Deadline Fast Approaching In Yucca Valley Water Quality Crisis

(May 27) YUCCA VALLEY—The clock is ticking toward a deadline, less than two years away, by which this desert town of 20,700 must complete the first phase of a large scale wastewater treatment system.
The imposition of that deadline three years ago was intended to avert a growing water quality crisis that will, if it is not redressed, severely impact all of the area’s residents.
If the town, its residents and the local water board do not collectively act to fund and begin building the sewer system that will eliminate Yucca Valley’s reliance upon septic systems that are now overwhelming the area’s water table, the state is threatening action that could reduce Yucca Valley to a ghost town by 2022.
Yucca Valley, which became the last of San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities to incorporate in 1991, is likewise the last remaining city to function without a sewer system.
Long a remote and rustic desert area that attracted those wishing to remain well off the beaten track, Yucca Valley made its first lurch toward urbanization in the 1950s when Norman J. Essig promoted it as both a getaway to and private residency for entertainment celebrities. He ventured capital toward that end, acquiring hundreds of acres, which he improved with roads around the region’s major arterial, Highway 62, also known as Twentynine Palms Highway.
While attracting movie stars as well as recording and visual artists was only marginally successful, the improvements did succeed in luring others by virtue of the relatively inexpensive land prices, and Yucca Valley grew sporadically over the years, appealing to the independent minded and lovers of the remote desert beauty. As early as 1973, 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. 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. As a good number of those who had moved to Yucca Valley were senior citizens and retirees living on fixed incomes who had been attracted to the area by cheap land, they were alarmed by the concept of having to defray the cost for the installation of 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 has imposed three progressive phases of septic discharge prohibitions on Yucca Valley. Under the state mandate, phase 1 of a wastewater system must be completed or significantly on its way to completion by May 19, 2016 or enforcement action will 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.
Eleven months ago, the State Water Resources Control Board’s sub-executive director, Jose Angel, told those gathered at the community center the state will be methodical and thorough in enforcing the prohibition, holding the town to account to complete each phase of the project by the succeeding deadlines and taking steps to ensure that each residential and commercial property within each phase’s geographical boundaries ties into the sewer system once it is in place.
In the last eleven months. the High Desert Water District, which is to be the lead agency on the project, has not completed anywhere near one third of the work needed to meet the first deadline on May 19, 2016. The tangible progress it can point to consists, basically, in having undertaken an effort to inform local residents of the problem and having completed cost comparisons on paper. The primary cost projection identifies 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. The system would consist of a water treatment plant and a collection system entailing over 400,000 linear feet of pipe.
The district has made some tentative projections with regard to obtaining grant funding, but has made no substantive progress toward actually receiving such grants, other than obtaining a $20 million authorization from the Bureau of Reclamation. It has also applied for a low to no-interest loan through a state revolving fund. Ultimately, there will yet need to be significant financial participation by the town’s residents. A dated calculation, using the assumption that the overall cost of the project will amount to no more than $125 million, is that each parcel in Yucca Valley will be counted upon to provide $16,700 toward the system construction debt burden.  If the cost of the project can be defrayed over 30 years, water district officials calculate the project can be financed through homeowner assessments of $20 to $40 per month to cover just the construction costs of the system.
Costs could rise due to unforeseen circumstances or complications with regard to easements, particularly on the north end of town, where the proposed trunk line will be laid alongside a steel natural gas line accompanied by electrical pumps. The cost of upgrading the trunk line to one consisting of steel seamless pipe could raise the cost.
Of tremendous moment is the community’s ability to pay for the system, which includes town residents’ willingness to embrace a debt servicing mechanism to cover the financing arrangement on its construction costs. One such effort was Measure U, sponsored by the town in 2012  and which appeared on the November ballot. If passed, Measure U would have imposed a one-cent sales tax within Yucca Valley. Town officials said the lion’s share of those proceeds would go toward building the sewer system. Measure U was defeated, however.
If the multiple issues with regard to the sewer system are not resolved, and resolved soon, Yucca Valley will have no conceivable prospect of meeting the May 18, 2016 deadline.
And the state has utilized draconian measures in the past against other communities that failed to come into compliance, such as in Los Osos, which was under a similar order from the California Water Resources Board and failed to heed it. The entire community of Los Osos 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.

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