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I-Team Investigates: Water Woes

Clean water is something many of us take for granted. While new luxury housing developments, surf wave parks, and lagoon resorts in our valley quickly obtained approval for clean water, some of our valley's poorest communities still can't get clean water from the faucet.

Once or twice a day, Mecca resident Roberto Gomez said he walks to the large filtration system at the Saint Anthony Mobile Home Park so he and his family can have clean water to drink. The reason: unhealthy levels of naturally-occurring arsenic in the groundwater.

It's been a disaster for many years, he says and he's concerned for the health and safety of his family and the rest of the park's 850 residents.

Arsenic in Water, cancers of the bladder, lungs and skin, heart disease, diabetes, birth defects, and neurological damage. Arsenic, natural or not, is a known carcinogen, and drinking high levels has been linked to cancers of the bladder, lungs, and skin. As well as heart disease, diabetes, birth defects and neurological damage.

The EPA found the water in St Anthony's Shallow Well has twice the concentration of arsenic considered safe. But that's just one of more than 115 communities in the eastern Coachella Valley affected by the issue.

Since November, the EPA found water containing arsenic levels above federal legal limits in at least seven mobile home parks.

Carmen Vargas says filters have been installed on all the kitchen faucets at her mobile home park in Thermal, but not in the bathrooms. Vargas says she has to shower with her mouth closed.

Sergio Carranza, the executive director of the non-profit Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, which for years has been working to help east valley residents get access to clean water.

"These communities produce through their labor over $600 million a year in agriculture," Carranza said. "They have been forgotten, they have been neglected, they have been taken as invisible communities."

Even after a decade of efforts to install modern water and sewage systems in the east valley, little has been fixed.

"Is this not happening quickly enough?" Peter asked.

"It is not happening quickly enough," said Amy Miller-Bowen, Director of Enforcement and Compliance Division.

The EPA said it is now cracking down on parks with dirty water. It recently filed its third emergency order on the Oasis Mobile Home Park requiring the property owner to supply alternative drinking water to residents, reduce the levels of arsenic in the system, and monitor the water for contamination.

"Continuing non-compliance can result in potential future enforcement," Miller-Bowen said.

"Possible legal action?" Peter asked.

"That is right," Miller-Bowen replied.

Meanwhile, the CVWD is planning to repair this Ion Exchange treatment plant in Mecca with $6 million in federal funds obtained by the county. In addition to removing arsenic from the water, officials hope the new system will also lead to more affordable housing in the area.

"Reactivating this treatment plant would allow us to increase the supply in our system to bring about the addition of affordable housing projects, around 600 units," said Castulo Estrada, vice president of CVWD.

The CVWD also recently secured more than $30 million from the state for several pipeline projects with the ultimate goal of consolidating dozens of small water systems into one.

"We need about 42 projects to connect all of them. And in order to build all those 42 projects, we need about $100 million," Estrada said.

But until the groundwater is finally safe to drink, Gomez, like so many people who live in the east valley, will simply have to deal with it.

It's very frustrating he says, because water is vital to life and no one should have to worry if it's toxic.

The CVWD project is currently in the design phase for the Ion Exchange treatment plant project, and it's expected to be completed in the summer of 2024.

Stay with News Channel 3 for continuing updates.

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Peter Daut

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