In Focus...

Westside School Safer Board Member Castulo (on left)
Westside School - Water Board SAFER Board Member Castulo (on left)
Relief on tap—years long struggle to access safe water to end at Coachella Valley elementary school

The Westside Elementary School in Thermal held a virtual groundbreaking today on a water consolidation project as the first recipient of the State Water Board’s Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program. The SAFER funds secured for the project allow for a critical resource many take for granted: clean drinking water.

Children and staff at the K-6 school, where the student body is predominantly Latino and the town’s population hovers around 3,000, have had to rely on water bottles for drinking water due to issues from an aging well.

But change is here. Thanks to a $880,155 grant from the new SAFER program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a consolidation project recently broke ground, granting Westside Elementary access to the Coachella Valley Water District and a reliable source of clean water.

“The state water board and its funding capacity is all too happy to provide dollars for this critical project… and in its regulatory capacity provide the certainty and incentives to ensure we continue to see communities that don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water begin to receive it,” said E. Joaquin Esquivel, Chair of the State Water Board.

The SAFER Program, which was established when Senate Bill 200 passed in 2019, provides tools, funding opportunities and regulatory support designed to ensure Californians lacking clean, safe and affordable drinking water receive it as quickly as possible.

“Thanks to this project, teachers and staff will be able to focus on education without worrying about a lack of drinking water or fire protection,” said Castulo Estrada, a SAFER advisory board member.

Westside Elementary has depended on a single well that has contained unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium. The well is also considered an unreliable fire protection source. As a result, existing buildings on the campus have been precluded from using sprinklers or fire hydrants. 

The Coachella Valley Water District has worked with Westside Elementary to secure funding for the consolidation since 2016. The problems at the school are among those the SAFER program is designed to address. The program’s goal is impacting small water systems in disadvantaged communities that are unable to deliver clean water at affordable rates due to operational and maintenance costs.

To date, an estimated one million people in California lack access to a safe water supply. Providing clean water for all Californians has been an administration priority since Governor Gavin Newsom took office in January 2019.

Groundbreaking video: