Twentynine Palms City Manager Frank Luckino recently suggested to city leaders that some level of a cooperative effort involving the city and the Marine Base be effectuated to construct a municipal sewer system.
The Marine Corps has a wastewater treatment plant on the base, but Luckino noted, “It is 50 years old and needs to be replaced. We are talking to them about collaborating and getting one plant capable of taking their capacity and the city’s capacity.”
Luckino said the undertaking would likely take place under the auspices of the city. The Twentynine Palms Water District, an agency that is independent of the city, he said, “doesn’t have the authority” to undertake such a project. In Yucca Valley, the nearest municipality to Twentynine Palms, that area’s water agency, the Hi-Desert Water District, did take on the leadership role in seeing that a water treatment system is being put in place. Luckino, who was once the chief financial officer and assistant general manager of the Hi-Desert Water District, said, “The Hi-Desert Water District went to LAFCO [the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission] to get the authority. The Twentynine Palms Water District never got that authority. So, we’re taking the role of the lead agency here.”
Luckino said the replacement plant will likely be built on the site of the existing plant, which is referred to by the Marines stationed on the base as “Lake Bandini.” He said the likelihood is that the new plant would be operated by municipal staff. “The Marine Corps has a very important mission, which is protecting the country,” said Luckino. “What we would envision for sufficiency purposes would be that the city do what we do best, which is to provide municipal services. So, under theory, it would be city workers running the plant, which would be located on the base. The model for this exists with other military bases, like China Lake. Elements of this, of course, need to be worked out.”
While the city will take the lead, at least at present, Luckino said, the water district will eventually be brought in. “As we move forward, it makes sense at some point to have the water district involved,” he said, noting the district is involved in the laying of water pipe on a continuous basis.
The impetus for the project is the long term protection of water quality in the area, said Luckino, but he insisted there is no pending threat to the water supply. That was not the case in Yucca Valley, where that community was under a mandate from the State Water Board to construct a sewer system.
“There is no current crisis,” said Luckino. “The water quality in Twentynine Palms is good. There is no enforcement action pending against the city because of threats to our water quality. However, the state maintains as a general rule that septic systems are not acceptable for treating water.” Luckino explained that “The biggest issue is [population] density. Density is what triggers issues with the groundwater. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] says septic systems work ideally on a five-acre lot. That is the perfect scenario. With more houses and businesses and the more of a load you place on the water table, the potential for damage increases.”
In this way, he said, the more heavily populated area of 59-square mile Twentynine Palms “is a ticking time bomb. The reliance on septic systems could become an issue in the future in maintaining water quality. That is why the state encourages us to make progress. As long as they are satisfied we are making some form of progress, they stay off the regulatory path.”
That regulatory path could be onerous. In the case of Yucca Valley, the state mandated certain dates by which phases of the project had to be completed. The threatened penalty for not meeting those deadlines was rather draconian and angled to obtain compliance. Where the mandated system was not in place, the state said it would either methodically move to seal off every septic system in use within each of the specified areas, essentially rendering the affected homes inhabitable, or would use a somewhat more capricious methodology as was employed against Los Osos, a California 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.
Luckino said “We are going forward with a United States Geological Survey study to understand how our ground water is being affected by the septic discharge.”
With regard to the price, Luckino expressed confidence the city can greatly minimize the sewer plant construction cost through its cooperation with the Marine Corps and the federal governmental assistance represented by the Defense Department defraying the cost of the sewer plant rebuild.
Luckino was able to make cost estimates based upon extrapolations from known figures. In terms of the plant’s planned capacity, he said the base currently processes 1.2 million gallons of sewage per day. Likewise, he said, in Yucca Valley, it is estimated the plant there will treat roughly 1.2 million gallons per day once it is up and running. According to the 2010 Census, Twentynine Palms had a population of 25,048. Yucca Valley had a population of 20,700 at that time. Thus, Luckino said, the planned capacity for the plant will be “in the two to three million gallon per day range.” He said “The federal government’s estimate for the replacement of the current plant is $22 million. The add-on cost for greater capacity from the city would be incremental.”
There will be economies of scale in the construction, Luckino said. “There is a lot of basic infrastructure that would not have to be doubled or reproduced,” he said. “The full portion of the local contribution is one thing we will have to determine.”
Luckino noted that the area’s congressman is Paul Cook, formerly a colonel at the base and later Yucca Valley mayor and a state assemblyman. He said “Congressman Cook is very engaged,” and he suggested Cook would be helpful in achieving federal subsidies to assist in paying for the sewer plant.
The more expensive element of the project, which he referred to as the ”second phase,” Luckino said, will be the collection system.
Luckino said that the collection system will be concentrated in the most heavily populated area of Twentynine Palms. “The plan is to connect through time regionally those who are closest to the center of town and gradually moving outward.”
He said that a 2003 study determined that the city will need to lay roughly 415,000 linear feet of pipe to complete the municipal portion of the collection system. He said that there has been only minimal growth in Twentynine Palms, so the 415,000 linear feet requirement very likely holds. The estimated cost of the 415,000 feet of pipe in 2003, Luckino said, was $53 million. But costs have risen, he said. A closely comparable figure he referenced is the 430,000 feet of sewer line to be put into Yucca Valley. That cost in 2017 dollars is $92 million.
Luckino said getting ahead of this inflation curve is one of the reasons for moving ahead with the project. Still, he said, first things should come first. “The first phase we are talking about is getting the capacity at the plant,” he said. “Getting the pipe in the city is the second phase and we are not at that phase yet. The bigger challenge is the collection system, without a doubt.”
Asked how he envisioned the project being paid for, Luckino said, “assessments, sales tax, water rate increase, fees, all of the above. Yucca Valley has looked at how to make it affordable. We have not gotten to that level yet.”
After years of resisting sales tax increases in Yucca Valley, the voters there last November approved measures Y and Z, each of which raised sales tax by a half-percent each starting April 1 and lasting for ten years. Measure Z is devoted entirely to paying for the cost of the sewer system. Measure Y is to cover a fuller range of government services, and it is anticipated some of its proceeds will pay for the water treatment system as well.
A portion of Twentynine Palms could be hooked up to the sewer system in another five years, Luckino said. “The base is hoping to get this through what the military calls micon dollars by 2020,” he said. “They would then have construction complete in 2021. We are working through these issues hand-in-hand with the Marine Corps and Congressman Cook. For the military, this is mission critical because without a wastewater treatment facility, the base could be shut down. Getting the system is important for the city for our community’s growth and economic development.” – Mark Gutglueck