THE WHO, WHAT, HOW AND WHY OF SEWER IN TWENTYNINE PALMS - PART I
Everything you always wanted to know about sewer in 29 but were afraid to ask
Maybe you’ve heard it rumored that sewer’s coming to Twentynine, or heard someone say it’s inevitable. Maybe you have friends in Yucca Valley who had to scrape together enough for a mandatory sewer connection fee and wonder if Twentynine will some day see the same.
Here’s the lowdown on sewer in Twentynine Palms.
Who are the players?
When it comes to a sewer system in Twentynine Palms the players are as follows.
Average Current Twentynine Palms Residents. At this point it’s unclear how average residents would benefit from sewer versus their current septic tanks. Equally unclear is the actual level of support the idea of sewer enjoys among residents — especially if they eventually learn that it’s going to cost them something. The City paid a consulting company to poll residents about sewer last year, but the questions were so slanted that it’s hard to draw any conclusions from the results.
Twentynine Palms City Council. Based on their comments and voting records, all five members support rapid construction of a sewer system.
City Manager Frank Luckino. Strongly supports rapid construction of a sewer system and has been instrumental in gaining state and federal funding for it.
TPWD (Twentynine Palms Water District). TPWD can advise on a sewer system, but as a Special District dedicated to providing water, TPWD cannot itself build or run a sewer system. In collaboration with the City and to serve its customers, TPWD supports sewer construction if it’s driven by a proven need to mitigate timely risks to water quality. In the absence of any current documented risk to water quality, TPWD’s support for immediate sewer system construction is far less clear. TPWD would likely prefer to wait for the USGS (United States Geological Survey) report on these risks, which has a projected completion date in 2027. In the meantime, this puts the beleaguered but popular TPWD potentially at odds with the various go-go sewer supporters listed here.
Big Twentynine Palms Property Owners. It’s safe to assume sewer would significantly increase the monetary value of the many acres of Twentynine Palms real estate which the sewer would serve, so it’s hard to believe that these lucky right-place-at-the-right-time landowners would be anything but big sewer supporters.
Prospective Hotel Developers. Sewer would make it significantly easier for local hotel projects to pencil out. Like big property owners, it’s hard to imagine the idea of a City sewer system would be anything but music to potential hotel developers’ ears.
Big Consulting Companies NV5 and Carollo Engineers. The City is paying at least $1M to NV5 and Carollo Engineers for design, feasibility and consulting services for sewer. They’re solid companies with good reputations but surely they know which side their bread is buttered on — they’d be highly unlikely to do anything but strongly support sewer.
Sphere of Influence (e.g. Desert Heights) Residents. According to sewer planning maps, in theory some far future phase of sewer build-out would serve even sparsely populated Desert Heights. More importantly, sewer motivates the City’s seemingly unending desire to take over TPWD and annex Desert Heights, whether unfortunate Desert Heights residents are keen on that or not.
Future and Prospective Twentynine Palms Residents. To the extent that sewer fosters growth, future City residents could benefit from newly built housing which wouldn’t have been feasible absent a City sewer system.
Twentynine Palms Business Owners. A mixed bag — some businesses see benefit while others harbor doubts. For example, Heidi Grunt, owner of Twentynine Palms Inn, is ambivalent about the possibility of sewer construction anytime soon:
I have very mixed feelings about the coming sewer system. I don’t feel the need is urgent and it may make sense to wait to see what the [USGS] study shows. I am certain the construction would be very disruptive to both businesses and residences. And lastly, I believe it will be costly to the community. In the long run [it may be] unavoidable.
On the other hand, some local business owners greet the prospect of sewer coming to Twentynine with enthusiasm. According to Carrie Williams, owner of Jeanines Beauty Supply:
I think sewer will be wonderful. We won’t have to call every so many years to get it pumped out. They should put everybody on a payment plan. Let’s say it’s $5000? Tell each business that it’s $200 every month until it’s paid off. Give them the option to pay upfront or they can make monthly payments. We as taxpayers are going to have to suck it up anyway — this is all part of owning a business. [In fact] go ahead and do it before the [USGS] study comes out. Let’s put the piping in and hook everybody up.
What’s the current status of the City’s sewer project?
The nickel summary: the Twentynine Palms sewer system is currently in the planning stages.
To kick off planning, in February the City retained a large consulting firm, NV5. Per the July 20 City Council meeting Wastewater Treatment staff report, “The City has retained NV5 to prepare the feasibility and preliminary design of the collection system.”
So NV5 is working mainly on the plumbing aspect of the project. But NV5 likely lacked the chops to take on the entire project — to reliably accomplish tasks like site selection and design for a wastewater treatment plant.
So in April/May, the City put out requirements and evaluated three companies “to provide professional engineering services to support the further pursuit of additional grant funding, provide preliminary planning, and high-level analysis of a future City Wastewater Treatment Facility (WWTF), and develop up to 30% design level plans and bridging documents to support the procurement of a design builder.”1
Then in July the City engaged Carollo Engineers for this big engineering services role. Carollo is a well regarded company in this space and has a sizable track record of seeing entire wastewater projects like this all over California through to completion.
What are NV5 and Carollo actually up to now? Carollo is busy determining what’s actually feasible given the actual topography and aquifers of Twentynine Palms, versus smoke being blown up people’s keisters in a “preliminary” feasibility report. According to City Manager Frank Luckino, the big Carollo report is due in November. Stay tuned!
Why does Twentynine Palms need a sewer? To increase City growth and development? To protect water quality for existing residents and businesses? Both?
The City says it’s planning to build a sewer system to accommodate growth and mitigate concerns about water quality.
The one thing everyone can agree on is that a sewer system would result in more development in Twentynine Palms compared to not having a sewer. This is because it would markedly reduce the cost of local development.
As things stand, significant construction like a housing tract or a 200-unit multifamily building requires a costly, dedicated package treatment plant be built to handle wastewater. Whereas if a sewer system was built, no package treatment would be necessary. This would cut the upfront cost of development substantially. Thus, faster and more development and growth.
So, if you’re very pro-development and you know that sewer will foster more, that’s pretty much all you need to hear. Case closed!
But what about Twentynine residents — perhaps the majority — who are ambivalent about accelerating development? Or those who are more concerned about downside risks, unexpected costs or taxes, or motivated by concern for the environment?
The City’s answer for you is that, hey, regardless of how beneficial sewer would be for development — we must construct sewer because aquifer recharge from our septic tanks will eventually threaten the quality our local water supply. To reduce this risk we must construct a sewer.
The problem with this “water quality risk” justification for sewer is that today there’s no actual data to support it. Or more precisely, no data on how urgent of a risk the City’s current reliance on septic tanks actually is.
The City and TPWD have just engaged USGS to perform a study which will provide data to definitively answer the water quality risk question.
However, this USGS study will take five years to complete.
Until the results of this study are known, nobody knows how much water quality risk the City is running by not building a sewer.
There are reasons to believe that the current risk to water quality is low. Unlike some other Hi Desert water districts who draw water from wells fairly close to septic tanks, TPWD wells are located far from significant septic tank runoff. So the USGS study may well conclude that any significant risk to local water quality from lack of a sewer system remains decades away, and is not a current risk.
Because the money’s there. And some people are itching to build a sewer.
There’s a big pot of state money — some of which Twentynine may be able to lay hands on:
In November 2022, a $350 million State grant to fund septic to sewer conversions for Disadvantaged Communities (DAC) will open with applications accepted through March. If successful, construction must commence in 2024 and be completed by December 2026.2
According to Luckino, this is state money which has never been seen before in anything resembling this quantity, and may never be seen again.
But note the hole in this timeline. For Twentynine to apply for this money, sewer construction must begin in 2024 and conclude by 2026.
But the USGS report which may — or may not — demonstrate an urgent water quality rationale for sewer won’t be ready until 2027.
In fact, to those who favor constructing sewer ASAP, having the USGS report completed represents a sizable risk. This is because the USGS report may conclude that keeping our existing septic tank approach to wastewater handling may be safe for decades.
But if you’re blindly pro-development, these two seemingly conflicting timelines actually set up an ideal scenario. The sewer you want gets built by 2026 because the money’s there, regardless of the presence or absence of any water quality risk. You let the pot of “free” state money, with a ticking clock over it, force the sewer issue and drive the sewer conversation. This way you get to avoid any pesky details about lack of any known urgent water quality justification for sewer.
Coming in Part II
In the upcoming Part II of this Sewer in Twentynine article series, we’ll look at questions including how would sewer impact residents? What are the benefits, drawbacks and risks? What would sewer cost, and who’d pay for it? And how does TPWD fit into all this?
From Wastewater Treatment and Owners Representative Staff Report for July 20, 2022 City Council meeting.