State Okays $142M Loan To Build Yucca Valley Water Treatment System

(March 17) The California Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday, March 17 voted to make a tentative commitment to a $142,349,314 one percent interest loan to the Hi-Desert Water District to help in the financing of the construction of a sewer system in Yucca Valley.
That loan will likely stave off drastic action by the state that would impose severe sanctions on the town and its residents, and which would have potentially rendered Yucca Valley a ghost town by 2022.
The community of Yucca Valley is under a mandate by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board to complete, or have made substantial progress toward completion of, the first phase of the town’s sewer system in less than 14 months.
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. Lacking the financial wherewithal to undertake the construction of a sewer system, local officials resisted taking immediate action. Nor did the city have the will to impose any kind of building or development moratorium that would stabilize the problem. Town and water district officials delayed the imposition of state mandates by forging a memorandum of agreement with the Regional Water Quality Control Board to allow interim permits for new septic systems while planning for a wastewater system proceeded.
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, and the following year 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 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 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.
In 2012, the Yucca Valley Town Council tested the community’s willingness to pay for or otherwise finance the construction of rhe system, sponsoring Measure U, a once cent sales tax initiative, the lion’s share of the proceeds from which town officials said would be devoted toward building the sewer system. The measure failed.
Cost projections have been made, with one covering the price for a contractor building the system and another sizing up the cost of having water district staff carry out the project. It will cost, according to this documentation, 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.
Within the last fortnight, a wastewater treatment assessment schedule has been drawn up, showing variable contributions from different landowners depending on the value of each parcel. A single-family household in the first phase of the sewer system will have to pay roughly $18,283 in assessments over 30 years.
The Hi-Desert Water District Board of Directors last month awarded a $2.8 million contract to Riverside-based Carollo Engineers to manage the construction of Yucca Valley’s wastewater collection system and treatment facility over the next three-and-a-half years. Carollo was chosen to serve as the project manager because it has been involved in planning for the wastewater project for years, having represented the Hi-Desert Water District with companies considered as potential contractors or sub-contractors on the project.
Yucca Valley is deemed by the state to be an economically disadvantaged community based on its household median income of $41,804, which is about 68 percent of the state average. On that basis, the state water board’s financial staff recommended that the low-interest loan be made to the water district, which is serving as the lead agency on the project.
Under the agreement drawn up, the Hi-Desert Water District will repay the state about $5.5 million each year with fees paid by property owners. The water board and the water district gambled by entering into the tentative arrangement for the loan, in that Yucca Valley’s property owners have yet to agree to the formation of an assessment district. The water district is now preparing to send ballots relating to the assessment district to property owners. Each ballot is provide a description of the proposed maximum assessment for each property. Single-family homes in phase one will pay an estimated $100 per month, consisting of a $62 to $64 assessment and a $36 per month wastewater treatment fee. Homes in phases two and three will pay only the assessment charge, but will need to start paying the sewer treatment fee once they are connected to the system.
The commercial property assessment will start at the level charged to residential properties but could increase from that if they are heavy water users.
Yucca Valley is a town dominated by Republicans, with 4,084 or 41 percent of its 9,951 registered voters registered with the GOP as opposed to 2,609 or 26.2 percent registered as Democrats. Few of the town’s residents are affluent. A solid majority are philosophically opposed to the application of government mandates and the use of government taxing authority. The town’s political leadership has reflected this attitude, and for years decried the order to construct a sewage treatment system as an inappropriate intrusion by Sacramento into local affairs. Little in the way of progress toward creating a funding mechanism for defraying the cost of the project had been made until now and no physical progress has been made.
With the May 2016 deadline approaching, however, political philosophy is giving way to situational reality.
If the sewer system is not in place in the designated zones by the stipulated dates, Yucca Valley property owners will receive cease and desist orders with the potential of daily fines for non-compliance. They will be ordered to discontinue the discharge from their septic systems entirely. If they do not, they would be subject to fines levied against them that in less than two months time would exceed the value of most homes in Yucca Valley. Moreover, the restrictions on their use would render them inhabitable.
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.
Water district and town officials, while acknowledging the $18,283 assessments will be a burden on many of the town’s residents which may even result in some of those property owners losing their homes in an eventual tax lien sale, they say the low-interest loan being offered by the State Water Resources Control Board is the community’s best and perhaps only option in dealing with the water quality and state enforcement crisis it faces.
If the town’s voters do not approve the assessment district, the state will withdraw the loan.
A key factor in whether the assessment district will gain approval is the willingness of Roger Mayes, a current Hi-Desert Water District board member and past board president, to actively campaign for the district’s acceptance. An ardent Republican and a longtime advocate of limited government who has been less than fully supportive of undertaking the project in the past, Mayes is also the pastor at Grace Community Church, where he has a Svengali-like hold over the church’s members. If he chooses to use his pulpit to advocate on behalf of the assessment district, Mayes can literally deliver hundreds of votes in support of it.

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