Just short of three-and-a-half years after the state deadline for the Yucca Valley community to do so, the initial phase of the town’s sewer system began operation.
With the inauguration of the system on November 4, Yucca Valley becomes the 23rd of the county’s 24 towns and cities with a municipal/public agency water treatment system. Twentynine Palms remains the last of San Bernardino County’s municipalities dependent on septic systems, although the Marine Corps base there has a water treatment plant devoted to the primary structures for the military-related facilities there.
Had the matter in Yucca Valley been left to local officials, the town and the entirety of Morongo Valley would not have made the transition to the sanitation system. When the town incorporated in 1991, it did so as a limited service municipality, and was dependent upon the county for a significant portion of its public function. The town contracted with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement and with the San Bernardino County Fire Department, which operates out of Station 41 located in the heart of town and Station 42 in the Yucca Mesa area, for fire protection and emergency medical service. Another fire station, operated by the California Division of Forestry, is also present in the town. All 40.02 square miles within the town limits were devoid of any sort of water treatment facilities, and all properties utilized septic systems.
Yucca Valley underwent its first major expansion in the 1950s when Norman J. Essig improved the roads around the region’s major arterial, Highway 62, while venturing substantial capital toward that end. The community’s growth, such as it was throughout the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and after its incorporation, has in large measure involved residents without substantial financial means, families of military personnel and retirees, those subsisting at or very near poverty level and intent on getting away from urbanization and what it represented, and people fleeing the expense of life and escalating property values elsewhere. An estimated 40 percent of those residing in Yucca Valley live on fixed incomes. Yucca Valley ranks as the second most impoverished among San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities, as measured by median income per capita or per household.
Moreover, the town, which now stands at just under 22,000 population, has served as a magnet for the devout and politically conservative such that it boasts two heavily attended major Protestant Christian congregations in town, Grace Community Church, where Roger Mayes is the pastor, and Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel, where the Reverend Jerel Hagerman is the pastor, along with St Mary of the Valley Catholic Church.
Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel boasts a membership approaching 3,000 and Reverend 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, but into everyday life and into the halls of power down at Yucca Valley’s civic center, as well. Indeed, both Hagerman and Mayes were instrumental in launching the political careers of their sons, both of whom served on the Yucca Valley Town Council.
Isaac Hagerman, Jerel’s son, was for a short time 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 then-youthful mayor of Yucca Valley who captured his position on the town 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 a creature of government himself as chief of staff to San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford in 2010.
The town was and remains as one of the most heavily Republican areas in the State of California. At the time of the town’s incorporation, just under half of its voters were registered Republicans, which was more than double the 22 percent of the town’s residents who were registered Democrats. In 2009, when after more than three decades for the first time the number of registered Democrats eclipsed the number of registered Republicans in San Bernardino County, Yucca Valley remained a bastion of Republicanism, with 45 percent of its voters registered as Republicans, dwarfing the 25 percent who were registered as Democrats. In 2016, the town remained solidly Republican, with 4,336 or 42.1 percent affiliated with the GOP and 2,810 voters or 27.3 percent registered as Democrats. As of this week, 4,535 of the town’s 11,765 voters or 38.5 percent are Republicans, and 3,152 or 26.8 percent are Democrats.
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 for the townsfolk, the more than $5 million a water treatment facility and skeleton sewer system would cost was well beyond their fiscal means at that time.
With the growth of the area, the municipal incorporation movement culminated in the November 1991 formation of the town. 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 not an imperative. Town officials paradoxically accepted with open arms most developers who expressed an interest in Yucca Valley. Over the first 25 years of the town’s history as an incorporated entity, builders were given 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 accoutrement of homes and businesses built within the 40 square mile town 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 and other pollutants including pharmaceuticals and salts accumulating in the water table that presaged health threats if the matter was not addressed. Simultaneously, the Hi-Desert Water District, which serves the Yucca Valley community, experienced nitrate traces in district wells.
With the town’s continued reliance on septic systems, the United States Geological Survey calculated that nearly 287 million gallons of untreated wastewater from septic tanks were 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 was considered one of the five most seriously threatened significantly-sized water supplies in the state.
This triggered resistance from local politicians and community leaders. Paul Cook, a former Marine Corps colonel stationed at the 29 Palms Marine Corps Base who retired in Yucca Valley, was elected mayor there and then moved on to serve in the Assembly representing the then-65th District, along with Chad Mayes, the son of Grace Community Church Pastor Roger Mayes who was a Cook protégé and succeeded him as mayor, deplored the state’s effort to impose on the town an unfunded mandate.
As the region’s representative in Sacramento, Cook effectively attacked those advocating for the cessation of the Morongo Valley’s reliance on septic systems, referring to the demand that Yucca Valley transition to a sewer system as “just another unfunded state mandate.” He dwelt 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 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.”
Cook bragged he would stand up to then-Governor Jerry Brown and tell him, “In Yucca Valley, we want you to declare Yucca Valley a historical site because we’re going to be a ghost town!”
With both Cook and Mayes characterizing the call for the town to modernize its infrastructure as the intrusion of big government into the province of local control and autonomy, the community essentially fended off, or ignored, the looming collective responsibility facing the town.
In addition, the Reverend Roger Mayes was directly involved in the water quality issue, having served multiple terms, and to the present time continuing to serve, as a member of the Hi-Desert Water District Board of Directors.
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.
Convinced after years of neglect on the part of the town’s politicians that the local leadership would not address the water contamination problem, state officials in 2011 issued a mandate that a sewer system be constructed in Yucca Valley. The town was 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 wastewater 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 was to cover the downtown area of Yucca Valley, the area most proximate to the heart of the groundwater basin. Similarly, phase 2 was to be completed or nearly completed by May 19, 2019 and phase 3 was to be completed by May 19, 2022. The last two phases lie further out where future concentrated development is most likely to occur.
If the mandates were not met, the state vowed to use draconian measures to obtain compliance, by either methodically moving to seal off every septic system in use within each of the specified areas, essentially rendering the affected homes uninhabitable, or to otherwise utilize a tactic similar to what had been employed against Los Osos, another 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.
The state’s threat of action carried with it the very real possibility that Yucca Valley would be rendered into the ghost town Cook had referenced.
In 2012, Cook was elected Congress.
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. Somewhat belatedly, he initiated an effort to obtain an infusion of state money to assist with the construction of the project but achieved no traction on that before he left Sacramento for Washington, D.C.
Local officials were yet resistant to taking immediate action, as they lacked the financial wherewithal to effectuate the construction of a sewer system. Nor did the town have the will to impose any kind of building or development moratorium that would stabilize the problem.
In 2012, town officials nevertheless made a gesture toward complying with the mandate by putting 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.
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. The consequences of what the town was doing could not be suspended indefinitely.
For another two years, local officials dithered, with little in the way of tangible progress being made other than determining that a water treatment plant and a collection system entailing over 400,000 linear feet of pipe would at a minimum be needed to satisfy the state demand, together with the town and water district officials having undertaken an effort to inform local residents of the problem and having completed cost comparisons on paper. The primary cost projection identified 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.
One major challenge facing the town was the bifurcation of responsibility, i.e., governmental authority, particularly as applies to the delivery of water to the populace and the corresponding requirement of maintaining water quality. Yucca Valley, far from being a full service municipality, did not have its own municipal water division, with that function carried out by the Hi-Desert Water District.
In 2014, Chad Mayes was elected to the California Assembly. Up to that point, Chad Mayes had a relatively limited window on the world. His experience consisted primarily of his sheltered childhood; his college education at Liberty University, a private, conservative evangelical Christian institution in Lynchburg, Virginia where he had majored in government; his time on the Yucca Valley Town Council; and his work for Rutherford. He had been, like Cook, resistant to the concept of a mandated water treatment system in Yucca Valley. And like his father, the Reverend Roger Mayes, his religious tenets equated Godliness with goodliness and virtue with conservatism and conservatism with Republicanism. He 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.”
Once he had oriented himself in Sacramento, a thoroughly Democratic place, however, and began rubbing elbows with others outside the echo chamber to which he was accustomed, he came to realize that for the vast majority of California and its population, indoor plumbing rather than outhouses and modern sewer systems instead of septic tanks were the norm. On his trips back to Yucca Valley, he had an opportunity to speak to his father, convincing him that, all things considered, it might not be in the long term interest of the residents of Yucca Valley to continue to micturate and defecate in their water supply.
Young Mayes’ intercession with his father had a salutary effect. Ultimately, the Hi-Desert Water District would become the lead agency on the construction of Yucca Valley’s wastewater treatment system. It had taken years for the political resolve to form to move ahead, and move ahead decisively, with the project. With the May 2016 deadline approaching and with it the prospect of the town being forced 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. In March 2015 it acted to secure from the California Water Resources 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 of that was earmarked to construct the central treatment facility into which wastewater pumped in from pipes from throughout the town is subjected to ultraviolet light and then forced through a series of membranes and filters. The water thus treated is then put into aerating and settling ponds, and the water 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 to proceed with the project in three phases satisfied that state that the community was making a good faith effort toward the mandated goals. Single-family homes in phase one, which extends to the central core of the town, are now paying $100 per month, consisting of a $62 to $64 assessment and a $36 per month wastewater treatment fee. Homes in phases two and three are paying 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 levied upon residential properties but is 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 in October 2016. Chad Mayes and Cook were present at the ground-breaking, perhaps the most significant public event in memory relating to the community where their political careers began. Also on hand at the groundbreaking was then-California State Senator Jean Fuller. Fuller is a Republican who had achieved election by tapping into the same anti-big government sentiment that was used by Cook and Chad Mayes in their successful campaigns for state and federal office. Nevertheless, Fuller had not staked quite as much publicly in assailing the sewer system as had Cook.
Without saying so in so many words, Fuller told the people of Yucca Valley they should congratulate 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.”
The members of the Hi Desert Water District’s board, including Roger Mayes, were lauded for their “vision, community-mindedness and teamwork.”
This week, on Monday, at the home of Jason Mahaffey on Indio Avenue at the eastern end of town, the inaugural first flush into the system was made. Mahaffey was given the opportunity to christen the system in part as a consequence of his ownership of Acton Pumping, which is active in constructing the plumbing and completing the hook-ups for the first set of residences tying into the system.
With that first use, the town’s sewer system, meaning the core, central component consisting of the wastewater treatment plant and the piping extending into what is now a limited set of neighborhoods, went online.
Estimates are that at present up to a dozen homes per day can be added to the system. That number will escalate. The Hi-Desert Water District has qualified 25 licensed contractors to install connections to the system and seal off old septic tanks. Homeowners who utilize one of those contractors certified by the Hi-Desert Water District to make the septic to sewer transition are eligible for a state-sponsored 30-year 1.8 percent interest loan available to finance the connection, as long as they obtain at least two bids on the project. Connection estimates generally run between $2,500 to $4,000, depending largely on the distance of the domicile to the street. Most of the contractors are prepared to apply with the town for a septic system abandonment permit. In some cases the septic tanks are removed from the ground entirely. In other cases, the contractor will leave them in place but pump them out, puncture the bottom and remove the top or cap. A trench is dug across the homeowner’s property to lay in pipe and make the sewer line hook-up. The installations have to be scheduled ahead of time so a town code enforcement officer is on hand to inspect and sign off on the integrity of the pipe and connection before the trench containing the pipe is filled.
Just short of three-and-a-half years after the state deadline for the Yucca Valley community to do so, the initial phase of the town’s sewer system began operation.