A $70 million environmental problem that has undermined Canyon Lake’s water quality and halted growth in a rural Menifee enclave has prompted numerous government agencies to scramble for a solution.
In doing so, they have banded together in a structured nonprofit group that hopes to solve a dilemma that has gripped the blue collar Quail Valley community for more than a decade. The difficulty – which centers on leaking septic tanks – has emerged as one of the toughest environmental challenges to face the fledgling city of Menifee.
City Councilman Scott Mann, who serves as vice president of the Quail Valley Environmental Coalition, hopes the unified effort will help the nonprofit group get grants and other funding needed to piece together a solution.
“Funding agencies are now making us a priority,” said Mann, whose council district includes the hilly, rural area at Menifee’s northwest corner. “We are dedicated to take Quail Valley into the future. The current recession has lowered the cost of (infrastructure) construction, so I would like us to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Menifee was thrust into the driver’s seat in the dilemma when it became Riverside County’s 26th city in October 2008. Before that, little movement had occurred when Quail Valley was an unincorporated community on the fringe of Perris, Canyon Lake and the fast-growing Sun City and Menifee areas.
Quail Valley and Sun City became part of Menifee when the last of several incorporation efforts took hold and residents voted to cobble together a patchwork of rural and urban areas into the county’s newest city.
Other coalition members are equally hopeful that the broad-based effort will succeed.
“By working together, we will find a collaborative and regional solution to a very complicated problem that has existed for years,” said Ron Sullivan, the group’s president, who doubles as the president of the Eastern Municipal Water District’s governing board.
“So far we have made great strides in helping address and solve this important health and safety issue,” Sullivan said.
A solution would be good news for Earl McGee, a retired Orange County sheriff’s deputy who moved to Quail Valley in 1992.
McGee, who is also part of the environmental coalition, was recently turned down for a line of credit on his home. The denial was linked to a building permit moratorium that was imposed upon the community four years ago due to the septic seepage problem.
“I feel trapped, dead in the water,” McGee said in an interview. “I can’t improve my home. I can’t sell my home.”
Historically, Quail Valley was a getaway destination for Los Angeles residents and the Hollywood elite who sought a rural weekend getaway or a hunting outing. According to the Menifee Historical Society, the area was initially a resort for middle class sportsmen who didn’t want to travel from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. In the 1930s, many of the cottages, bungalows and craftsman-style homes were built for weekend retreats, not year-round living. Many of those residences were clustered together on small lots in a densely-populated area known as the “Grid.”
The arrival of families and subsequent steady growth caused the population to mushroom in recent decades, which added to the strain placed on aging septic systems.
The shallow, dense bedrock in the area causes high levels of groundwater accumulation. That makes it difficult for liquid wastes treated in many of the septic tanks to be absorbed into the soil. This can create a runoff problem that can intensify during rain storms.
During major storms, many of the septic tanks overflow. Those conditions can allow partially-treated sewage to flow into streets and drainage areas that can leach into Canyon Lake, which stores water prior to its treatment by the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District.
Quail Valley is currently home to about 4,400 of Menifee’s approximately 68,000 residents. Quail Valley is served by about 1,100 septic tanks.
About 3,900 lots remain vacant in the area, which is served by one convenience store, a fire station and a branch post office. The community, which is home to many retirees and residents on low or fixed incomes, seems frozen in time, as building permits cannot be issued for home construction or renovation projects.
To tackle the problem, residents, water districts, the county and the newly-formed city launched the Quail Valley Task Force in May 2009.
In December, the Task Force submitted a 47-page report to the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority that detailed the scope and history of the pollution problem in Quail Valley. It also cited other runoff problems in the area, and identified steps that could be taken to overcome the difficulties.
The group subsequently evolved into the environmental coalition. Its non- profit status is expected to improve the group’s chances of receiving water quality grants that could help pay the $70 million cost to bring sewer services to the area.
The coalition held an organizational meeting on April 26.
As part of a solution, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, has requested federal aid to make Quail Valley eligible for the rural water and waste water disposal programs funds that would to help finance the estimated $70 million it will cost to solve the environmental challenge.
Maria Kennedy, the coalition’s executive director, has spent much of the past year talking to Quail Valley residents and learning their concerns. Some residents have complained that it seems like their problems were neglected by government leaders in the past.
“That participation demonstrates the support of the local community that will benefit from the sewer system,” she said.
Kennedy said she was pleased with the outcome of a June 23 Eastern board meeting that centered on an environmental assessment that could come into play in attacking some of the most onerous seepage areas.
The assessment has tackled two areas that are considered to be the main polluters in Quail Valley and the areas closest to Canyon Lake. One of the areas is the “Grid” area west of Goetz Road that is crisscrossed by many streets, dotted by small lots and home to many low-income residents.
Eastern is examining the installation of a combination gravity and low-pressure sewage collection system that would connect with sewer lines that were brought into the area when the Canyon Heights and Quail Hill projects were developed near Canyon Lake.
Coalition officials said Issa hopes to obtain $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could help jump start the planning, design and construction processes.
“This has become a collaborative effort,” Sullivan said.