Cathedral City Neighborhoods Vote to Build Infrastructure

Cathedral City won a Grand Prize for this project in the Public Works, Infrastructure and Transportation category of the 2007 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information about the award program, visit

Drinking water quality is an important issue for cities throughout California. Recently, it rose to the top of the municipal priority list in Cathedral City, where residents voted to assess themselves to pay for new infrastructure.

Many neighborhoods built before the city incorporated in 1981 were considered affordable housing when they were developed and were built with septic systems for wastewater discharge. At the time, installing mainline sewer lines was considered cost prohibitive for that type of development.

Cathedral City (population 53,000) is located between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. The valley is a desert environment, with drinking wa ter coming from the Colorado River basin through underground aquifers.

In the early 1990s, the state Regional Water Quality Control Board (SRWQCB) began discussing threats to drinking water quality with cities in the region. About 20 percent of the properties in Cathedral City did not have access to a sewer system, and the board identified neighborhoods that would need to switch from septic systems to mainline sewers to protect the region’s drinking water quality.

The SRWQCB worked with the Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley to conduct studies of cities with high septic system use in residential areas. They found contaminants including nitrates, bacteria and viruses from septic tank seepage in the upper levels of the underground aquifer that served Cathedral City and other desert cities.

The study’s findings were significant, considering there were no plans to install sanitary sewers in the area. By early 2000, installing sewers and eliminating septic tanks was identified as a vital step to stop further spread of contaminants and to permanently protect the area’s groundwater.

Drawing Neighborhoods Into Discussion

Discussions began in affected neighborhoods because installing sewer systems in older established neighborhoods is very expensive. The need for street reconstruction after removing the septic tanks added to the expense. Many streets were built without curbs and gutters, and potholes and drainage problems were ongoing issues in these neighborhoods.

Grassroots neighborhood groups and nonprofits began discussing this issue in 2003. Volunteers in three neighborhoods (35th Avenue, the Cove and Dream Homes) formed ad hoc committees open to all interested parties. These neighbor hoods represent about 2,413 properties and 85 percent of the city’s areas with out sewers.

Each neighborhood created an action plan to develop improvement as sessment districts. The city agreed to:

  • Actively pursue grant funding to reduce the cost to property owners if they formed an assessment district; and
  • Use city funds to pay between 40 and 100 percent of annual assessments and sewer connection charges for all low to moderate income owner occupied households in the affected project areas.

Discussions in each neighborhood took a unique direction. For example, the Cove neighborhood has a higher percentage of seniors, professionals and couples without children than other parts of the city. Cove neighbors chose to form a steering committee that met several times a month to discuss the formation of an assess ment district. They also created an e-mail network to update each other as well as a telephone “helpline.”

The Dream Homes neighborhood has a high percentage of residents who speak only Spanish. They were already working with a nonprofit neighborhood empowerment organization that they had grown to trust. The nonprofit invited city repre sentatives to attend meetings at a church and in private homes as guest speakers to explain how assessment districts work and how sewers could replace the neighborhood’s septic systems to protect their drinking water. Neighborhood “block” leaders and the nonprofit took a one-on-one personal approach to explain the project and provide information on sewers, street improvements and the assessment district.

One resident in the 35th Avenue neigh borhood who had fought for years to improve the community put together an outreach plan for the project. Informal outdoor neighborhood gatherings, house meetings and reaching out by trusted friends and neighbors were the best ways to link residents to city assistance.

Residents Vote to Assess Themselves to Pay Costs

Ultimately, all three neighborhoods voted to assess themselves for sewer and street improvements: 58.8 percent in the Cove, 58 percent in the 35th Avenue neighbor hood, and an astounding 89.8 percent in the Dream Homes neighborhood, where many residents are in the very low-income category, approved the assessment.

By 2007, these property owners had funded $51 million of sewer and street improvements through the successful formation of assessment districts. Cathedral City secured $8 million in local, state and federal funds.

The 35th Avenue neighborhood project was completed in March 2006. All homes in the neighborhood are now connected to sanitary sewers. Streets have been revitalized and new sidewalks make it safer for children to walk to school.

The Dream Homes neighborhood project is now complete. The Cove neighborhood project was split into two phases, and the first phase is complete. The entire project is scheduled for completion in 2009.

This project will have a long-term positive impact on the area’s drinking water supply and will improve street and sidewalk safety and drainage, raise property values and provide neighborhoods with a better quality of life. Residents can be confident that their drinking water will be clean and plentiful for years to come.

Contact: Allen Howe, communications officer and assistant to the city manager; phone: (760) 770-0396; e-mail:  

This article appears in the February 2008 issue of Western City
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