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August 17, 2021

MSWD Response To Uken Report

Background: Back in October 2020, when flows to the Horton Wastewater Treatment plant were especially heavy because so many people were staying home due to the COVID pandemic, the crew at the Horton plant built a temporary holding pond for treated wastewater. "Treated wastewater" is what you get after sending sewage through primary and secondary treatments. It's clean enough under federal and California law to discharge back into the environment; i.e., allowed to percolate back into the groundwater (as at the Horton plant) or discharged into a body of water, if you've got such a thing. The dike forming the temporary holding pond was breached and treated sewage flowed out of the Horton plant and into the neighboring residential area. It was cleaned up within 24 hours and no private dwellings were damaged.

In the General Manager's Report submitted to the MSWD Board of Directors at the November 12, 2020, and November 16, 2020, board meetings, GM Arden Wallum wrote:

The Horton WWTP experienced a breach of a temporary containment area for secondary effluent from the percolation ponds. Staff had been pumping the water out of a pond into the temporary basin to expedite the cleaning and preparation for the pond to be put in use sooner. The water that left the plant flowed into the Dos Palmas service area. Once staff was notified of the situation, all necessary measures were taken to clean up the area and prevent any further flow from leaving the plant. No major damage occurred during this spill.

That paragraph from Mr. Wallum is the entirety of public information voluntarily provided by the MSWD staff and board until Director Grasha began making some noise about it a few months ago. I do not believe I have missed watching any public meetings of the board since October 2020. There was no larger press release to fill in the details of the rather vague paragraph that Mr. Wallum provided.

For those not familiar with Director Grasha's style of handling himself on the board, imagine a Donald Trump who is less intelligent, lies more, has no political sense at all, is frequently unable to organize his thoughts, and is unable to control a childish level of anger that pushes him into a frustrating speech impediment accompanied by screaming. How could such a fool get elected, you should ask. Because there were a few thousand voters who didn't do even the most basic research into the candidates; a few thousand voters who suddenly became very defensive when the Desert Sun published an article shortly after the election exposing Grasha for what he is. Hint to the Desert Sun: publish that kind of shit before the election next time, ya worthless asshole of a paper.

Anyway, a few months ago Director Grasha began spewing BS nonsense from the dais about the spill. He did this at more than one meeting. There are four other directors on the board. NONE of them challenged Director Grasha's word salad. NONE asked GM Wallum to provide an honest description of what had occurred. NONE used their comment time to try to explain to the public what had really happened. So while Grasha was obviously the lying asshole, all four other directors were at least passively complicit in letting this go on unchecked.

Basically, MSWD staff and the Board of Directors created an information vacuum and laid down a red carpet, virtually inviting Grasha to sit at the dais and publicly spew lies. The apparent lack of curiosity on this subject shown in the board meetings by the four other directors strongly suggested to me that staff had informed the board about the spill, and they were all sufficiently satisfied with what they knew. But I am mystified why none of them recognized the need for someone at MSWD to provide accurate information to the public.

Director Grasha became the sole source of info for the general public about this treated wastewater spill, and I knew that nothing he said could be believed.

But then came this article in the Uken Report dated July 20, 2021. If that article disappears from the Uken Report website, I have a copy I will share. With a headline like MSWD DIRECTOR CLAIMS MISSION SPRINGS WATER DISTRICT'S 'INTENTIONAL ACT OF DUMPING RAW COVID-INFECTED SEWAGE' INTO THE NEIGHBORHOODS KILLED PEOPLE, you can pretty well guess where it's going. It's an outlandish chunk of hyperbolic fiction.

"This," I thought to myself, "has to get some kind of response from MSWD," and it did. Hence, the August 16, 2021, MSWD Board Meeting. YouTube video here (it's only 45 minutes).

The meeting had been called by President Nancy Wright whose intention was to write and submit to Uken Report a letter rebutting Grasha's madhouse claims and setting forth the facts of the situation. She could have done this unilaterally as President of the Board, but thought it wiser to consult with the other board members to seek their support.

Director Grasha was absent from this meeting which is consistent with some of his previous acts of cowardice.

President Wright began by summarizing the Uken Report article and said that the author, Cindy Uken, did no fact checking. Uken contacted neither MSWD nor the Regional Water Quality Control Board which has jurisdiction over matters like sewage spills. Uken simply reprinted Grasha's baseless assertions.

Wright said "When a public official intentionally lies to the public and makes a false claim to any law enforcement person or agency, that is a crime and the truth needs to be told." She continued, "Mr. Grasha received the same information as the rest of the board, including MSWD's response to the notice of violation from the regional board."

Wright is also the chair of the RWQCB. She was appointed to the board by the Governor. She has recused herself from any RWQCB dealings with MSWD, including, of course, this spill.

After reading her opening announcement, Wright had the Desert Sun article from November 14 [after election day], 2018, displayed. The article is readable in the video starting at 5:28 or here on the Desert Sun's website where it does not seem to be behind the paywall.

President Wrights proposed draft response to Uken is included in the MSWD agenda packet that was posted online 15 minutes before the meeting, at the same time a copy was made available to all the board members. For anyone who might be a virgin at reading government board meeting agenda packets, the agenda always comes first, and then you scroll down to read all the rest of the supporting documentation for the meeting. The draft response is six pages long, so I will not include it here. If you'd prefer not to do all that reading, you can listen to GM Wallum read it all aloud and verbatim in the video beginning at 6:55.

A few highlights:

  • I agree completely in uncovering facts that are important to my community; but I draw the line when "facts" are distorted, manufactured and deceitful. Please share with your readers the following, all of which I believe is verifiable and accurate, regarding the District's inadvertent discharge of treated wastewater that occurred in October 2020. Had you taken the time to contact the District or the State regulatory agency over accidental spills of treated sewage or assumed the ethical responsibility with which all journalists are charged, you could easily and quickly have verified the facts before you published this article. Unfortunately, very little of the information you reported bears any semblance to the truth.
  • There was no "intentional" act of "dumping." On October 3, 2020, TREATED effluent, which was permitted and tested prior to its discharge, ACCIDENTLY overflowed via a breach in a temporary holding pond. This was not a "long term" or "ongoing release of COVID-infected Sewage." The accidental release was discovered and restrained within just a few hours, when District staff immediately began to notify neighboring residents and initiated the cleanup process. No private dwelling was damaged or affected, and the cleanup was accomplished in less than 24 hours. The treated effluent was not raw sewage. It had been treated to a standard which allowed it to be discharged from the wastewater treatment plant into recharge basins. The "spill" also did not "kill" or, to our knowledge, make anyone sick. These facts could have been easily verified by a simple call to the District's General Manager.
  • This barely intelligible reporting appears to confirm a number of unsubstantiated, uneducated claims. Mr. Grasha, who was given a comprehensive tour of the wastewater treatment plant following his election in 2018, seems to have forgotten most of what he was taught. The statements attributed to him in this article suggest that he remains uninformed and unfamiliar with the operation of wastewater treatment plants or the regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over their operation.
  • The above statement attributed to Mr. Grasha confirms that even after more than two years as an elected official of the District he remains completely ignorant of how wastewater treatment plants work. He should know, for example, that "disposal records, truck weights and trips" only indicate the volume of solids removed and are mostly associated with loading to the treatment plant and not the treatment levels or effluent standard. More important is the fact that the District tests its effluent for certain constituents and has always met the strict standards set by the RWQCB.
  • If Mr. Grasha had even a rudimentary understanding of the wastewater treatment process and the wastewater system operated by the agency for which he is an elected Board member, he would have known it is impossible to impose a "water use restriction" on wastewater. For someone who described himself on election materials as a "water systems engineer," his statement demonstrates his complete lack of understanding about water and wastewater operations.

Public Comments

Janet Wilson went first (via Zoom, there are still no public permitted in the small, possibly insufficiently ventilated board meeting room), and asked where she could find the draft response letter on the website. This went on for a bit as staff repeatedly told her exactly where it was and she repeatedly denied it was there. It was there. I had downloaded it just 15 minutes earlier myself. This was what IT politely refers to as "operator error."

I will add my comment that MSWD has just about the simplest and easiest to use access for its meeting agendas. You first click on "About Board of Directors" and then click on "Board of Directors." There you will find a simple reverse chronological listing of meetings with agenda, packet and minutes available for download, as appropriate, for each meeting. The packet includes the agenda. The agenda does not include the packet.

Ms. Wilson went on to ask if President Wright was saying that Director Grasha had potentially committed crimes. Wright answered that she was making a general statement about falsehoods and crime. She said she does not know if Grasha made false statements to law enforcement. Ms. Wilson said that President Wright had said it was a crime (Wright had not said that) but now didn't seem to know if it was a crime (Wright had also not said that).

Vice President Russ Martin said that it is illegal to make a false report to police or the district attorney. While Uken Report asserts the Grasha did make false statements to the district attorney, a proper investigation would be required to determine if he made those false reports and if that did constitute a possible criminal action.

For some reason, President Wright and the MSWD attorney allowed this forbidden back-and-forth conversation in public comments to continue.

Ms. Wilson also wanted to know how the district knew that Grasha wrote the article. She was referring to the sentence in the description of this item on the agenda: "It is recommended to authorize the Board President to issue a response to Director Grasha's July 20th article related to the spill at the Horton Treatment Plant and give direction to the General Manager to distribute the response." Wright responded that she had never said it was written by Grasha, but it sounded like it was written by Uken using information provided by Grasha.

Then Ms. Wilson wrapped up with the unusual request "Anybody else want to add anything?" as if she were now chairing the meeting. Russell Betts chimed in uninvited - this is the slippery slope you can get on if you allow back-and-forth conversations in public comments. Wright advised him to wait until he was called upon. But then Ms. Wilson came back with another question [somebody needed to hit the mute button, IMO] asking again for the link to the agenda packet.

Then Councilmember Betts was called upon. He asked if the district had gotten word about any potential fine to be assessed by the RWQCB. The potential maximum fine would be over $9-million, but no one is anticipating anything close to that. GM Wallum responded that they had not yet heard anything about a fine. Then Mr. Betts helpfully summarized the important events about the spill - this was the first time these were announced in public at an MSWD Board meeting.

  1. A holding pond was constructed without an initial permit,
  2. And that holding pond breached,
  3. MSWD did NOT inform the RWQCB immediately.

GM Wallum responded, "Yes, I mean, I think basically that's what happened." So, at the time of GM Wallum's November General Manager's Report he knew that the district had waited past the deadline to report the spill to the RWQCB, but he did not include that in his report to the board. [Man, if I was a Director I'd be calling for a closed session evaluation of the General Manager, unless perhaps he was keeping the board informed in the background about the potential fine while keeping that information out of the public's eye.]

Suddenly, Ms. Wilson came back into the meeting uninvited [if necessary I could loan MSWD a hammer, if that would help them hit the mute button when they need to] claiming whatever link she found for the agenda packet was not good. More minutes were wasted in attempting to hold her hand and guide her to the easy-to-find packet. It took two people telling her multiple times that she needed to scroll past the first page of the agenda to find the draft letter. Upon this revelation, Ms. Wilson wanted to know if it had been there some 18 hours earlier. The answer was no (and my answer would have been "Who cares?"). It was available before this meeting began. Ms. Wilson said she thought it would help things if they could makes things "as accessible as possible." The only way to make it more accessible than the very accessible way it is already made available would be for Ms. Wilson to be elected to the board. Then MSWD staff would deliver the agenda packet to her directly so all she would have to do is open her mailbox.

Board Discussion

VP Martin said that disagreement and diversity of opinion on the board were okay and expected, but that personal attacks, threats or intentionally making outrageous lies to inflame public opinion for political gain or to intimidate fellow board members were not acceptable.

Director Sewell said he completely agreed with the response as written and that he is hopeful the lies in the article are going to be corrected on the Uken Report.

President Wright called on Director Grasha at this point, possibly on the chance that he had come into the meeting late. He was not present.

Director Duncan recounted how he had to deal with Grasha's lies frequently while he was board president. He said none of those incidents sank to the level of the article in Uken Report.

President Wright agreed with Duncan, saying the district and the board had ignored several of Grasha's lies published in various media.

VP Martin moved to issue the response, seconded by Director Duncan. I had hoped the motion would include a stipulation that someone first correct the misspellings and small grammatical errors in the response, but now that it's been voted on, those are all set in stone.

Approved 4-0 with Grasha, obviously, absent.

Filed under Coachella Valley,Desert Hot Springs,Politics | permalink | August 17, 2021 at 01:19 PM

Comments

My, my, a comment from Grasha! When I first attempted to contact him he let me know that I was not intelligent enough to even talk to him. I wonder if his opinion has changed since then.

The issues he raises in his comment are issues he has NEVER explained to the public from his seat on the board of MSWD. I don't recall him ever fully explaining any of his notions to the ratepayers as he simply cannot stay sufficiently calm and rational to finish an entire paragraph of thought.

Posted by: Ron at Aug 30, 2021 2:23:28 PM

Regardless of the childless theatrics and rediculous denials from MSWD and its lackeys, we have multiple open investigations underway and the district's reputation has been forever damaged within the water family coupled with recent rulings by the Court against MSWD's meritless lawsuit against Desert Water Agency (that I have opposed from the beginning) and the meter lawsuit and the structural bankruptcy of MSWD and the Finance Director and Public Relations Director walking out, it's proof positive these people should not be managing a taco stand let alone a complex government operation.

I am confident that voters will reject MSWDs board's tactical political maneuver to take over DWA next year. The stakes are just too high to allow the psychopathy that pervades MSWD to infect Desert Water Agency.

Thank you for your engagement on this subject, your perspective is helpful when not diluted with a certain derangement syndrome that has taken control of so many like yourself.

I will keep you in Prayer...

Posted by: Steve Grasha at Aug 30, 2021 12:05:36 PM

So Janet Wilson is a reporter for the Desert Sun?! OMG, my opinion of the Desert Sun has, unbelievably, sunk even lower.

The Nextdoor link provided says the post has been removed.

Posted by: Ron at Aug 18, 2021 11:28:13 AM

Hello Ron

I have been reading your blog for over ten years and appreciate the work you have done informing the public.

I voted against Grasha and I didn't like how he campaigned but he got elected to the MSWD board. Nevertheless, he's onto something in this case and he's the only Board member not trying to cover it up.

The Horton plant has been a serious risk to public safety for some time.

I wrote about it in March:
https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=180544771&comment=611716731&init_source=search

And I can tell you I could not find any info in the Board meeting minutes about this issue at that time (but maybe I am not as adept as you) even though the big spill had already happened (unknown to me and virtually every other member of the public). And btw secondary treated sewage is not nice stuff - I personally would not allow it back into the aquifer at all.

Grasha contacted me and gave my contact info to Janet Wilson which lead to this story:

https://www.desertsun.com/story/news/environment/2021/06/25/desert-hot-springs-waste-spill-has-mswd-facing-up-9-4-million-fine/5315307001/

I don't know much about Cindy Uken but Ms Wilson is a very knowledgeable environmental journalist.

Hoping you find this informative.

Gerald McKenna

Posted by: Gerald McKenna at Aug 18, 2021 10:15:16 AM

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