CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

There are many alternative-newspaper editors out there who would take one look the story we put on the cover of our September print edition and instantly declare that I, your humble editor, am a total moron.

Stories about water-district boards, as a general rule, don’t sell newspapers. (Thank goodness the Independent is free, right?) So why, you might ask, did I decide to put a story about a water-district board on one of the only 12 covers the Independent has in year?

The answer is simple: This mundane-sounding story is really important.

It’s important for Coachella Valley residents to know that until two years ago, white people basically made up the entire board of the Coachella Valley Water District, the valley’s largest water agency, even though a third of the residents within the CVWD are Latino. It’s vital to know that many people within the CVWD boundaries don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water—largely because these people were never on the minds of the CVWD board members.

It’s crucial for the public to understand that while positive changes seem to finally be coming to the Coachella Valley Water District, there’s a lot of work to do—and it’s the public’s job to make sure that work actually gets done.

So … that’s why Kevin Fitzgerald’s excellent-if-not-so-sexy story on Castulo Estrada and his work on the CVWD board is on the cover for September. (Thank goodness designer Mark Duebner is talented enough to come up with a compelling piece of cover art, no matter the story!)

In completely unrelated news: It’s Best of Coachella Valley time again! Voting is now open in the first round of our annual readers’ poll. For more details, head to our Best of Coachella Valley page!

Be sure to follow the rules; for example, you have to vote in at least 15 categories; you need to put down your full name; and you need to provide a real, working email address. (If our test email bounces, we delete the ballot!) If we see more than a handful ballots coming from the same IP address, we’ll investigate to make sure the electronic ballot box is not being stuffed.

First-round voting takes place through Monday, Sept. 26. After that, the top three to five vote-getters in each category will advance to the final-round vote, which takes place throughout October. The winners and placement of the other finalists will be announced here at CVIndependent.com on Monday, Nov. 28, and in the December print edition. Email me if you have any questions!

As always, thanks for reading. Also: Be sure to pick up a copy of the September 2016 print edition of the Coachella Valley Independent, hitting streets throughout the valley this week!

Published in Editor's Note

The eastern Coachella Valley is the home of some of the poorest areas of California. Many residents don’t even have access to safe drinking water—thanks largely to years of institutional indifference.

This horrifying truth can be blamed in part on the fact that the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) was electing each of its five members at large: While each representative had to live in the “directorial division” he or she represented, voters within the entire CVWD—ranging from portions of Cathedral City, Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs southeast all the way to the Salton Sea—selected each member.

Even though a third of the voting-age residents of the CVWD are Latino, back in 2014, the entire board was white.

After civil-rights lawyers threatened to sue the district, the board moved to change the voting process, and in 2014, CVWD constituents voted to change future elections: From that year on, the residents of each directorial division would select their own representative.

That fall, Castulo Estrada, a resident and employee of the city of Coachella with a civil engineering degree, was elected as the Division 5 director. Since his arrival, Estrada has adamantly injected the voice of his constituency into all aspects of the operations of the Coachella Valley’s largest water agency.

“The fact that I was elected to the board of directors a year and a half ago has allowed us to voice concerns in a much louder way,” Estrada said in a recent interview.

Estrada explained why he felt qualified to represent the serious needs of his constituents at our valley’s eastern end.

“First, this is my community,” Estrada said. “This is where I grew up. I did come from a disadvantaged community. I used to live in Oasis with my parents under the same conditions that a lot of these folks now find themselves in.

“Second, (when elected), I was already working for the utilities department here in the city of Coachella,” Estrada said. “I went to college and studied civil engineering, so I had an educational background about water, waste water and flood control. When I came back to work for Coachella, I focused on water issues. I was involved in a lot of the regional efforts through the Coachella Valley Regional Water Management Group, which is basically a collaboration among the five water agencies in the valley. That’s how I got a glimpse into what the CVWD was doing in the unincorporated areas.”

Estrada glimpsed an effort that he—along with many of his constituents, including those involved with East Valley nonprofit organizations such as Building Healthy Communities and Pueblo Unido—deemed insufficient.

“A lot of us are trying to bring about some changes here in the east side in terms of the availability of potable water people now have,” he said.


After Estrada was elected to the board, he got right to work.

“When a new board member is elected, there’s an opportunity to form another committee that didn’t exist (previously),” he said. “So, knowing what our objectives were, I did form a new committee in December 2014.”

Estrada soon learned that working within the system can be a tedious, time-consuming process.

“Finally by the beginning of (2016), we had come up with the name Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Committee (DCIC), and we began meeting regularly every month,” Estrada said. “Now our DCIC goals and mission are set with two long-term and 10 short-term goals as well as three immediate actions.” (See the sidebar for an example of one of these “immediate actions.”)

“On July 19, we took these objectives to our first meeting with the CVWD Task Force, which is charged with making sure that all these goals are accomplished. … General Manager Jim Barrett is working with engineers for water, or for sewers, the environmentalists, and any other CVWD staff required to meet the goals. We wanted to involve all these key people, because we don’t want to have a committee just for the sake of having a committee. We want it to be effective.”

Part of the outcome of that meeting was a name change for the committee to reflect its new reach and wider umbrella of participants. Now called the CVWD and Disadvantaged Communities Task Force (CVWD-DCITF), Estrada and board President John Powell (pictured right)—who back in April insisted on becoming the second required director on the committee—are excited about the possibilities ahead.

“These challenges have not really ever been a directive of the CVWD in the past,” Powell said. “We (the CVWD) really just serve our customers, and as people apply for new service, typically, they pay for it (through the developers). That model has really left out those folks who don’t have that type of upfront development plan and the financing to go with it. So you have communities with excellent services, while right next to them, you find communities that don’t have any water, sewer or flood-control services. Now we have made a new priority, really due to the leadership of director Estrada, that has elevated this particular topic for the board to consider.”

The officially adopted mission statement for the newly minted CVWD-DCITF is: “The mission of the CVWD and Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force is to secure access to safe, affordable drinking water, wastewater and flood control services in historically disadvantaged Coachella Valley regions through strategic planning, funding procurement, needs assessment and reporting—all in collaboration with community members and stakeholders.”

Estrada said it’s vital that the new task force meet its goals.

“There are a lot of folks out there living with a contaminated well that they use for cooking and showering,” Estrada said. “We want to take it a step further and make it a CVWD mission to do more.”


Estrada’s board responsibilities don’t end with helping those East Valley residents who lack proper water and sewer services.

During the June 14 CVWD board meeting, when some of the hotly contested CVWD water-rate increases were passed, Estrada became frustrated with what he called “maneuvering” by representatives of more-affluent West Valley customers—and he is not being shy about that frustration.

“Our vote (back in June) tabled the question of what the new fixed-rate level would be,” Estrada said. “(The vote) required the board to strive for a less-drastic rate structure than the one put forward in the original rate-increase proposal. The revenue we collect through monthly billings is to keep the current system operating and provide water at the actual cost of the service to each existing customer. … We have current existing water and sewer systems on the east side of the valley in Mecca, Thermal, Salton City and Bombay Beach. There are projects that need to be supported in these areas in order to maintain a quality service level. That’s what the recurring revenues are meant to support.

“Most of the pressure to reduce the fixed-cost portion of the monthly bills was coming from the landscape-customer class, which includes (homeowners associations) and golf courses, and actually makes up a very small percentage of the CVWD’s total customer base. So if we accept their objection and reduce their rate below the actual cost of the service provided to that class, then funds available to support the necessary projects across the valley—and in the east-end communities in particular—may have to be cut back.

“That’s the source of my frustration and concern. There are no golf courses or HOAs in Thermal, or Mecca, or Oasis, or Bombay Beach. So if the result is to cut the revenue coming from this one customer class by lowering their rate and thus eliminating necessary projects on the east end of the valley, that makes me sad.”

Could water politics such as this water-rate issue derail the good that can be achieved for struggling East Valley residents via Estrada’s CVWD-DCITF mission?

“We need right now to survey the situation and figure out where we are, and where we can reasonably go,” said Powell, the board president. “You know, it really takes leadership. This is how things get done in the world. Somebody needs to make it a priority. I think the fact that we now have our first Latino director on our board, and he’s a very capable person showing great leadership skills—along with others in the community, like Sergio Carranza of Pueblo Unido Community Development Center, and members of our CVWD staff—(shows) this effort is in really good hands.”

Estrada expressed confidence that his efforts will lead to much-needed changes within the CVWD.

“I’m really happy, and a lot of the community is really happy to see that the CVWD is willing to hear our concerns and has shown that they want to participate and help us out,” Estrada said. “I think that’s what we’ve wanted for a long time. Just as the CVWD has put so much effort and attention into addressing the concerns of the golf-course communities and the HOAs’ concerns, we’re happy to know that the issues of the folks out here in the East Valley are now being considered as well—at the same level.”


Getting Ready: The CVWD Is Working to Make Sure Life-Changing Projects Are Ready to Go When Funding Becomes Available

As the work of Castulo Estrada and the CVWD and Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force truly gets started, it’s worth looking at one “immediate action” goal

“The Coachella Valley Regional Water Management Group (CVRWMG) obtained a grant a few years ago of about $500,000 to work with (nonprofit organizations) to run a survey across the Coachella Valley,” Estrada said. “People went door-to-door to identify where the disadvantaged communities surviving without safe accessible water and sewer service existed. As a result of their report, communities were identified. … So by using that work and overlaying it with current CVWD utility infrastructure maps, we’re able to start chopping off some of the low-hanging fruit.”

This process has resulted in a priority project for the CVWD’s new task force: The hook-up to proper water infrastructure of multiple mobile-home parks along Avenue 66 in the Thermal-Mecca area, which account for between 300 and 500 living units.

“There’s about $1.1 million in Round 1 funds that have been directed to the CVRWMG in our region from California Prop 1 (the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014),” Estrada said. “The CVRWMG, which is made up of the five local water agencies, has undertaken a process of reviewing various projects which have been submitted by all of these agencies. We’re trying to obtain about one-third of that $1.1 million to go toward the development of our projects.”

These state grant funds would enable the CVWD to complete preliminary engineering and environmental requirements, and acquire any necessary permits. The strategy is for the CVWD-DCITF to have projects to present that are “shovel-ready” when implementation funding becomes available.

“When all of this preparation work is done,” Estrada said, “potentially there may be other grants we could qualify for from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could equal $3 million to $5 million or more. So when we hear of funds being available, we’ll be able to submit the plans—and boom, we can qualify.”

Published in Local Issues

The initial East Valley goal of the Agua4All campaign: Bring relief to thousands of students who had no access to safe drinking water by installing 60 bottle-filling stations at the schools of the Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD).

An April 8 rally at Toro Canyon Middle School in Thermal celebrated success: By the end of March, that goal had been eclipsed, as 75 stations had been set up. As a result, students now have free reusable water bottles and on-campus access to one or more Agua4All stations, providing safe drinking water on a continuous basis.

“It’s been an extremely important effort that was initiated by the California Endowment, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Community Water Center. Now we want to take it statewide,” said Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, of the East Valley’s 56th District, in an interview. “We introduced a piece of legislation (AB 2124) that allocates the resources to enable taking this effort across the state of California.”

The bill is currently in the hands of the state Assembly.

Sarah Buck, the RCAC Agua4All campaign supervisor and rural development specialist, said she hopes the program will be expanded to other Coachella Valley schools.

“One of our goals down the road is to get the interest and attention of the Desert Sands Unified School District to create a partnership and replicate what we’ve done with the CVUSD so that we can install filling stations in all of their schools as well,” she said. Desert Sands operates schools in parts of Bermuda Dunes, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indian Wells. “But that may be a little ways out. Right now, we’re in the phase of looking for and waiting for funding to continue those efforts.”

Still, a lot of work remains, especially when it comes to the numerous unpermitted trailer parks where so many families live without infrastructure.

“We have installed at least one filling station and up to six at every single one of the schools in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, with the exception of Westside (Elementary School in Thermal),” Buck said. “But we’ve only put a few stations in community access sites. We put two at the Mecca Boys and Girls Club and two at the San Jose Community Learning Center. So in this next phase in Coachella, the goal is to put them in more community places so that not just kids have safe water access … but that their families (do) as well.”

Victor Gonzalez, a Coachella resident, shed more light on the depths of the problem. “I lived in Lake St. Anthony trailer park from 1992 all the way up to 2015, so I grew up in those conditions,” he said. “We were not connected to the (Coachella Valley Water District) system, so a lot of these trailer parks resorted to using wells. For a long time, we were getting water in our homes that had dirt in it. This was the water that we would be drinking. We’d shower in it, and my mom and my dad cooked with it.”

Fortunately, recent actions have improved life for Gonzalez’s sister and friends who still live at St. Anthony’s.

“About two years ago,” Gonzalez said, “Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation established a reverse-osmosis center in the trailer park where people can go to get safe water for cooking or brushing their teeth, for example. But the tap water is still untreated.”

Is it possible to bring about permanent and convenient solutions that would deliver safe drinking water to the homes of all residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley? Garcia said he could foresee such a reality. “I do. In some places far sooner than others, but I really do. I think the Flint, Mich., case has shed light on what I call the smaller Flint, Mich., communities throughout the country—and I’m speaking specifically of those in California.

“California adopted a position that water is a right, and everyone should have access to safe water. Last year, we were successful in getting a bill signed by the governor that would allow very specific point-of-use technologies to be utilized in remote, rural areas to address the high levels of arsenic being found. This bill was directly beneficial to households in the communities of the eastern Coachella Valley, and it was sponsored by Sergio Carranza (executive director of PUDC) and the Pueblo Unido Development Corporation out of the eastern valley.”

The Coachella Valley Water District must play a prominent role in implementing permanent long-term solutions for the communities of the eastern valley it serves. Toward that end, a Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Committee was established within CVWD late in 2015. Garcia said the committee came into existence “thanks to the leadership of (CVWD board member) Castulo Estrada, who represents the district that has the majority of these communities being affected by the lack of infrastructure. He’s to be credited for that effort. He’s spearheading the CVWD efforts to address these issues in a timely and responsible way.”

Gonzalez also said Estrada’s election to the board in 2014 is leading to positive change. “For a long time, our area was not really represented by the board members we cast our votes for,” he said. “But in these last elections, we were able to vote for someone who really represented the people of our community. And it came as a result of community input and advocacy to change the voting mechanisms.”

Published in Local Issues

The Coachella Valley Unified School District is doing its best to keep the East Valley connected.

The district—which encompasses 21 schools at the eastern end of the valley from Indio to the Salton Sea—recently announced that the school board had approved the installation of wireless Internet routers on all 100 buses in the district’s fleet. The decision came after a successful pilot program, which began eight months before, with the implementation of Wi-Fi connectivity on three buses.

Also approved was the installation of solar panels on 10 buses in order to extend the routers’ battery life so they can become mobile wireless “hotspots” that will be parked overnight in communities where no wireless access currently exists.

Superintendent Dr. Darryl Adams sees this strategy as part of the core service the school district must provide to its students.

“You know every school district eventually is going to have to ensure that students have (continuous Internet) access,” Dr. Adams said.

This innovative program grew out of brainstorming sessions involving Dr. Adams and his administrative team.

“We have a great team working to ensure that our students have Internet access,” Dr. Adams said. “One of the things that I thought of was that we have all these buses, so why can’t we put a router on a bus? That would allow us to park the buses overnight in communities where there was no access. Also, students would be able to connect on the way to school, while on field trips or going to athletic events. So, sometimes when I come up with these crazy ideas, the team will look at you and say, ‘There, he’s lost it again.’ But this time, they said, ‘No. Let’s listen to this. Let’s see if we can do it.’ And, as it turned out, we could actually do it.”

The total first-year cost of the initiative is projected to be $232,065. That includes all hardware, software, installation and connectivity charges. The funding will come solely from the CVUSD budget.

How did the administrative team demonstrate the pilot program’s success to the board? “Because the tech is so new, and the transition into it is new, there’s not a lot of quantifiable data available,” Adams said. “But we looked at the qualitative data through satisfaction surveys and talking to students, and talking to parents, and we got a lot of positives.

“Students have been coming over to the district offices and sitting in the parking lot to connect, or they were going to their school sites and sitting out there to connect. So we knew there had to be a better way.”

A significant part of that “better way” is the mobile-hotspot feature of this program. CVUSD director of technology Michelle Murphy saw the demand very clearly.

“We visited trailer parks and talked to residents, and we found the need to be even greater than we thought,” Murphy said. “They had tried other services that had promised them low fees for connectivity, and they didn’t receive the service that they’d been promised.”

She anticipates that all of the buses will be Wi-Fi operational by Christmas break of 2015.

The new mobile Wi-Fi access is the latest development in the student-connectivity effort that began with the passing of Measure X in CVUSD territory back in 2012. With 67 percent of voters approving, that bond earmarked $42 million to be made available to the school district in segments. The first phase of the program began in 2013 and utilized $20 million to build Wi-Fi connectivity into each school campus, and purchase an iPad for every one of the approximately 19,000 students in the district.

“We plan to refresh (our students’ iPads) every two years to keep up with the changes in technology,” stated Dr. Adams. “We’ll probably use about $5 million for that refreshing program, and that leaves us $15 million. So, we should get to 2021-2022 with this money. And we’re hoping that federal and state governments by that time will give the school districts that money—just like they used to give us textbook money, we’re hoping that they’ll be giving us tech money now to ensure that our students remain connected. Because if they’re not, then the U.S. will be at a disadvantage, since other countries are doing this already.”

Published in Local Issues

Agua4All is a program with a catchy, informative name and an inarguably laudable objective: delivering safe drinking water to every resident of the state, regardless of location or income level.

The program aims to provide this necessity via its proprietary water-filling stations, which are being installed in schools and community-meeting areas like parks, youth clubs and libraries. For too many Californians, the only accessible source for safe drinking water is commercially sold bottled water—an unaffordable solution for many underprivileged families.

Currently in its pilot phase, Agua4All is focusing on disadvantaged communities in southern Kern County—and right here in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The original idea was actually conceived by The California Endowment, which has been the major funder of the program,” said Sarah Buck, rural development specialist for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), which is charged with supervising and coordinating efforts around this program. “They have given us the opportunity and responsibility of designing it in a way that makes sense. Once this current pilot phase is over, we can replicate it and continue this work throughout all of rural California.”

From January through early March, the RCAC ran a fundraising campaign, the second in the last year, on the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform. Unfortunately, the donation response was dismal, with just $575 raised.

“I think the first one was more successful because it had a very targeted goal and message,” said Buck; the first effort raised more than $5,600. “For the second Indiegogo campaign, The California Endowment thought that because (celebrity chef) Jamie Oliver was going to be introducing our campaign while making an appearance in Sacramento, the campaign might take off because of that. Although the campaign didn’t raise very much money, we did have a huge bump in awareness and social-media chatter about the program.”

Fortunately, Agua4All has received support from other corners. “We have been able to secure other funding from a number of foundations and banks,” said Buck. “For instance, we got funding from the Weingart Foundation for the work that we’re doing in the eastern Coachella Valley. We’ve gotten funding from the California Bank and Trust, from Rabobank, and we got almost $450,000 in funding from the state of California, with the support of the State Water Resources Control Board, to put in arsenic filters for Kern County’s city of Arvin, where they have arsenic in the water. So we’ve been able to leverage the endowment’s original funds to access a lot of other different types of funds.”

Specifically in the eastern Coachella Valley, the RCAC is excited about how the program is expanding rapidly.

“We have definitely fostered a great relationship and partnership with the Coachella Valley Unified School District,” Buck said. “They’ve been very supportive, and the vast majority of the taps (water-bottle-filling stations) that are going into the Coachella Valley are in the schools. We’ve started by concentrating on the schools that are in the unincorporated areas, especially because a lot of those kids, when they go home, don’t necessarily have safe drinking water. So we have been putting our stations in a lot of the schools in Thermal, Mecca and Oasis. Toward the end of this pilot phase, we’ll probably be putting some into West Shore or the city of Coachella.”

As of the deadline for this story, the RCAC had installed 11 water-bottle-filling stations in Coachella Valley locations through Agua4All.

“Our original goal from The California Endowment was to put 60 stations into the Coachella Valley, and 60 into Kern County,” Buck stated. “So we’re on the way there. They just got a new order at the Coachella Valley Unified School District. Every weekend, they’re putting in some of the new units. … They just finished up with John Kelley (Elementary) School (in Thermal), and they are starting … with the Cahuilla Desert Academy.”

There are other facets to the Agua4All program. Those include the distribution of free plastic water bottles, provided by Nalgene, to potential users of the safe water being provided.

“We have formed a fantastic partnership with Nalgene (a maker of a wide variety of BPA-free plastic bottles),” Buck said. “They have donated 1,500 bottles so far, and they are committed to donating at least 5,000 bottles for this pilot project. We’ve been doing a purchase and donation match. Also, they’ve given us a hugely reduced price to make it affordable. We got funding from the Weingart Foundation to buy extra bottles, and those will go into the schools in Coachella Valley.”

Another valuable relationship for Agua4All is a tie to first lady Michelle Obama’s Drink Up campaign, which is designed to promote increased water consumption by individuals to improve their health.

“All of the safe-drinking-water-filling stations that we are installing will carry both our logo and the Drink Up logo,” stated Buck.

These two initiatives share common goals, too. “We’re intending to do a lot of water promotion, education and outreach on why it’s important to drink safe water instead of soda,” Buck said. “We’re trying to get a behavioral change in motion, because a lot of people in these communities haven’t had accessible safe drinking water for their whole lives, so getting them to trust that the tap water won’t give them cancer is going to be a challenge. But it’s something we know is really important. We want these communities to drink more water and be healthier overall.”

Published in Local Issues

In 2000, Riverside County agreed to a settle a dispute with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development which was triggered after 24 Coachella Valley families filed complaints. According to HUD archives, the complaints stated “that Riverside County had targeted Hispanic-owned and -occupied mobile home parks for selective and discriminatory enforcement of its health and safety code and regulations.”

"The enforcement agreement is a major victory for a largely disenfranchised population, compensating victims of housing discrimination and resulting in a multi-million-dollar cooperative effort to build housing and provide needed services to farmworkers throughout the area for years to come," said Ilene Jacobs, then the director of litigation for California Rural Legal Assistance, which represented the farmworkers in the case. (The statement came from a HUD news release.)

Today—a decade and a half later—the county is still working on upholding its end of the settlement.

In December, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, by a vote of 4-0, approved an agreement with the Galilee Center—an organization that works to fill the needs of the underprivileged and disadvantaged—to construct and operate a facility in downtown Mecca that will provide permanent shower, restroom and laundry services for migrant farmworkers in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Such a facility was one of numerous mandated remedies to be undertaken by Riverside County as part of that 2000 HUD settlement.

“We call it Plaza Esperanza,” Galilee Center president and founder Gloria Gomez said recently. “It’s for the farmworkers, but anybody will able to use it, especially the people who are in the streets. … ‘Esperanza’ means ‘hope’ in English, because the people have been waiting so many years for these showers and laundry facilities.”

Riverside County District 4 Supervisor John Benoit said he has worked for years to find the right strategy to bring this facility to fruition.

“For some years, we have had a horrible facility that offered some of these comfort services, but it was quite a way outside of downtown Mecca,” Benoit said. “Then a few years ago, some people I know who have been involved in great nonprofit human health and services experiences in the valley decided to open up the Galilee Center in Mecca. … So I went to them and said, ‘This potentially could be a great cooperative effort where instead of spending the money to build a completely new facility and figure out how to manage it, we could work together.’

“I’m very pleased that notion has come to fruition and is nearly operational. They’re going to offer a lot of amenities that we could never have offered at just a simple shower and cleanliness facility. Certainly, it will be an asset to the community.”

Gomez elaborated on the Galilee Center’s plans.

“We’re going to have 12 showers for men and 12 showers for women,” she said. “The shower and laundry areas are being paid for by the Riverside County funds. We’re fundraising to build a large family community room where we’ll have televisions for the people and computer stations to help them search for jobs on the Internet. Also, we want to have classes to help give instruction to people who don’t know how to write their names.”

A December press release from Benoit’s office mentioned that $1.2 million in funds were designated for the comfort-station construction. Gomez said that won’t quite cover all costs.

“We’re bringing in extensions for the gas, water and sewer lines from Second Street,” Gomez said. “That’s pretty far away, so it’s expensive to bring those utilities to our site.”

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors has also agreed to provide $75,000 per year in operational funding for the new facility, which is slated to open May 18. Will that prove sufficient?

“We will be open November through March and again May through July,” said Gomez. “And during those months, our daily hours will be Monday through Friday from 1 to 7 p.m., while Saturdays and Sundays will be from noon to 6 p.m.

“During the other months, we will have the community room open and available. This first year of operations, we will find out exactly what the costs will be—especially during the hottest summer months, since the facility is going to be air-conditioned.”

Benoit praised all the work the Galilee Center has done and continues to do. “I think it’s great when you see the government able to work with these walking saints like Gloria Gomez and (Galilee Center CFO and co-founder) Claudia Castorena, because they’re trying to do the right thing for their community.”

Even after the HUD settlement and other initiatives over the past 15 years, the quality of life for our valley’s migrant-worker community needs improvement.

“There is an ongoing need for food. Right now, every Thursday, we have between 300 and 500 families who come to get food staples for the week,” Gomez said. “An even bigger need is health issues. Mental health is a big issue on this side of the valley. Our people need rental assistance and utility assistance. Some of the farmworkers work hard their entire lives to put food on our tables, but now they’re retired and receive no government assistance, because they’ve been undocumented. We encounter so many different problems and situations with this population. We can only do so much.”

If you’d like to contribute to the success of Plaza Esperanza—the Galilee Center is in special need of shampoo, soaps and towels (white towels are preferred because they’re easier to wash), as well as toothbrushes, toothpaste and small bottles of mouthwash—call the Galilee Center at 760-396-9100, or visit galileecenter.org.

Published in Local Issues

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.”

Published in Local Issues

Residents of Thermal scored a major victory in their 16-year fight for clean air when Riverside County was awarded the funding to pave the roads of 31 trailer parks in the unincorporated communities of Eastern Coachella Valley.

The $4.1 million project is scheduled to begin as early as next summer, and should be completed within two years.

“When cars pass by, they lift a lot of dust, and it affects everyone that lives here,” said Margarita Gamez, a resident who has been active in the grassroots effort since 1997.

In 2008, Pueblo Unido, a community-development corporation, joined the fight for improved environmental conditions in the region’s trailer parks, which are typically situated in areas that lack potable water, sewer systems and basic infrastructure.

Trailer-park residents were the backbone of the organizing effort, and the idea to push for paved roads came from them, said Sergio Carranza, executive director and founder of Pueblo Unido.

“I’m just facilitating the project,” he added

Carranza said that dust and fine-particulate pollution from the unpaved roads are linked to the prevalence of asthma and respiratory problems among the many families who live in the trailer parks. The paved roads will also improve accessibility for residents and alleviate another major problem in these communities: flooding caused by heavy rains.

A Long-Awaited Opportunity

Pueblo Unido saw hope for funding when the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) began accepting proposals for environmentally friendly projects, funded by AB 1318 emission-mitigation fees from the Sentinel Energy Project. Meetings were held in number of Riverside County locations to gather community input—but many in the eastern Coachella Valley felt left out of the conversation.

“There were only public hearings being made in the western Coachella Valley,” said Carranza. “We (Pueblo Unido) made sure that the eastern Coachella Valley was taken care of, too.”

Pueblo Unido received backing for their roads proposal from Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who introduced AB 1318 in 2009, and Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who co-authored the bill when he was a state senator. As a result, county officials and held meetings in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“We had a lot of public hearings all over the valley on how this money should be spent. One of the witnesses was a young boy from the eastern Coachella Valley. He had to walk to school every day of his life. He felt that the air quality affected him greatly. (His story) impacted me and other members that are working on this project,” said Benoit, who is a member of the SCAQMD governing board.

SCAQMD, the manager of the mitigation-fee funds, entered into a contract with Riverside County to pave approximately 8.3 miles of unpaved roads within 31 mobile home parks containing 483 mobile-home units.

According to Darin Schemmer, communications director for Benoit, “The actual construction may begin as early as summer 2014. The remaining steps the Riverside County Transportation Department needs to take include completing the design and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) environmental document, (and) preparing, advertising, bidding and awarding a construction contract.”

The county, in turn, has contracted with Pueblo Unido to continue to be the liaison to the community that came together to make their needs heard.

“I advocated strongly that AQMD must provide technical assistance to grantees, and ultimately, we convinced them to do so. Another thing we did was encourage smaller, community-based grantees, to the extent possible, to partner with agencies that had the resources and capacity to present a strong application,” said Perez. “Such was the case of Pueblo Unido in partnering with Riverside County for the successful paving project.”

"Trail" Would Connect East, West Valley

More than $17 million of the $53 million mitigation fee fund total was awarded to CV Link, a proposed 52-mile multipurpose trail from Palm Springs to Mecca. Tourism leaders aggressively pushed for these funds on the grounds that the entire Coachella Valley would benefit.

Not everyone in the eastern Coachella Valley believes that would be the case.

“The road from Palm Springs to Mecca doesn’t benefit us. It only benefits wealthier communities,” said Gamez, who believes the trail is being geared toward tourists.

Perez, however, said he sees the environmental benefits of both the trail project and the paving project at the trailer parks.

“One of the things we have emphasized from the beginning is the need for an equitable distribution of grant-funding, so that many worthwhile projects and grantees would be able to use their ingenuity and community know-how to address local air quality concerns,” he said.

With the paving project now in place, Carranza said Pueblo Unido would continue listening to and organizing residents of these rural communities, in their quest for a better living environment. Future projects include a water-purification system and the opening of a learning center.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. Brenda Rincon is Coachella Unincorporated’s professional adviser. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Local Issues

As with a lot of other families living in the eastern Coachella Valley, when one of our family members fell sick, it meant driving about 100 miles across the border into Mexico, to the city of Mexicali, to get taken care of by a doctor.

The only other option, it seemed, was not being taken care of at all.

Now, because of health-care reform efforts in the United States, young people growing up today in the eastern Coachella Valley—the unincorporated rural communities of southern Riverside County—don’t need to go without health insurance the way I did. The scenario is finally beginning to change. At least it can change—if people here are made aware of the health services now available to them through federal health-care reform, right in their own community.

“We owe it to our country to inform the citizens to take advantage of all these resources that are available,” said Ronnie Cho, associate director of public engagement for the White House, during a speech about health care reform that I attended in Washington, D.C., as a reporter in April.

Cho is right. For the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to make a difference, people need to first be aware that health care is an option for them. People need to know that they can afford to visit a doctor, without having to stray more than a few miles away from their home.

When my family would go visit relatives across the border in Mexicali, we always took advantage of the opportunity to stop by the Mexican pharmacy to buy medicine for ourselves, as well as for our friends and neighbors who always requested some. As a child, I thought those trips to Mexicali to visit the doctor were the only way—it was just what people did—until later on in my youth, when my father got a job with a new trucking business that gave him medical benefits that included family coverage. Because my dad worked for a lot of different trucking companies during the years, and because there were lengths of time when he was unemployed, our health-care situation was never stable. for those few years, my family and I received the best health care we’d ever had.

“Young people are relatively healthy, so they think, ‘I don’t need health care,’ until something happens, and they actually need it,” said Cho.

Again, Cho got it right. I can remember my worried mother, back in 2008, telling my little sister and me that we once again did not have health insurance and would have to resume our trips to Mexicali.

In retrospect, I never minded the long trips to the doctor or dentist’s office. In fact, I never worried about my health. My parents always had medicine from Mexicali available in our cabinets for emergencies. For my siblings and me, it was not something that got in the way; it was something that we believed had to be done, because there was no cheaper option.

The irony is that even though being uninsured felt normal to me and my siblings growing up, it is families like ours who need that insurance the most. Families like mine who live in the unincorporated communities of the eastern Coachella Valley—most of us are Latino; many (like my parents) are immigrants; and many make a living as farm workers or do some other type of physical labor—are especially in need of the protections provided by health insurance, because of occupational hazards and other health risks associated with living in an area where people lack money and resources.

The Affordable Care Act, the bulk of which will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2014, is helping families like mine take control of our medical insurance, by providing options and a sense of security. It’s an idea—health-care security—that at one time, at least for my family, seemed impossible to imagine. The health insurance that for so long seemed like such a special privilege will now become available to more people than ever before.

The ACA was put into place in part to make sure insurance companies cannot end your coverage plan when you need it the most, cannot bill you into debt, and cannot discriminate due to pre-existing medical conditions.

Among other provisions, the ACA will secure medical insurance for American citizens after getting laid off or changing jobs. It will require insurance companies to cover the cost of mammograms and cancer screenings. And for the first time, young adults will remain eligible to be covered under their parent’s or guardian’s health-insurance plan through the age of 26, even if they are married.

As a result, 3.1 million young adults are now covered along with their families, and more than 107,000 Americans with pre-existing conditions who didn’t previously have insurance are now receiving health coverage, according to federal data.

If you know where to look, it is free and simple to apply for affordable or no-cost medical insurance programs such as Medicaid and the Childrens’ Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which cover medical services that include doctor check-ups, emergency care, hospital care, vaccinations, prescription drugs, vision, hearing and dental.

There was a time for a lot of us living here in the eastern Coachella Valley when driving across the border seemed like the easiest and most-affordable way to access health care. Fortunately, for many of us, that no longer needs to be the case. Our communities can have the security of health insurance that for so long seemed just beyond our reach, if we just know where to find it.

To see if you qualify for Medicaid or CHIP, or to apply online, visit insurekidsnow.gov. To find out what is your best insurance option for your specific demographics and needs go to finder.healthcare.gov.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Community Voices