Groundbreaking For Wastewater Treatment Plant Heralds New Age In Yucca Valley

YUCCA VALLEY — The Town of Yucca Valley was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century last week, less than a decade after its political leadership had defiantly dared the State of California to transform the community into a ghost town over water table pollution issues and the town’s ingrained right wing and religious aversion to government regulation.
The town’s intransigence in refusing to come to terms with the water contamination issue set it on a collision course with state regulators that has now been narrowly avoided but will likely result in higher financing costs to be borne by the community’s residents than if the government leadership, which is spread across a myriad of agencies of which Town Hall is just one, had early on dealt with the issue resolutely and expeditiously.
In the end, both the State of California and the local political establishment backed down from a confrontation that would have had dire consequences. On October 20, the Hi-Desert Water District broke ground for Yucca Valley’s long-delayed wastewater treatment plant.
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 ma-jor 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.
Yucca Valley would prove to be a town of paradox. Those Essig had hoped to attract and for a time did attract were Hollywood types – actors, directors, camera operators, musicians, orchestrators, set designers and the like – individuals with an artistic bent, bohemians, progressives and liberals. But ultimately, the town would bring in a far different crowd – others who wanted to get away from urbanization and what it represented. But the lion’s share of those seeking to get away from the citified areas of Southern California were those fleeing the expense of life in the region, the high cost of virtually everything, of escalating property values. Many who came were retirees living on fixed incomes. Others were families where the breadwinner or breadwinners brought in only a marginal income. Simply put, Yucca Valley was affordable. It is a peculiarity of Yucca Valley that many of those who came to live there, while subsisting at or very near poverty level, eschewed Democratic politics and hewed closer to the Republican Party line. At present the town and its 20,700 citizens are the second most impoverished among San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities, as measured by median income per capita or per household. Nevertheless, the Republican Party dominates Yucca Valley politically. Among the town of Yucca Valley’s 10,296 registered voters as of this week, 4,336 or 42.1 percent were Republicans and 2,810 or 27.3 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 11,836 voters, of whom 4,937 or 41.7 percent are registered Republicans and 3,241 or 27.4 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.
In addition, Yucca Valley’s religious community has had tremendous, perhaps even overriding, influence in shaping Yucca Valley’s approach to governance, and by extension, its indolence in addressing the wastewater contamination crisis.
Though there are a number of churches in the community, two churches and their pastors have had particular sway over the political affairs of Yucca Valley. The entities exercising the strongest pull in this regard are Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel, where the Reverend Jerel Hagerman is the pastor, and Grace Community Church, where Roger Mayes is the pastor. 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 parish-ioners 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 aggres-sively 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. In 2014, young Mayes 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.
A mandate calling for the construction of a sewer system in Yucca Valley was levied against the town in 2011, after years of neglect on the part of the town’s officials.
Following the town’s incorporation in November 1991, 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 was an imperative to few, if any, locals.
Paradoxically, however, those officials were in no hurry, particularly, to limit the ability of the development community to ply its trade. The town council proved consistently 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 was essentially 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 ac-coutrement 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 sys-tem 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. Residents 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 mat-ter 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. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, that translates into nearly 287 million gallons of untreated wastewater from septic tanks washing into the water table beneath Yucca Valley every 12 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. 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 un-dertake 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 was to be completed or significantly on its way to completion by May 19, 2016 or enforcement action was to 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.
Though the imposition of that deadline more than five years ago was intended as a wake-up call to local officials to undertake an effort to avert the growing water quality crisis, woefully little progress toward the goal of planning and funding the system was made. Instead, Yucca Valley governmental officials postured.
Paul Cook, a colonel in the Marine Corps who was once stationed at the 29 Palms Marine Corps Base, initiated his political career upon retirement from the military, running for the town council in Yucca Valley and acceding to the position of mayor. From there he moved on to the California Assembly in 2006. And in 2012, he ran, successfully, for Congress in California’s 8th Congressional District.
In the face of the state’s mandate, Cook, a rock-ribbed Republican, pushed back, overlooking the implication the groundwater pollution imposed on the town. At that point, abstract ideological principle had ran head on into practical reality.
As the region’s representative in Sacramento earlier this decade, 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 re-member 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 was a desirable goal, but maintained the state was 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 con-structing a sewer and wastewater treatment plant could have a potentially devastating impact on Yucca Valley without these resources.”
While Cook struck out in attempting to get help from Sacramento to undertake the sewer system project when he was in the California Legislature, as a member of Congress, through some effort, he was able to obtain a $4.5 million federal grant for the project.
Chad Mayes, who had been Cook’s political protegé on the town council and would later take up a position in the California Assembly, was similarly resistant to the concept of a mandated water treatment system in Yucca Valley. His father, the Reverend Roger Mayes, whose religious tenets equate Godliness with goodliness and virtue with conservatism and conservatism with Republicanism, was philosophically averse to big government imposing its “liberal” will on the individual or smaller government. The edict on high from Sacramento, was, in this view, a manifestation of big government in the form of an “unfunded state mandate.” Over the years, Roger Mayes has been both a board member and board chairman of the Hi-Desert Water District. Ultimately, the Hi-Desert Water District would become the lead agency on the construction of Yucca Valley’s wastewater treatment system. It took years for the political resolve to form to move ahead, and move ahead decisively, with the project. A major issue with the project was funding.
In 2012, faced with the prospect of the State Water Resources Board coming into town and imposing fines – of as much as $5,000 per day – on all septic system owners, the town’s officials reluctantly put Measure U on that year’s 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. Though Roger Mayes and his counterpart, Jerel Hagerman, most likely had it within their power to deliver enough votes to make Measure U pass, Measure U failed at the polls.
Community officials continued to dither, but with the May 2016 deadline approaching and the prospect of the town being forced by state action into oblivion, the Hi-Desert Water District in February 2015 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 and in March 2015 acted to secure from the he California Water Re-sources Control Board a $142,349,314 one percent interest loan to help in the financing of the construction of the sewer system in Yucca Valley.
Roughly $31 million will be used to construct the central treatment facility into which wastewater pumped in from pipes from throughout the town will be subjected to ultraviolet light and then forced through a series of membranes and filters. The water thus treated will then be put into aerating and settling ponds, and the water will be filtered one last time through the ground on its way down to recharge the aquifer. Roughly $104 million will be used to construct the pipe system through-out the town.
In obtaining the loan from the California Water Resources Control Board, the Hi-Desert Water District agreed to repay the state about $5.5 million each year with the revenue from assessments to be imposed on Yucca Valley 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 had not at that point agreed to the formation of an assessment district. The water district in the Spring of 2015 prepared mail ballots that were then sent to the town’s property owners. In this way, the district met the legal requirement that the tax not be imposed without the consent of those to be taxed. Under California law, the district was free to count any ballots not returned as having been cast in favor of the assessment district’s formation. When, by the deadline, the district received back fewer than fifty percent of the ballots designated with votes against the formation of the assessment district, the district was free to proceed.
While technically, the district had not completed the first phase of the project by the May 2016 deadline imposed by the state in 2011, the town was given a pass. The district’s plan is to proceed with the project in three phases. Single-family homes in phase one, which extends to the central core of the town, will pay an esti-mated $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 is similar to that leveled upon residential properties but is to be adjusted upwards on heavier users of the system.
Groundbreaking for the facility, located on land south of Twentynine Palms Highway and west of La Contenta Road, was held last week.
On hand at the groundbreaking was California State Senator Jean Fuller. Fuller, a Republican who has tapped into the same anti-big government sentiment to stay in office that was used by Cook and Chad Mayes in their successful campaigns for state and federal office. Chad Mayes and Cook were also present at the ground-breaking, perhaps the most significant event relating to the community where their political careers began.
Without saying so in so many words, Fuller said the people of Yucca Valley should congratualte themselves for setting aside their anti-government and anti-tax philosophies to embrace the project.
“Thank you for doing this,” she said. “You are leading the path for the future and you are truly saving your children.” Fuller called the project Yucca Valley’s “legacy for the future.”
All of the current members of the Hi Desert Water District’s board, including Roger Mayes, Dan Munsey, Sheldon Hough, Sarann Graham and Bob Stadum, were lauded for their “vision, community-mindedness and teamwork.”
If things go according to schedule, the treatment facility will be finished within the next 21 months. The first phase of the system will tie into it shortly thereafter.

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