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Drinking the Fruits of Their Labor: Accessing Potable Water in the Eastern Coachella Valley

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This story was produced in partnership with Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation and Building Healthy Communities in the Eastern Coachella Valley, an initiative of the California Endowment.

 

The St. Anthony Mobile Home Park was never intended to be a hospitable place for families. Like many unlikely enterprises that have grown as if by miracle in the middle of the Coachella Valley desert, the property that today houses over 100 homes was originally a fish farm. The origin of this unplanned community continues to make all the difference for its residents today, as they have struggled with the most basic element necessary for life: water.

On any day, the ordinary sight of a St. Anthony's resident filling plastic gallons with safe, potable water at an on-site treatment center is actually a triumph of many years of collaboration among residents and local organizations. In the last five years, a water filtration system developed and installed by Pueblo Unido CDC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to infrastructure needs, economic development and affordable housing in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Finally, St. Anthony residents and members of other unincorporated communities have access to decontaminated water, free of naturally-occurring arsenic from local wells.

Without access to water infrastructure, this 35-year-old mobile home park remains to be incorporated into the municipal water district. As a result, St. Anthony residents, together with Pueblo Unido, have taken matters into their own hands and developed innovative filtration systems as they currently work on more ambitious projects.

Roberto Mendez, a St. Anthony mobile home park resident and maintenance worker, fills his bottle at the on-site water station I Photo by Christian Mendez.
Roberto Mendez, a St. Anthony mobile home park resident and maintenance worker, fills his bottle at the on-site water station I Photo by Christian Mendez.
De-contaminated of naturally-occuring arsenic, the well water is safe for drinking and cooking. I Photo by Christian Mendez.
De-contaminated of naturally-occuring arsenic, the well water is safe for drinking and cooking. I Photo by Christian Mendez.

St. Anthony Mobile Home Park
St. Anthony was once known as Lake St. Anthony, back when it was still a fish farm. And though the fish farm business dried up, the mobile home park that started with only five homes continued to grow into a full-blown community. It formed part of a cluster of unincorporated communities known as Polanco Parks in the outskirts of Mecca, CA. The Eastern Coachella Valley houses a large population of trailer park communities such as Polanco Parks with an estimated 200 parks in this region alone.

For Celia Barajas, her mobile home in St. Anthony's has been her first and only home since she arrived to the U.S. in the early 1980s. She has seen the park grow over the years and with growth, she also saw the rise of problems due to the lack of infrastructure.

"When we first got here there were only a few trailers and we did not have any issues, but as the community grew things started to happen." Anecdotes of water tainted with dirt, putrid smells, power outages, are all common stories among resident like Barajas, that were there before 2010.

Celia Barajas, St. Anthony resident of 35 years. I Photo by Christian Mendez.
Celia Barajas, St. Anthony resident of 35 years. I Photo by Christian Mendez.

Guillermo Nosa remembers that the water was often completely un-useable. "The water that we used at times would come out dark, like drainage water and we could not do anything about but buy water elsewhere." St. Anthony's lack of a proper housing foundation become increasingly urgent as issues regarding electricity and access to water came to a precipice. Eventually, water became a catalyst for change.

Most notably, the arsenic in the water caused significant health illnesses among residents such as skin, lung, bladder, kidney, and liver cancer. Arsenic in small but consistent amounts over long periods of time have been known to cause developmental, neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, and immunological effects.

In 2010, residents filed a major lawsuit against the owner of the park due to poor living conditions. At this point, Pueblo Unido CDC stepped in as part of a settlement and purchased the property from the previous owners, taking on the responsibility of having the mobile home park in code compliance with county and state law.

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Water Catalyst
Access to water is an on-going issue and massive challenge across the Eastern Coachella Valley. In unincorporated communities such as St. Anthony, this challenge is compounded with other serious problems. In a series of intensive meetings with residents, the Pueblo Unido CDC quickly learned that not only was the well water contaminated with arsenic, but was faced with an even more immediate concern. The on-site well had begun to collapse, causing water shortages and requiring that debris be pumped out. "The well had been first dug up to be used for the fish farm, it was designed for agriculture purposes not housing," elaborated Rodolfo Pinon, Director of Community Engagement for Pueblo Unido CDC.

Given the urgency of the situation and the lack of response from Riverside County, Pueblo Unido CDC and residents decided to develop an alternative solution for a new well and for water treatment. Once the new well was re-built, it was time to address the arsenic issue. "We knew that we needed treatment for the park, after doing an analysis of water at St. Anthony we were able to identify the best possible solution for the St. Anthony," says Sergio Carranza, Executive Director of Pueblo Unido CDC.

Nimbus Water Treatment Equipment shown at St. Anthony I Photo by Christian Mendez.
Nimbus Water Treatment Equipment shown at St. Anthony I Photo by Christian Mendez.

The possible solution was found, but it was something that had not been tried before in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Carranza, who has a background in engineering, identified a reverse osmosis filtration system as a possible answer to St. Anthony's water problems. This treatment was more affordable and easier to implement than other options by utilizing the onsite system to filter the well water.

The treatment at St. Anthony works through the manner of coagulation and filtration. The process uses particular salts to coagulate contaminants present in the water source being treated. Filtration is accomplished by the use of filters which then absorb the coagulated arsenic residue. Arsenic that is present is absorbed and then discarded along other contaminants that are present in the water.

Today, St. Anthony residents continue to rely on this filtration system which was installed April of 2010 for potable water, as the mobile home park still has not been incorporated to the municipal water district. Access to this water is available and free of cost at the water purification center at St. Anthony, where residents can fill gallons with water for drinking and cooking.

The Next Iteration
Pueblo Unido CDC since expanded its efforts to provide mobile home park communities with safe potable water using a new iteration of the water filtration system at the San Jose Learning Center. The center, also owned by Pueblo Unido CDC, serves the community of Duroville and other mobile home parks. This center currently holds a water treatment center which likely can become the future of water treatment in a region where consolidation to municipal water systems is currently impossible due to its cost. Incorporation into a municipal water system has been estimated by the Coachella Valley Water District to cost twenty-two million dollars.

The water filtration system at St. Anthony mobile home parks has opened the path for new, more expansive filtration systems for other unincorporated communities. I Photo By Christian Mendez.
The water filtration system at St. Anthony mobile home parks has opened the path for new, more expansive filtration systems for other unincorporated communities. I Photo By Christian Mendez.

Similar to the system in place at St. Anthony the water treatment at San Jose Learning Center would also be able to provide treated water, free of harmful contaminants to the residents, except that instead of accessing water at a pump or a treatment center, residents will have clean water directly in their homes.

While the filtration system at St. Anthony represents a small-scale, temporary solution for clean water in the East Valley's rural communities, the system at the San Jose center could offer a glimpse of what is possible in other small communities that could also install treatment plants in their mobile home parks.

Long-Term Solutions
As mobile home parks such as St. Anthony and those served by the San Jose Learning Center witness positive change, especially within the last five years, the importance of developing infrastructure in communities that fall outside of the larger pockets becomes even more evident. The work that needs to be done and the pathways to arrive there is more clear.

Over the years, residents of mobile home parks such as St. Anthony, have mobilized to improve the quality of life of their communities. I Photo by Christian Mendez.
Over the years, residents of mobile home parks such as St. Anthony, have mobilized to improve the quality of life of their communities. I Photo by Christian Mendez.

In general, the immediate and long-term goal of many residents can be simply put as having access to clean water. Whether through consolidation with the municipal system or small treatment systems, the important thing is the safety and well-being of residents.
In recent months changes have occurred that suggest possibilities for a brighter future. Among the notable recent developments is the election of the first Latino onto the Coachella Valley Water District Board, a resident of the East Valley, Castulo Estrada. Pueblo Unido and the residents of the St. Anthony and San Jose parks hope that he will represent the interests of their largely Latino constituency.

Older members of the community today fight for change to ensure an improved quality of life for the young and future generations. St. Anthony resident Elvira Castellanos shares: "Many times we are presented with the issues of water and these are all issues that are important to understand not because of our selves but because of our children who will continue to live here"

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