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23 Apr 2019

Wanted—Clean From the Tap: The Coachella Valley Water District Needs $75 million to Assure All Local Residents Have Safe Drinking Water

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Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia talks with Tom Steyer on the shores of the Salton Sea during a day-long tour of mobile home parks and schools in the eastern Coachella Valley. Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia talks with Tom Steyer on the shores of the Salton Sea during a day-long tour of mobile home parks and schools in the eastern Coachella Valley. Courtesy of the office of Eduardo Garcia

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.”

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