no one comes to drain the puddles.

“They need to make larger and deeper channels,” said Gamez, who has lived in Thermal for 20 years. “It rains very little here, but when it rains in Indio, all the water comes here.”

Gamez said she has voiced her concerns to Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that works to provide better housing, infrastructure and economic-development opportunities in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Organization members have recommended that the county install adequate storm systems in order to prevent flooding, said Sergio Carranza, executive director of the organization.

“A very good efficient storm-water system can be implemented even if you don’t have the infrastructure you have in a city,” Carranza said. “It’s becoming very alarming. Those are remote areas, and very few people pay attention to them.”

Carranza said the county needs to find a way to develop storm-water systems, especially along Pierce Street, where Gamez lives, which he believes is one of the most flood-prone areas. The area from Avenue 66 going south all the way to Avenue 81 is particularly prone to flooding, he said.

Samuel Castro, a Thermal resident of nearly 33 years, also lives along Pierce and said when there are storms, cars are unable to pass because of the flooding. He said if there were an emergency, an ambulance wouldn’t be able to reach residents.

“There are a lot of families here,” Castro said. “When storms hit, it gets really ugly, and the streets flood. I would like to see them fix the channels here.”