By Mark Gutglueck
In response to intensifying objections, the Twentynine Palms City Council next week will reconsider its plan to construct a sewer treatment plant at its prior proposed site northwest of the intersection of Twentynine Palms Highway and Utah Trail.
In October, the city was provided with a $50 million grant from the State of California intended to defray a major portion of the project’s cost. One of the strings attached to that money is that the city must formulate and provide back to state officials its plan for the plant by the end of January. Thereafter, it must meet certain other specified milestones with regard to the undertaking, asnd must complete the wastewater treatment plant portion of the system by the end of December 2026.
At present, other than a sewer system at the Marine Corps Base, Twentynine Palms utilizes septic systems.
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.
In September 2021, Congressman Jay Obernolte obtained $45 million in federa money to pay 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.
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. In doing so, Luckino and city staff tentatively indentified the sewer plant site in the vicinity of Two Mile Road and Utah Trail, west of Sunmore Estates.
Since then, residents and businesses proximate to that area have objected to that proposed placement, and have sought a change in plan that would place it further east, well away from any currently existing development, either residential or commercial. According to some residents, constructing the plant in its currently-planned for location would potentially render nearby businesses unviable and subject 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 to devaluation.
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. The city is under the gun to firm up its plans and present them to Sacramento to ensure the delivery of the $50 million. Caught between the state and local residents and businesses who do not want the plant at Two Mile Road and Utah Trail, city officials are scrambling to find a new site.
Dispensing with the plan to relocate it from the site near Two Mile Road and Utah Trail introduces a degree of complication.
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.
Before Luckino left Twentynine Palms to become city manager in Desert Hot Springs, he cataloged through alternate sites. Virtually every viable alternative, he told the city council and public in October, in particular moving the plant further east, 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 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.
In constructing the project, the city plans to build the collection system in five phases, with the first phase involving laying down 10 miles of pipeline and no lift stations at a cost of $31 million in current dollars; a second phase in which 20 miles of pipeline would be laid into the ground with no lift stations at a cost of $58 million current dollars; the third phase of 26 miles of pipeline and no lift stations at a cost of $83 million in current dollars;, the fourth phase entailing 17 miles of pipeline with no lift stations at a cost of $51 million current dollars and the fifth and final phase of 40 miles of pipeline with seven lift stations at a cost of $133 million in current dollars. The construction of the collection system would consist of laying in 113 miles of pipeline and seven lift stations at a total cost of $356 million in current dollars.
The sewer plant is to be built to easily accommodate the processing of 900,0000 gallons of effluent per day.
Because of the sentiment against establishing the sewer plant at the Two Mile Road and Utah Trail location, many residents and some city officials have seriously suggested looking the State of California’s gift horse in the mouth and refusing to accept the money, putting off for another generation constructing the sewer system.
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.
On December 12, the city council will consider alternate sites for the proposed wastewater treatment plant and the attendant costs, or estimated attendent costs, for each. There are three known alternative sites, those being proximate to Desert Knoll Avenue, another some 1,200 feet east of Desert Knoll Avenue and another a whopping 1.5 miles east of Desert Knoll Avenue.
According to a city staff report, city officials had hoped and actually expected the state to come through with more than the $50 million grant. Exactly how the project in its entirety will be funded remains up in the air.
On December 12, the city will also consider what the ongoing costs of operating the system will be.
By Mark Gutglueck