Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Residents of Thermal scored a major victory in their 16-year fight for clean air when Riverside County was awarded the funding to pave the roads of 31 trailer parks in the unincorporated communities of Eastern Coachella Valley.

The $4.1 million project is scheduled to begin as early as next summer, and should be completed within two years.

“When cars pass by, they lift a lot of dust, and it affects everyone that lives here,” said Margarita Gamez, a resident who has been active in the grassroots effort since 1997.

In 2008, Pueblo Unido, a community-development corporation, joined the fight for improved environmental conditions in the region’s trailer parks, which are typically situated in areas that lack potable water, sewer systems and basic infrastructure.

Trailer-park residents were the backbone of the organizing effort, and the idea to push for paved roads came from them, said Sergio Carranza, executive director and founder of Pueblo Unido.

“I’m just facilitating the project,” he added

Carranza said that dust and fine-particulate pollution from the unpaved roads are linked to the prevalence of asthma and respiratory problems among the many families who live in the trailer parks. The paved roads will also improve accessibility for residents and alleviate another major problem in these communities: flooding caused by heavy rains.

A Long-Awaited Opportunity

Pueblo Unido saw hope for funding when the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) began accepting proposals for environmentally friendly projects, funded by AB 1318 emission-mitigation fees from the Sentinel Energy Project. Meetings were held in number of Riverside County locations to gather community input—but many in the eastern Coachella Valley felt left out of the conversation.

“There were only public hearings being made in the western Coachella Valley,” said Carranza. “We (Pueblo Unido) made sure that the eastern Coachella Valley was taken care of, too.”

Pueblo Unido received backing for their roads proposal from Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who introduced AB 1318 in 2009, and Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who co-authored the bill when he was a state senator. As a result, county officials and held meetings in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“We had a lot of public hearings all over the valley on how this money should be spent. One of the witnesses was a young boy from the eastern Coachella Valley. He had to walk to school every day of his life. He felt that the air quality affected him greatly. (His story) impacted me and other members that are working on this project,” said Benoit, who is a member of the SCAQMD governing board.

SCAQMD, the manager of the mitigation-fee funds, entered into a contract with Riverside County to pave approximately 8.3 miles of unpaved roads within 31 mobile home parks containing 483 mobile-home units.

According to Darin Schemmer, communications director for Benoit, “The actual construction may begin as early as summer 2014. The remaining steps the Riverside County Transportation Department needs to take include completing the design and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) environmental document, (and) preparing, advertising, bidding and awarding a construction contract.”

The county, in turn, has contracted with Pueblo Unido to continue to be the liaison to the community that came together to make their needs heard.

“I advocated strongly that AQMD must provide technical assistance to grantees, and ultimately, we convinced them to do so. Another thing we did was encourage smaller, community-based grantees, to the extent possible, to partner with agencies that had the resources and capacity to present a strong application,” said Perez. “Such was the case of Pueblo Unido in partnering with Riverside County for the successful paving project.”

"Trail" Would Connect East, West Valley

More than $17 million of the $53 million mitigation fee fund total was awarded to CV Link, a proposed 52-mile multipurpose trail from Palm Springs to Mecca. Tourism leaders aggressively pushed for these funds on the grounds that the entire Coachella Valley would benefit.

Not everyone in the eastern Coachella Valley believes that would be the case.

“The road from Palm Springs to Mecca doesn’t benefit us. It only benefits wealthier communities,” said Gamez, who believes the trail is being geared toward tourists.

Perez, however, said he sees the environmental benefits of both the trail project and the paving project at the trailer parks.

“One of the things we have emphasized from the beginning is the need for an equitable distribution of grant-funding, so that many worthwhile projects and grantees would be able to use their ingenuity and community know-how to address local air quality concerns,” he said.

With the paving project now in place, Carranza said Pueblo Unido would continue listening to and organizing residents of these rural communities, in their quest for a better living environment. Future projects include a water-purification system and the opening of a learning center.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. Brenda Rincon is Coachella Unincorporated’s professional adviser. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit

Published in Local Issues

Duroville is synonymous with abject poverty, disgusting messes, noxious fumes, electrical fires, feral dogs and sewage ponds. In the backyard of the glitzy Coachella Valley, our fellow humans were allowed to live in conditions like those in the slums of what we call Third World countries.

The park was due to be shut down in 2003 for health and safety violations. And in 2007. And again in 2009. On tribal land near Thermal, Duroville belongs to a man named Harvey Duro Sr., a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians.

At one time, almost 4,000 people lived there. The majority of residents are migrant farm workers, picking vegetables and fruit in the nearby agricultural fields. Most of them moved into a new government-subsidized housing development called Mountain View Estates, just a few miles away, at various stages during 2012. There, they can turn on the tap and see clear water, rather than the brown liquid that would leak out in Duroville.

They have air conditioning. The toilets don’t back up. Wires aren’t hanging out in the open, and raw sewage isn’t forming puddles on the streets.

Yet there are still families living at Duroville, hoping to be re-housed. They may be moved by May 2013.

After the majority of families had left, so, too, did the regular services that residents had been paying for. For weeks, the trash was not picked up.

That is where Rudy Gutierrez, a South Coast Air Quality Management District liaison officer for the east Coachella Valley, came in. Together with the Economic Development Agency (EDA), the office of Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, and Burrtec, he organized a community cleanup on Saturday, March 30, to help the remaining residents by hauling off any bulk items they wished to get rid of.

Cleaning up Duroville is a massive undertaking, and this was a great start. There will be more cleanups in the future.

Approximately 120 volunteers came, mostly youth, from all over Coachella Valley. There was a girls' softball team, Kaos from La Quinta, composed of mostly sixth-graders. The boys’ boxing and basketball team from Mecca, the Boys and Girls Club and a variety of high school teams from all over the valley were also there. Some of the school teams were receiving a stipend for their volunteering, to benefit their teams.

I joined the teams and the respective adults, and together, we went around Duroville. We asked residents whether they would like to have any items removed. Burrtec’s large dump trucks would follow us around, and we would gather and place items in the bin. In some cases, the families were there to direct us to what they wanted us to take. In other cases, they had already placed items in their yards. Dust and dirt whirled all around as we picked up items ranging from fridges to tables, chairs to broken toys, broken bicycles to pieces of metal. The kids were motivated to help, but we were all very safety-conscious. The relief was evident on the residents’ faces, the thank-yous loud and clear.

The coach of the girls’ softball team said something very poignant when we spoke about participating in the cleanup. He brought the girls out here to do something as a team, outside of softball, and to let them see how others live. He wanted the young athletes to learn to be appreciative of what one has.

Indeed, it is sobering. No one should have to live like that. No one.

The end of Duroville is nigh. The remaining families are anxious to know when they will be moved, and where they will end up. Most of the residents will end up in homes currently being finished in the Mountain View Estates. Others are unsure what the future will bring. Not all residents will qualify to live in Mountain View and thus are looking for alternatives.

After helping with the cleanup, I can’t imagine anywhere that would not be a step up from Duroville.

Published in Local Issues

Ann Field and I stand on a dusty lot on Avenue 81. We’re in Oasis, south of Thermal and close to Highway 86. We’re watching for two dogs that have been abandoned and are running around the neighborhood.

As the sun starts to set, there they are—only instead of two dogs, there are now four. Ann sighs softly.

Animal-control officers from the Riverside County Department of Animal Services rarely venture south of 66th Avenue in Thermal. The department’s mission statement touts educating the public on keeping animals, the importance of spaying or neutering them, and ensuring they are in a good home. Yet Ann said that when she has spoken with people from the department—asking them about coming out to visit the nearby migrant work camps, where a lot of these dogs get left behind—they come up with a number of excuses.

Socioeconomic factors, as well as the inability to take their dogs with them, are just some of the reasons why the migrant farm workers leave behind their dogs. These animals often do not get spayed or neutered.

That’s where Lost Dogs of the Desert, Ann’s organization, comes in.

Ann has tried to work with local animal shelters, but she wants nothing to do with shelters that put animals down after a few days. There are some animal charities that have proven to be invaluable, she said. Michael Acosta, Ann’s partner, often drives to Morongo Casino to hand over dogs to people from no-kill shelters located in Los Angeles and San Diego. There is, for example, a charity dedicated to the rescue of boxers. Others rescue only purebreds, and yet others only rescue dogs less than 40 pounds. Still, these organizations are a big help.

But for dogs who are mutts, life is not so easy.

In the setting sun, the dogs are running toward a reservoir to get some water; they then cross a road and head toward a tunnel, where they will be safe for the night. Ann watches out for them. On the nearby stretches of highway, dead dogs are a common sight.

For the time being, she is only able to help two dogs at a time, given her limited resources. When I spoke to her, she was waiting for two dogs to get re-housed before being able to take in two more.

Honey and Rosie are two Australian shepherds currently being looked after by Holly Rose Martin, a young mother in Desert Hot Springs who volunteers to bring the dogs to the groomers and to keep them until new foster homes can be found.

Ann said Canadians who are staying at the nearby RV park often decide to take home a rescue dog. These people take on the costs of getting the dogs spayed or neutered, pay for all the shots, and apply for a health certificate, which each animal needs to have before being brought over the border.

She dreams of being able to build an animal shelter in the vacant lot opposite the RV park. However, she said that as of now, 80 percent of her income goes toward vet bills, feeding and grooming. This does not leave anything left over to put toward the fees needed for Lost Dogs of the Desert to become an official 501(c)3, much less start the process of building a shelter.

In the meantime, Ann, Michael and Holly and other volunteers do what they can to find funds and foster parents, one dog at a time.

Before I met with Mike and Ann, I asked her some questions via email. Her answers were so revealing that they are worth presenting here, as a Q&A.

I have been following via Facebook the hardships and difficulties you face finding homes for lost and abandoned dogs. Tell me: What led you to start rescuing dogs and other animals? How long have you been doing this?

My partner, Michael, and I began to rescue dogs quite by accident. One day, three years ago, a lovely white lab that was starving to death came to our door. I took it to the shelter, (and it) couldn't accept a dog over 40 pounds. I realized then there was little help here for dogs. I took the dog home, fostered it, provided vet care and in the process found out the dog belonged to a priest in the neighborhood (who had) died. … I kept the dog until a local farmer provided a wonderful home for the dog. The dog is in excellent health now and is happy. I knew I had to at least try to help some of them, as it would be impossible to help all.

What is the procedure when you find a dog?

When I find a dog—or the dog usually finds us—the first action is vet care. Due to the expense, we can only rescue one or two dogs at a time, and I only have one foster. We have to (check) the dog, check for owners, and do spay and shots. We have very few supporters, so a lot of the money is out of pocket. It limits me, because I am low-income. We do home checks (after dogs are adopted) and require monthly follow-up visits, even if it is by Skype. … We will drive anywhere we have to, to know a dog is in safe hands and can live happy, healthy and in peace. We make sure the intention is forever. The dogs that have been abandoned have been through enough. They can’t be left behind again.

What is the number of dogs/animals you find on a weekly basis?

The number varies. I can go three weeks with none, and one day with three. There is a cycle. When farm workers leave the area for their next job, we see a lot more, as they can’t take the dogs with them. Ninety of the dogs are over 40 pounds.

You are currently applying for 501(c)3 status. How is that going?

It's … at Financial First Aid in Beaumont. Due to needs of the dogs, we have never been able to finish paying for it. We hope one day, a miracle can happen, and it can get filed. A grant would make a huge difference to this effort.

What was the strangest animal you rescued?

A praying mantis. … Somehow, the guy got caught in a light. After the rescue, he stayed for one year and moved on.

What are your hopes for the future of Lost Dogs of the Desert?

My hope for Lost Dogs is the same hope for all shelters or rescuers: that people spay their animals, be responsible, and that we are no longer needed. For now, we pray for the 501(c)3 so we can see a no-kill sanctuary and a free spay clinic here. It can happen. It is our goal to see community awareness and education put into place, as we do not have that in my community right now. We would also love to see an educated professional volunteer coordinator come in and get the community geared up to foster. There are not enough fosters. Fosters are the glue of any no-kill system.

For more information on Lost Dogs of the Desert, or to help out, visit Rescue/331058100310038, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Local Issues