WATER QUALITY JUSTIFICATION LACKING FOR HUGE NEW CITY OF 29 SEWER [UPDATED]
Need for data pointed out eight years ago
Update: In a May 6 story The Desert Trail Weekender reports that the 29 sewer system budget has suddenly been halved, from at least $140 million down to $75 million, between the Feb 22 and April 26 City Council meetings. The Desert Trumpet will have further news soon about the City significantly scaling back their initial plan.
Does The City of Twentynine Palms actually need a mammoth sewer system to protect its water quality? Or is the true purpose of the proposed XXL-sized sewer actually to supercharge city growth?
Recall that just a few months ago at their Feb 22, 2022 meeting, the City Council approved plans to embark on seeking funding for a large new sewer project for the City. The staff report estimates cost of the proposed sewer system at $140 million. This is in line with a Feb 24, 2022 Hi-Desert Star article, where City Manager Frank Luckino pegged the system cost at $150-200 million.
Whatever the exact figure — the City’s current, expansive sewer proposal isn’t cheap:
$46 million for sewer mains
$21 million for sewer pump stations
$73 million for sewer collectors
TOTAL => $140 million
Why does Twentynine Palms needs a system of this magnitude? The City is raising concerns about water quality. For example, the City website features an account of what the City is up to in City Advances Wastewater and Sewer Project:
The City of Twentynine Palms relies upon groundwater as the area's only source of water supply, which makes the preservation of this source an integral concern to the community… [M]ore land is being urbanized, resulting in a water usage and septic loading increase. Studying and alleviating the potential long and short-term effects of this growth on water use and sewer loadings to the groundwater supply remains very important for residents' continued health and safety.
But wait a minute. The Staff Report presented at the Feb 22, 2022 City Council meeting contains some big caveats, warning about a paucity of hard data to support water quality concerns:
Why should we NOT do this project?
• No Water Quality issues
• As per the SNMP, we have not done the monitoring and analysis to determine we need it1
Strangely enough, this echoes similar recommendations from eight years ago, in August 2014’s Twentynine Palms Wastewater Master Plan, the last time that eventual need for a sewer in Twentynine Palms was evaluated. This report likewise cited lack of actionable water quality data.
But eight years ago, the firm that drafted the report explicitly assumed that surely Twentynine Palms wouldn’t precipitously undertake a massive sewer project until the underlying water quality data — which might or might not indicate degradation — was collected:
Currently, except for industry standards and values used for developing similar [sewer] plans by nearby agencies, there is little data underlying these assumptions… Due to [these] data limitations, it is assumed that no facilities would be constructed until the SNMP recommendations have produced additional data and further analysis performed. [pp 7-9]
So now, eight years later, where is the necessary water quality data? Collection of which reputable authorities assumed would certainly be a predecessor step prior to undertaking any sewer system?
The answer is that it still hasn’t been collected — but the city is working on collecting it. According to their City Advances Wastewater and Sewer Project public information post:
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is in the process of a cooperative agreement with the City of Twentynine Palms to study the City's groundwater and the impacts of septic tanks.
So far The Desert Trumpet has been unable to get an estimate of how long this study might take.
But the City of Twentynine Palms doesn’t seem to be letting this lack of supporting data stand their way.
If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to think outsized dreams of outsized growth were the main motivation for this colossal version of a sewer for 29, and that alleged concerns for preserving 29’s water quality were mostly a ruse.
Per the Coachella Valley Water District: Salt and Nutrient Management Plans (SNMPs) are mandated by the State of California’s Recycled Water Policy, adopted in 2009 and amended in 2018. The Policy encourages the use of recycled water from municipal wastewater sources as it becomes an increasingly important source of water for California and here in the Coachella Valley. However, recycled water contains salts and nutrients that must be managed on a basin-wide scale to protect the quality of the state’s groundwater. Therefore, SNMPs are required to evaluate current and future recycled water projects and ensure that groundwater basins are adequately managed to maintain water quality.