About 60 residents gathered in the 107-degree heat on an August evening in Thermal, ready to stand up for their community.

“Justicia para Oasis!” the crowd shouted.

They were there with a list of at least 20 steps that local, state and federal agencies could take to improve immediate conditions at Oasis Mobile Home Park—and to push for relocation plans. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued at least three emergency drinking water orders for the park since 2019. But the problem has persisted for years beyond 2019.

Resident Juanita Arroyo, who has lived at Oasis for 13 years, called the conditions at the park horrible. Yet concerns about a lack of adequate water infrastructure extend far beyond Oasis.

“Dirty water and contaminated water isn’t something anyone should live with,” she said.

More than 920,000 California residents lack access to a basic human right: adequate drinking water. Thousands live in the rural eastern Coachella Valley (ECV), in a cluster of predominantly Latino communities that include many agricultural workers who tend to the nearby fields.

Here, where date palm farms stretch out for acres and red-brown mountains rise on the horizon, many residences aren’t connected to the main water service in the area, managed by the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD). Instead, there are at least 100 smaller unconnected water systems, and residents rely on wells. This has resulted in a lack of safe water access and potential health problems for residents—at least eight home parks in the area have had water samples test positive for arsenic in recent years, putting residents at a higher risk for cancer and other illnesses.

“A lot of these systems that are filtering this drinking water for these residencies, as they age, they’re not able to filter out the arsenic as efficiently as before,” said Coachella Valley resident Omar Gastelum, a policy advocate for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability who grew up in the area. “So this really puts folks in a very vulnerable position.”

In recognition of the public health crisis, CVWD has cobbled together more than $71 million in state and federal funds to address top-priority water projects in the eastern Coachella Valley. Never in the agency’s history has it put such a focus on this region, and advocates like Gastelum are calling for urgency in addressing the region’s concerns.

But new pipes aren’t in the ground yet, and there are still miles to go before achieving equity in water access for Coachella Valley communities.

A history of inequitable development

The reasons behind the lack of infrastructure development are myriad but can be traced back to the inequity in the development of the Coachella Valley. Many mobile home parks were started in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. While the western parts of the Coachella Valley were being turned into a playground for the Hollywood elite, the same attention was not paid to the farmworkers and domestic workers settling to the east.

As a result, today’s communities of working families—including immigrants who are undocumented—lack basic infrastructure, despite the existence of the world-class golf courses in La Quinta or the Empire Polo Club fields that host the Coachella music festival mere miles away.

Omar Gastelum, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, addresses a crowd of Oasis Mobile Home Park residents and supporters. Credit: Melissa Daniels

“There’s a history of racism and neglect with agriculture workers and domestic workers in this country,” Gastelum said.

Not only are the water systems aging and failing to properly filter out arsenic and other harmful chemicals; these well systems and septic tanks can be unreliable. Systems can shut off during power outages. Sand can infiltrate wells.

“It affects so many parts of people’s lives,” Gastelum said.

Adding to the issue are concerns over what could happen as luxury development continues pushing eastward. The Thermal Club race track was built about 10 years ago, and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors signed off on plans for the Thermal Beach Club surf lagoon in late 2020. A private golf course built by millionaires is currently proposed.

Meanwhile, the mobile-home park owners who have been there for generations may not be able to afford the investments to link into the existing water system, Gastelum said.

“Almost every single property owner that we talked to said that if there was assistance available for them to connect to CVWD drinking water, they would like it,” Gastelum said. “They don’t want their tenants to be drinking water if there’s a possibility that it could be contaminated.”

Elections as a force for change

Castulo Estrada, who is vice president of the CVWD board, says bringing clean drinking water to the eastern Coachella Valley is a personal matter. He spent his formative years living in Oasis before his family moved to Coachella. He remembers having to haul water in a bucket in order to take a shower. Motivated to have a career that helped his community, he studied engineering and began working for the city of Coachella.

Then he ran for the CVWD board in 2014. The agency had finally switched to district-based elections, which allowed Estrada to become the first Mexican American to serve on the board, which oversees a budget of more than $400 million and has about 300,000 residential customers.

He quickly discovered many roadblocks that were preventing progress with drinking water—including the fact that officials didn’t even seem aware that the lack of infrastructure was impacting so many residents. There were also policy challenges: CVWD officials have said that a state law known as Proposition 218 prevents them from using funds generated by existing ratepayers to expand service to new customers.

“The challenge that I ran into is that no one really wanted to take ownership of this issue,” he said.

In 2016, Estrada began the Coachella Valley Water District’s Disadvantaged Communities Task Force, which included representatives from local community organizations as well as top CVWD decision-makers. Within two years, they had developed a master plan that assessed where small water systems were existing, where mobile home parks were located, and what potential projects could help.

But some community advocates point out that this system can still make it difficult for residents to offer input. Meetings held in the middle of the day don’t serve working people, said Nataly Escobedo Garcia, a policy coordinator with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

“We had originally envisioned, when we were part of it, a way to influence how the ECV gets built out—you know, a space for residents to advocate for the priorities? It hasn’t quite turned out to be that way,” Escobedo Garcia said.

But Estrada points to grant funding that CVWD has found in recent years as evidence of change compared to the last 70 years.

“I think we right now are in a situation like never before. This amount of money in this kind of short time, I don’t think, has ever been consolidated to go in one direction,” Estrada said.

Bringing home funding

This spring, the California State Water Resources Control Board awarded a $23.4 million grant to help fund ECV water projects, a special request that required a hearing in Sacramento for the board to vote on and authorize. Also this year, Congressman Raul Ruiz secured $3.5 million to go toward the Valley View Mobile Home Park Water Consolidation Project. This project will consolidate nine small systems that are currently using wells that serve approximately 675 residents.

One of the highest-profile developments in the works is the Avenue 66 transmission main project. This 5-mile water line will connect three mobile home parks to CVWD’s domestic water system, and will provide backbone infrastructure for up to 35 future consolidations of smaller systems. The installation will also help service existing CVWD customers in Mecca, North Shore and Bombay Beach, who are currently served by an 18-inch single pipe built underground in the 1970s.

Estrada called it “the single most important water project” that the district has to work on, pointing to how it can serve as a long-term solution to the infrastructure crisis. CVWD officials say no further residences could be supported without any new infrastructure in the region—meaning the Avenue 66 line opens up opportunities for more affordable housing, sorely needed in an area where many residents are paying half their monthly income on rent.

“It lays the backbone that’s required in order to feed all the other things that are going to branch off of it,” Estrada said.

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat who represents the area, said the district has “taken a 180” by acquiring this funding.

“These weren’t issues (CVWD) were tackling. These weren’t issues at the top of their priority list,” Garcia said. “They’ve become issues, given that the community’s organized, and that you have an interconnection of leadership working collaboratively that made these priorities.”

Unaddressed urgency

Still, no amount of long-term planning will address the day-to-day needs of current residents who lack access to clean drinking water. Shovels in the ground for the Avenue 66 project are expected in spring 2023, and the project will take about two years to complete.

Garcia also acknowledged that the steps to ensure safe drinking water for all residents of the eastern Coachella Valley will take more money that has been currently allocated—and more time than many residents can afford.

Juanita Arroyo speaks to fellow residents of the Oasis Mobile Home Park. She’s lived at the park for more than 13 years and wants to see government agencies make more of an effort to ensure safe water for residents—and develop relocation plans. Credit: Melissa Daniels

“I think it’s very clear when you look at the math in terms of the state, the water district, the county and the federal government—there’s a lot more people can be doing,” he said. “That isn’t to point at an agency or a person, but simply, we need to put the pressure where the pressure matters in order to get more done.”

Some of that pressure is coming straight from the community: Juntos por un Mejor Oasis, a coalition of residents from the mobile home park who have been organizing alongside advocates from the Leadership Counsel, are calling for action in both the short and long term from agencies at all levels. That includes the CVWD, Riverside County, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Housing and Community Development, and the State Water Resources Control Board.

Short-term requests include more bottled water provisions. In early August, residents were given one gallon per day, and the ability to shower at a local school. Residents also want to see more timely information about the water quality in the mobile-home park.

One overarching demand is to put together a relocation plan that will allow the residents at Oasis to move to habitable homes, rather than being shuffled to similar conditions elsewhere. Last year, the state of California allocated $30 million toward relocation plans. Riverside County, which has jurisdiction over unincorporated parts of the eastern Coachella Valley, this summer allocated $7 million of those funds to go toward an affordable-housing complex that could become a new alternative.

But advocates at the Leadership Counsel are urging the county to host monthly meetings with residents and other stakeholders in order to provide timely updates and incorporate community feedback.

District 4 Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, whose district includes the area, also put forward an emergency measure in early August to speed up solutions to the concerns at Oasis.

“We will do everything in our power to bring solutions in a timely manner,” he said on Facebook. “We can’t wait years; solutions have to come to this community now.”

Residents who are living with the water crisis every day aren’t necessarily feeling that urgency. Maria Jose has lived at Oasis for more than 10 years. She said she wants to have more information about what is being done to help residents. Meanwhile, she worries about her 2-year-old daughter growing up with development issues due to the lack of clean water supply.

“It’s something that needs to be changed now, so we can finally move out,” she said through a translator.

When asked what she would tell elected officials about her living conditions, Maria said: “For them to put themselves in our shoes, and really look at the situation. Imagine it was them in that situation, and really make that change.”

This story is part of the local environmental reporting initiative Unfiltered IE, supported by the civic media project The Listening Post Collective and funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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Melissa Daniels

Melissa Daniels is a writer and digital media consultant who has called the Coachella Valley home since 2019. She's originally from Rochester, N.Y., and spent several years covering state government and...