California’s Prop 1 Gives East Valley Families Hope for Clean Water

California’s Prop 1 Gives East Valley Families Hope for Clean Water

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Above: (R to L) Cirilo Ortega Dominguez, 33, Daniel Jimenez Ortega, 18, and Pedro Ortega Dominguez, 28, work in fields near their homes in Thermal, Calif. All three men, along with their families, live in the Valenzuela Mobile Home Park. Before Pueblo Unido CDC installed filtration systems in their mobile homes, the families would to travel to a nearby store to buy water for cooking and bathing because their tap water was contaminated with arsenic.

THERMAL, Calif. -- Standing in front of a trailer that serves as the local community center for residents of St. Anthony’s mobile home park, Sergio Carranza fielded questions from a crowd of forty mobile home owners who call this small agricultural community in the eastern Coachella Valley home.

Carranza, executive director of Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit based in La Quinta that advocates on behalf of rural east valley residents, talked to the mobile home owners about Proposition 1, a state bond measure that would generate billions in revenue for water infrastructure projects and improvements.

“It is something very important, something that is going to affect the future of our community,” Carranza said to the group in Spanish.

It wasn’t difficult for Carranza to explain why. For years, lack of access to clean and reliable drinking water -- high levels of arsenic have been measured in the groundwater here -- has been a critical issue for families living in the east valley’s mobile home parks, including those located in the towns of Thermal, Oasis and Mecca, known collectively as Polanco Parks.

If California voters pass Proposition 1, also known as the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, $7.5 billion in general obligation bonds would be made available for infrastructure projects that would protect existing water supplies and improve drought preparedness, water storage, water recycling, groundwater sustainability and flood management.

Perhaps more importantly for Polanco Park residents, Prop. 1 would also set aside $520 million to improve water quality for “beneficial use” -- including decontamination and water pollution prevention -- in “disadvantaged communities” such as theirs.

Martha Mora, who was at the meeting, is the owner of La Cienega Mobile Home Park and an eastern Coachella Valley resident for 20 years. She said she is in favor of the water bond.

“We need that help to bring water over here to the eastern Coachella Valley,” Mora said in Spanish. “We are always fighting to get help, because on this end [of the Coachella Valley] we are always abandoned. We are abandoned without any help.”

If the measure passes, the eastern Coachella Valley would be eligible to compete for a portion of the $520 million, to be used on local water projects.

Carranza estimates that 35,000 people in the eastern Coachella Valley alone, including those living in the mobile home parks in Thermal, Oasis and Mecca, would directly benefit from the proposed water bond.

Carranza said the water bond legislation provides incentives for alternative solutions to bringing clean drinking water to rural areas, something Pueblo Unido has been pioneering in the east valley. St. Anthony’s mobile home park, for example, is one of the more developed mobile home parks in the eastern Coachella Valley. Pueblo Unido was able to install a centralized water filtration system there, and each mobile home has been equipped with an individual filter under the sink, to safeguard against arsenic-tainted tap water.

But these types of filters, said Carranza, are only short-term solutions to decrease the risk of poisoning from contaminated water, and not all mobile home parks in the eastern Coachella Valley are as fortunate. Some parks have only one central filtration system, so residents must fill up large jugs at the central filter in order to get water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Funds from Prop. 1 would allow for the building of more permanent infrastructure and more effective, longer lasting filtration solutions.

If the proposition passes, funds from the water bond would also help meet the state’s obligation toward water settlements, including restoration of the Salton Sea.

“The state, up until now, hasn’t had any money to fulfill that obligation,” Robert Hargraves, general council to the Salton Sea Authority, said. “We don’t know how much could come to the Salton Sea, but we’ll have the opportunity, once the bond is approved, to make an application for funding from that amount.”

Hargraves said a committee of elected officials representing the region communicated with legislators in Sacramento to offer input on the draft of the 2014 water bond. The committee was made up of representatives from Riverside and Imperial county agencies, including the Coachella Valley Water District, Assemblymember Manuel Perez’s office, and Senator Ben Hueso’s office.

Though the water bond has been removed from the ballot twice, once in 2010 and once again in 2012, it is on the November 4 ballot as a legislatively-referred bond act because Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature voted to put the measure before California voters.

The bond was almost unanimously placed on the November ballot — only two out of 77 representatives voted not to pass the measure in August, 2014.

However, opponents of the water bond say the measure promotes a few important causes, like aiding disadvantaged communities, to distract from what they say is a fiscally irresponsible plan.

Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia said opponents of the water bond are concerned about borrowing more money from the state. But Garcia said not passing the measure would threaten the health of Coachella Valley residents.

“[I’ve heard stories] of people getting ill, people having skin issues because of the content of the water,“ Garcia said. “We’ve had those discussions directly with people in our office.... Doing nothing will have a major impact on the health and well being of people.”

According to recent polls, Proposition 1 has a good chance of passing. In a PPIC statewide survey published in September 2014, 58 percent of voters said they would vote “yes” on the water bond. And in the Inland Empire, 62 percent of voters said they would vote “yes” on the measure.

In the eastern Coachella Valley, the water bond has the support of Polanco Park owners like Jesus and Berta Campos, owners of the Campos Mobile Home Park and eastern Coachella Valley residents for 43 years.

“Of course we want everyone to go out and vote, because we need a lot of help to get our water,” Berta Campos said in Spanish. “We are in favor of the measure because we need a lot of help with infrastructure in the Polanco Parks.”

Carranza, who has been following the water bond issue for seven years, said the 2014 water bond is the first time he’s seen such an emphasis placed on funds for new filtration technology for underserved communities.

He said if voters pass the ballot measure on November 4, it would be a step in the right direction towards improving the quality of life in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The legislation is already approved by both the assembly, the senate and also approved by the governor to go onto the ballot. But there is always room for negotiation. And we will continue working until we believe that there is fair equity and opportunity for families in rural communities.”