By Mark Gutglueck
YUCCA VALLEY—The California Regional Water Quality Control Board has given the community of Yucca Valley a reprieve from the previous unforgiving timeline it had imposed on the town and its residents to end their reliance on septic systems and construct a municipal sewer system.
Yucca Valley, which became the last of San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities to incorporate in 1991, is likewise the last of two remaining cities in the county to function without a sewer system.
As early as 1973, eighteen years before incorporation and when the area’s population was hovering below 5,000, there was a push to outfit the core of Yucca Valley with a rudimentary sewer system, one that would extend only to the town’s modest commercial area and the relatively sparse residential neighborhoods that surrounded it. But a water treatment facility and skeleton sewer system to which future developments could connect carried a price tag of roughly $10 million, well beyond the tiny community’s fiscal means at that time.
After the town’s November 1991 incorporation, civic officials continued to reflect and embody the values of their constituents, who eschewed big government and excessive regulation and put a premium on maintaining the town’s rural character. There was little collective will to pave any roads other than the town’s main thoroughfares and many town streets remain dusty trails to this day.Likewise, a modern, urban sewer system has been an imperative to few locals. At the same time, the town council has been accommodating of most developers who expressed an interest in Yucca Valley, and over the first 20 years of the town’s history as an incorporated entity, gave builders what has essentially been carte blanche to build aggressively without incorporating urban land use standards.
Thus, the septic systems that had proliferated in Yucca Valley for three-quarters of a century remained the accoutrement of homes and businesses built within the 40 square mile city limits.
Ten years after incorporation Yucca Valley’s officials were notified by the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board that the lack of a sewage treatment system had resulted in nitrates accumulating in the water table. Simultaneously, the Hi-Desert Water District, which serves the Yucca Valley community, experienced nitrate traces in district wells.
Local officialdom did not respond with alacrity. Rather, some feigned outrage that the state felt it necessary to involve itself in what many perceived as a local issue. Much of the local population consisted of senior citizens and retirees living on fixed incomes as well as working age adults with diminished incomes who had been attracted to the area by cheap land and housing prices. They were alarmed by the concept of having to defray the cost of installing a sewer system. They were heartened and to a certain extent lulled into a state of complacency by their political leadership, which asserted the town would not fall victim to overreaching regulation imposed on it by Sacramento. Thus, the water table contamination issue was kicked down the road.
In the early 2000s, monitoring carried out by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and the United States Geological Survey demonstrated that residues left in the ground that seep into the aquifer had increased to levels that presaged health threats if the matter was not addressed. Those contaminants included nitrates and other pollutants including pharmaceuticals and salts.
Historic pumping increases from the 1940s to 1995 resulted in the water levels dropping faster than the nitrates from septic systems seeped downward. Thus, for years Yucca Valley was able to avoid the consequences of the contamination accumulating in the local soil. Eventually, however, as the water table dropped lower and lower as a result of greater utilization combined with limited recharge from rainfall, the water district began importation of state aqueduct water into Yucca Valley. Completion of the Morongo Basin Pipeline project and the accompanying completion and activation of recharge basins in Yucca Valley allowed the Hi-Desert Water District to begin percolating water into the aquifer and the water table began to rise. That water came in contact with the high levels of nitrates left over from decades of septic discharge and the nitrates found their way into some of the Hi-Desert Water District’s wells. Notice of the contamination triggered a scaling back of the Hi-Desert Water District’s recharge efforts, and the goal of reestablishing the Yucca Valley water table to the natural level present in the 1940s has not been achieved.
The imported water has actually diluted the nitrates so water tests now show nitrate levels below the maximum contaminant level allowed by the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In the meantime, the discharge of septic waste continues and the United States Geological Survey determined that nitrates accumulating beneath Yucca Valley are present in ever increasing concentrations and at depths that pose a threat to the groundwater, including a calculation that 880 acre-feet of septic discharge currently reaches the groundwater every year.
In 2007, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency responsible for protecting water quality, adopted a resolution identifying the town of Yucca Valley as one of 66 communities throughout the state with groundwater threatened by the continuing overuse of septic systems. The board further declared Yucca Valley as a top priority for eliminating the use of septic systems, meaning Yucca Valley’s is one of the five most seriously threatened significantly-sized water supplies in the state.
Nevertheless, local officials resisted taking immediate action, as they lacked the financial wherewithal to undertake the construction of a sewer system. Nor did the city have the will to impose any kind of building or development moratorium that would stabilize the problem.
For a while, town and the water district officials were able to delay the imposition of state mandates by forging a memorandum of agreement with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Hi-Desert Water District to allow interim permits for new septic systems while planning for a wastewater system proceeded. But they could not suspend the consequences indefinitely.
By 2010, Yucca Valley’s population had zoomed to 20,700, an increase of 3,835 or 22.7 percent over the 16,865 town residents counted in the 2000 Census.
In 2011, the town was firmly informed that it had only five years to take a definitive step toward water quality compliance.
The Regional Water Quality Control Board at that time imposed three progressive phases of septic discharge prohibitions on Yucca Valley. Under the state mandate, phase 1 of a wastewater system was to be completed or significantly on its way to completion by May 19, 2016 or enforcement action would be initiated. The first phase of the project is to cover the downtown area of Yucca Valley, the area most proximate to the heart of the groundwater basin. Similarly, phase 2 must be completed or nearly completed by May 19, 2019 and phase 3 must be completed by May 19, 2022. The last two phases lie further out where future concentrated development is most likely to occur.
The state vowed to use draconian measures to obtain compliance, by either methodically moving to seal off every septic system in use within each of the specified areas, essentially rendering the affected homes inhabitable, or to otherwise utilize a tactic similar to what had been employed against Los Osos, another community that failed to come into compliance after repeated warnings from the state. In Los Osos, the entire community became subject to an enforcement action, which was done in a lottery fashion, in which random property owners were selected to receive cease and desist orders with the potential of daily fines for non-compliance. They were ordered to discontinue the discharge from their septic systems, seal them off and pump them at regular intervals. If they did not, they were subjected to fines of up to $5,000 per day.
The state’s threat of action carried with it the very real possibility that Yucca Valley would be rendered a ghost town by the end of the current decade. And still, for three years after the state mandate was given, local officials dithered, with little in the way of tangible progress being made other than determining that a water treatment plant and a collection system entailing over 400,000 linear feet of pipe would at a minimum be needed to satisfy the state demand, together with having undertaken an effort to inform local residents of the problem and having completed cost comparisons on paper. The primary cost projection identified the difference between having a contractor undertake building the system and having the water district manage the project – between $133,248,401 and $140,651,089 for the design and construction work to be performed by Atkins North America and somewhere between $111,539,901 and $117,736,562 for the district to construct the project using Atkins North America’s proposed design.
One major challenge facing the city was the bifurcation of responsibility, i.e., governmental authority, particularly as applies to the delivery of water to the populace and the corresponding requirement of maintaining water quality. Yucca Valley is far from being a full service municipality. It does not have its own police department, instead contracting with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement service. Nor does it boast its own fire department. Rather, there are three fire stations in town run by the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District and one station operated by the California Division of Forestry. Similarly, Yucca Valley does not have its own municipal water division. Rather, that function is carried out by the Hi-Desert Water District.
Planning and building authority in Yucca Valley lies with the town. The town council has been filled with elected officials who reflect the town populace’s attitude with regard to outside control such as that emanating from the state, and the town has effectively resisted calls to impose a building moratorium until the water contamination issue is resolved.
On the water district side of the equation, things are even more complicated. A member of the Hi-Desert Water District’s board of directors is Roger Mayes. A domineering personality, Mayes for many years was the chairman of the water board. The pastor of Grace Community Church, Mayes exhibits a political philosophy that holds true Americanism is equivalent to conservatism, such that Republican values need to be upheld in the face of the social liberalism and big and intrusive government philosophy of the Democrats.
That the mandate for Yucca Valley to end its dependence on septic systems originated in Democratic-dominated Sacramento has not been lost on Mayes. That he has long occupied a key position on the water board explicates to some extent why it is that the Yucca Valley community has not reacted with a sense of urgency in coming to terms with the state mandate. It is the Hi-Desert Water District rather than the town that was chosen to serve as lead agency on the construction of the sewer system. Because the political leadership of the water agency is philosophically opposed to the concept of showing obeisance to state officials, and in particular state officials who are under the control of the Democratic Party, the water district was far less energetic in facilitating the completion of the water treatment system than it might have been otherwise.
Ultimately, however, Roger Mayes’ resistance to completing the Yucca Valley sewer system would be attenuated by two factors.
The first factor was the utter seriousness with which the state was militating toward the sanctions it threatened in the absence of Yucca Valley’s failure to undertake the project. The second factor, ironically, was an outgrowth of Mayes’ own reach toward political control of the desert town. In his effort to establish a semi-theocratic and Republican-oriented dominion in Yucca Valley, Mayes joined forces with the Reverend Jerel Hagerman, the pastor of Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel. Together, using their respective powers of the pulpit, Mayes and Hagerman became the virtual co-regents of Yucca Valley. With their sermons setting the spiritual and moral tone of the town, they were able to define Yucca Valley’s political tenor as well. Their shared born-again zealotry naturally dovetailed with a conservative political ethos that carried itself beyond the two or so hours they had the attention of their parishioners on Sunday, and in time it moved into the halls of power down at Yucca Valley’s civic center. Both preachers were instrumental in launching the political careers of their sons, each of whom served on the Yucca Valley Town Council.
Isaac Hagerman, Jerel’s son, was a member of the town council that effectively ignored or resisted for so long the state’s dire warnings with regard to the deterioration in the quality of the town’s water supply and championed the further growth of Yucca Valley by providing developers with virtually unfettered permission to build aggressively without incorporating urban land use standards.
Even more successful than Isaac Hagerman was Mayes’ son, Chad, who was elected to the town council and then moved into the mayorship. Espousing conservative Republican values all the way, Chad Mayes established himself as something of a young up-and-comer in the GOP, forming a close alliance with Paul Cook, the Yucca Valley mayor-turned-state assemblyman-turned-congressman. In 2010, after eight years on the town council, he resigned from that position to become chief of staff to San Bernardino County Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford, a Republican herself. In 2014, he vied successfully for 42nd District Assemblyman.
In Sacramento, the governor’s mansion is occupied by a Democrat and the State Senate and State Assembly were occupied by a supermajority of Democrats – which essentially rendered Republicans an irrelevancy in statehouse – until the filing of criminal political corruption charges against three Democratic state legislators ended their party’s absolute power grip over California a year ago. Still, the Democrats remain firmly in charge in the state capital. Since arriving their late last year, young Mayes has been given a strong dose of political reality. While the exact nature of his private conversations with his father are unknown, on his trips back to his district from the state capital he has apparently been able to convince the Reverend Mayes that people in Yucca Valley cannot continue to micturate and defecate in their drinking water supply, that continuing to insist they can do just that is a threat to not only the community’s health but its reputation statewide and that the rural standards of public hygiene that were applied in a remote desert location in the middle of the Twentieth Century will not suffice as that community urbanizes in the Twenty-First Century.
In 2012, Yucca Valley voters, yet under the sway of Mayes and Hagerman’s vision of their town as a bastion of right thinking fundamentalist Christian conservatives holding the line against the encroachment of secular liberalism, rejected Measure U, which if passed would have imposed a one-cent sales tax within Yucca Valley, the lion’s share of the proceeds from which would have, town officials said, gone toward building the sewer system.
Earlier this year, Roger Mayes did not oppose an effort to form an assessment district to build the town’s sewer system. By a significant margin, Yucca Valley voters passed the measure, which was conducted by mail ballot voting.
On the May 13 deadline for the return of the ballots, 5,488 of the 10,326 ballots mailed out had been returned. Of those 5,488 ballots received, 4,942 were deemed valid, with 546 being rejected because the ballots were improperly filled out.
The tallying of the ballots was not based upon the simple number of votes for or against approving the sewer system assessments. Rather, each of the ballots was accorded weight based on the proposed assessment value of the property owned by the voter. Under this measure, 72 percent of those responding, representing $49.1 million in estimated property value, favored the levying of the assessments, while 28 percent, speaking for $18.9 million in property value, voted against the formation of the district.
The community’s relatively late resolve to fund the sewer system project left it somewhat behind the eight ball in terms of whether it would be able to meet the first May 2016 deadline.
The State Water Resources Control Board, examining the reality of the situation, has concluded that the Hi-Desert Water District will not be able to complete enough of the project to allow any part of the community to stop septic discharge anytime soon. Recognizing, however, that the Yucca Valley community, by means of the May vote, has begun the process of designing and building the system, the State Water Resources Control Board dispensed with the May 2016 deadline and extended the deadline for the first phase’s completion until June 30, 2021.
Town and water district officials were notified of the extension by Water Quality Control Board Interim Executive Officer Jose Angel.
In addition, the Water Quality Control Board extended and consolidated the May 19, 2019 and May 19, 2022 deadlines for completion of phase two and phase three of the sewer system to December 31, 2025. The boundaries for all three phases were also provided with minor adjustments.
Angel said the state was making the extensions in a spirit of cooperation and compliance.