YUCCA VALLEY—(December 31) This desert town of 20,700 is up against a formidable deadline by which it must complete the first phase of a large scale wastewater treatment system within less than 17 months.
That deadline was imposed by state water quality officials in 2011 because of a mounting water quality crisis local officials had previously failed to address. Despite Yucca Valley’s incorporation as a municipality in 1991, it remains the only one of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities without a sewer system.
But a combination of factors, financial, political, ideological and even religious – not to mention out and out cronyism – have prevented the town, its residents and its local water district from coming to terms with a reality that will, if it is not redressed, severely impact all of the area’s residents.
Long a remote and rustic desert area that attracted those wishing to remain well off the beaten track and free of the strictures of urbanization, Yucca Valley made its first lurch toward modernity 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 its 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 23 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.
For a time, at least, the imported water actually diluted the nitrates so water tests showed 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 it had only five years to take a definitive step toward water quality compliance.
The Regional Water Quality Control Board at that point imposed three progressive phases of septic discharge prohibitions on Yucca Valley. Under the state mandate, phase 1 of a waste water 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.
The imposition of that deadline nearly four years ago was intended as a wake-up call to local officials to undertake an effort to avert the growing water quality crisis. But woefully little progress toward the goal of planning and funding the system has been made and there has been absolutely no physical progress with regard to establishing it.
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.
Nineteen months ago, the State Water Resources Control Board’s sub-executive director, Jose Angel, told those gathered at the Yucca Valley 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 nineteen months. the High Desert Water District, which is to be the lead agency on the project, has not completed anywhere near two-thirds of the work needed to meet the first deadline on May 19, 2016, while more than two-thirds of the time since the deadline was announced has elapsed. 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 and businesses. 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 19, 2016 deadline.
The water quality crisis may prove insoluble because of a host of social realities in Yucca.
The town in many ways defies definition along any traditional political measure. In terms of median income, household worth and property values, Yucca Valley is among the poorest of San Bernardino’s 24 incorporated cities, and is surpassed economically by many of the county’s unincorporated communities as well. Yet it is a decidedly conservative bastion, with the Republican Party dominating politically. Among the town of Yucca Valley’s 9,963 registered voters as of last week, 4,096 or 41.1 percent were Republicans and 2,601 or 26.1 percent were Democrats. Within the slightly larger confines of the Hi-Desert Water District, which includes the entirety of Yucca Valley and some outlying area, there are 11,473 voters, of whom 4,634 or 40.4 percent are registered Republicans and 2,996 or 26.1 percent are Democrats. The town’s residents are predominantly of a minimal-governmental-interference philosophy and that has traditionally been the platform of its elected leadership.
Indeed, Yucca Valley’s leading citizen, Paul Cook, who served on the Yucca Valley City Council for eight years, from 1998 until 2006, was later a member of the California Assembly and is now beginning his second term in Congress representing the 8th District, which includes Yucca Valley. Cook, perhaps more than any single political entity, in reflecting the attitudes of his constituency, has prevented the wastewater project from moving ahead. As the region’s representative in Sacramento until two years ago, Cook effectively undercut the project’s proponents, referring to the demand that Yucca Valley transition from septic systems to a sewer system as “just another unfunded state mandate.” He dwelled at length upon the cost of the project and what he considered his constituents’ inability to bear that cost.
“We have to look at this from some perspective of a cost analysis,” Cook, while still serving in Sacramento, said. “This is never going to happen. We have to remember what type of community this is. We got to be very, very careful when we start talking $125 million to people who cannot afford it because we do not have the businesses and the state’s not going to give you the money. I’m not afraid to talk to Governor [Jerry] Brown. I work for you and we’re not afraid to get a bloody nose.” Cook bragged he would tell Brown, “In Yucca Valley, we want you to declare Yucca Valley a historical site because we’re going to be a ghost town!”
Just prior to leaving the Assembly, Cook acknowledged that building the sewer system is a desirable goal, but maintained the state is overstepping its authority by requiring that it be built on the local dime.
“When a state bureaucracy imposes a septic tank prohibition, sets a 2016 deadline, and doesn’t offer funding to deliver the project, it is without question an unfunded mandate,” Cook said. “It is imperative that the California Water Resources Control Board provide Yucca Valley residents and businesses access to extended term, reduced interest rate loans along with debt forgiveness. Additionally, every Proposition 84 dollar appropriated to our region needs to be made available to the Hi-Desert Water District to help deliver the lowest cost sewer system to our community. While protecting water quality is a laudable goal, the costs associated with constructing a sewer and wastewater treatment plant could have a potentially devastating impact on Yucca Valley without these resources.”
As a member of Congress, Cook has not achieved the provision of any federal money to assist in the water treatment system’s construction.
As or even more remarkable as Cook’s role in the matter is the influence of the religious community in shaping Yucca Valley’s approach to governance, and by extension, its indolence in addressing the wastewater contamination crisis.
Like Loma Linda, where the Adventist Church’s sway over the political affairs of that city is well recognized, Yucca Valley is dominated politically by politicking from the pulpit. The entities exercising the strongest pull in this regard are Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel, where the Revered Jerel Hagerman is the pastor; Grace Community Church, where Roger Mayes is the pastor; and to a lesser extent St. Mary of the Valley, the Catholic Church in Yucca Valley that counted Paul Cook among its parishioners. Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel boasts a membership approaching 3,000 and Hagerman can deliver somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 votes for a candidate or for or against any measure that appears on the town ballot.
Both Hagerman and Mayes are credited with being the actual co-regents behind the throne in Yucca Valley. Their sermons set not only the spiritual and moral tone of the town, but appear to define its political tenor as well. Both pastors share a born-again zealotry and conservative political ethos that carries itself beyond the two or so hours they have the attention of their parishioners on Sunday, and into everyday life and into the halls of power down at Yucca Valley’s civic center. Indeed, both Hagerman and Mayes were instrumental in launching the political careers of their sons, both of whom served on the Yucca Valley City 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 carte blanche to build aggressively without incorporating urban land use standards.
Chad Mayes, the youthful mayor of Yucca Valley who captured his position on the city council in some measure because of the advantage conferred upon him by his father’s position as a leading religious figure in the community, promoted limited government throughout his tenure in office before he resigned to become chief of staff to San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford in 2010. Chad Mayes was similarly opposed to imposing the intrusion and expense of creating a sewer system on the town’s residents, businesses and landowners. Last year, in November, he was elected to serve in the California Assembly.
In addition, the Reverend Roger Mayes has been directly involved in the water quality issue, having himself served several terms and continuing to serve as a board member of the Hi-Desert Water District Board of Directors, where he has proven himself to be a longtime advocate of limited government.
Complicating the issue is the cronyism that stands side-by-side with the political and religious fervor against big government and state mandates.
A minority of town residents now, and have for some time, recognized that the water contamination issue is a real one and that the state government is purposed to apply some harsh remedial action if progress toward a solution is not made. Some have expressed a willingness to impose on themselves and their fellow residents some order of a regime to effectuate the construction of the waste water treatment system. But at the level of the water board they have been met with resistance because a majority of the water board members have been backed by town business interests who are opposed to any taxing or assessment schedules that would impact upon the profitability of their business operations.
This has led to a cynicism on the part of many residents who are now resistant to the water district’s overtures to form an assessment district out of the belief that the assessment district will be formed to favor the political backers of the board’s members and will finance the construction of the system largely upon the backs of the town’s residents.
There are indications that the Hi-Desert Water District’s board has begun to factionalize. Sarann Graham and Dan Munsey appear to have charted a path at odds with the board majority, consisting of Roger Mayes, Bob Stadum and Sheldon Hough. At the board’s most recent meeting December 17, Mayes, Stadum and Hough overlooked Munsey, who was reelected to the board in November with the largest number of votes, in choosing who would serve as the board’s chair and vice chair. While Graham sought to elevate Munsey, she was outvoted by Stadum, Hough and Mayes, who chose Stadum as board chairman and Hough as vice chair.
Unless dynamic action is taken by the board, either independently of the town or in conjunction with it, the residents of the town are very likely to see themselves uprooted from their homes and community.
The state of California 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.
Many in the town of Yucca Valley evince an abiding, almost pious, faith that the coming tribulation of the state’s cease and desist order will be averted, and through some miraculous suspension of bureaucratic authority and ecological reality, the bitter cup will pass over them.
YUCCA VALLEY—(December 31) This desert town of 20,700 is up against a formidable deadline by which it must complete the first phase of a large scale wastewater treatment system within less than 17 months.