Twentynine Palms Contemplating Returning State’s $50 Million Wastewater Plant Grant

By Mark Gutglueck
Twentynine Palms officials are wrestling with the dilemma of whether to make good on a previous commitment to locate a wastewater treatment facility in the vicinity of Two Mile Road and Utah Trail, west of Sunmore Estates, while using a $50 million grant from the State of California approved last month to defray a major portion of the project’s cost or whether they should return that money and seek to build the plant at a more remote location.
In determining whether it will be prudent to look the state’s gift horse in the mouth, city officials are examining not only the prospect that the undertaking will have a deleterious impact on the immediate vicinity around where it is to be located but what public expense would be entailed in paying to move it to another spot or, alternately, paying to relocate those whose homes or businesses are to be severely impacted by its presence.
At issue is concern among owners of residences and businesses near the proposed plant that it will expose to the open air raw sewage that will render the area, if not inhabitable entirely, then so unpleasant that residency and commercial operations there will prove unviable.
With increases in population and the migration of higher volumes of untreated biowaste effluent and nitrates from the septic systems into the ground, the natural purification process as the liquid moves downward accompanied by moisture from rainwater and other natural water recharge can prove insufficient before that flow reaches the water table. Such issues, referred to as nitrogen loading, are not as acute in Twentynine Palms as in Yucca Valley. Nevertheless, as the population in Twentynine Palms grows, water usage and septic density and intensification will increase, overwhelming the leach fields and the earth below them and above the water table that serves as a natural filtration mechanism, which is also referred to by the term dentrification. Those “salts,” to use a euphemism, which are not filtered out will in time overwhelm and foul the region’s water supply. The increase in the septic load that will accompany more development in the area will increase this flow, such that the only way to prevent the polluting of the water supply is to create a water treatment system – a sewage treatment plant – to purify the water before it is allowed to migrate into the aquifer.
The US Geological Survey has ongoing studies of the nitrogen loading in the area in and around Twentynine Palms. The California Department of Water Resources is likewise encouraging Twentynine Palms to move forward with creating a water treatment facility.
In September 2021, Congressman Jay Obernolte was able to induce his Congressional colleagues to free up money from the National Defense Authorization Act to cover $45 million of the cost for the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in Twentynine Palms, one that was to service, in the main, the Marine Corp Air Ground Combat Center, but which would also offer some treatment capability for a portion of the City of Twentynine Palms and provide clean water to be returned to the aquifer and boost the available groundwater supply.
In February 2022, the Twentynine Palms City Council voted to apply for a state grant to cover $500,000 of the cost toward planning for the city’s comprehensive sewer system, the final total cost of which was estimated to run to $150 million to $200 million in 2022 dollars.
By Summer 2022, the federal government had allotted $670,000 to jump start a wastewater treatment facility and another 1.27 million in federal funding was on the way.
In the February/March 2023 timeframe, then-Twentynine Palms City Manager Frank Luckino, who at one time had been the assistant general manager/chief financial officer of the Hi-Desert Water District in Yucca Valley, had the city push ahead with seeking state funding/state grants for completing Twentynine Palms sewer system. Last month, the state came through with a $50 million grant to complete that work. Conceptually, the city is exploring the potential to tie the Marine base sewer system together with that portion of the city’s system that will be most proximate to the base.
There are issues that complicate and make the Twentynine Palms Municipal Sewer Project highly problematic.
The Twentynine Palms Water District provides service to 18,000 people within an 87-square mile jurisdiction, which includes 27.9-square miles outside the 59.1-square mile Twentynine Palms city limits. One hundred percent of the district’s water supply comes from local groundwater and the district draws its water from 10 wells located mostly along the southern edge of the service area. The district maintains 200 miles of pipeline, 10 water storage reservoirs with a total 17-million-gallon storage capacity and utilizes roughly 8,000 meters to deliver that water to customers. That there is no sewer system in the district at present, with wastewater disposed of through septic tank systems, presents a potential challenge to the quality of water the district can continue to deliver. The district therefore embraces the move toward a water treatment system. Still, this makes certain things difficult.
Water is pumped through eight booster stations strategically located throughout the district to lift water up and over hills for distribution.
In 1998, the district secured $1.7 million in grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help build a treatment plant to remove fluoride, a mineral that occurs naturally in the local groundwater. The plant came on-line in March 2003, enabling the district to tap additional supplies from the Mesquite Springs aquifer. An intermix of treatment plants in one area, however, can create conflicts in terms of chemistry, recharge and operation.
City officials had initially planned on locating the sewage treatment plant on Amboy Road east of Adobe Road, but the water district had concerns about having the treatment plant that close to the fluoride treatment plant. That necessitated a move to where the city is now purposed to place it, in the vicinity of Two Mile Road and Utah Trail. That site determination was a function of multiple factors, some of which were dictated by practical considerations and others imposed by discussion through the city’s wastewater advisory committee.
Residents and business owners near the proposed site have lodged protests, and they are pressuring city officials to move the plant’s proposed location from northwest of Twentynine Palms Highway and Utah Trail, to one of two parcels east of that location, one just west of Utah Trail or east of Utah Trail.
Resident Joseph Carder and other residents, including Rita Lilly, are pressing the city to move the plant to a more remote location, well away from any property that is currently developed or populated.
According to Carder, property within the city he circumscribed as being subject to devaluation as a consequence of the currently planned location of the sewage plant includes the city’s downtown district to the west, the Oasis of Mara and 29 Palms Inn to the south, Campbell House to the east and Twentynine Palms Elementary School to the north. Lilly wanted to know what financial liability the city would have with regard to those residents and businesses negatively impacted by the plant’s presence.
Luckino sought to accommodate questions with regard to moving the plant further east, but doing so would represent a problem relating to system efficiency and added cost. The farther east the plant goes, the greater distance the sewer lines must extend, adding costs to the project. Going much farther than its current planned site will add to the overall and initial cost. Going farther than Utah Trail, to as far east as the existent off-road motorcycle track would burden the project with at least $8 million more in cost and as much as $10 million more. The proposed location north of Highway 62 and west of Utah Trail, according to Luckino, offers the best spot in terms of topography, such that gravity will do much of the work. Locating it elsewhere, he said, would make the undertaking more expensive, as lift stations would be needed to pump the effluent uphill and raising the line to prevent it from being subject to damage from flooding would be required.
Councilman Octavious Scott has expressed interest in seeing if the plant can be located closer to the city’s industrial district.
Wastewater advisory committee members such as Karalee Hargrave and Dawn Benton III, while saying they wanted to prevent local residents from having their property devalued because of their proximity to the project, reckoned that some landowners would have to be put out, since forcing the project to be located farther and farther east would outright kill the project.
Temporizing further might kill the project, as well. In order for the state to come through with the $50 million in funding, the city has to firm up its plan and provide it to Sacramento by the end of January.
If it is to be completed, the project will entail more than 27 miles of sewer collection piping and a wastewater treatment plant with a peak treatment capacity of 2.25 million gallons per day.
The project is to proceed in three phases.
Phase 1 of the proposed wastewater reclamation project as articulated in its most cogent recent form is centrally located within city limits, that being the area surrounding the northern Adobe Road area, in essence bounded by Amboy Road to the north, Bagdad Highway to the east, Baseline Road to the south, and Morongo Road to the west. Phase 1 of the project is supposed to be completed by the end of 2026.
Phase two would be constructed to service the downtown area.
Further complication still exists in Luckino’s departure as city manager to take up a similar post in Desert Hot Springs. His determination to see the project undertaken was a primary factor in the city getting the state grant to finance it. Without him present and with elements of the community trying to block it from being built to prevent the project from having a negative effect on the value of their property, the project might die, and the $50 million in state funding to be used toward that goal will evaporate.
Councilman Scott, in response to the residents concerned about the sewage treatment plant’s implication for their property values, is heavily leaning toward having the city return the money to the state. Mayor McArthur Wright and the three remaining members of the council are less than sanguine about surrendering funding that would be difficult and perhaps impossible to replace. Meanwhile, Larry Bowden, who has been brought in as a caretaker city manager while Luckino’s replacement is found, finds himself intensely engaged with the assignment of determining if it is feasible to move the proposed treatment plant east, away from the property of residents to be most heavily impacted by the project without having the costs of the plant construction and its operation escalate to a level the city cannot afford.
If the city uses the state grant, existing residences will be able to hook up to the sewer system at no cost. If the city forgoes reception of the grant, homeowners will be saddled with a cost of about $12,000 each in 2023 dollars to tie into the system.
City officials are under the gun, either before the end of 2023 or certainly within the first few weeks of 2024, to decide on what they are to do.

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