The eastern portion of the Coachella Valley struggles with poverty, bad air and water quality, high unemployment, high levels of asthma, a receding Salton Sea, high levels of arsenic in well water, pesticide-spraying—and the list goes on. It’s a far cry from the bright lights that shine over the golf courses to the west.
However, residents are trying to do something about these problems, and an environmental justice movement is growing in the eastern Coachella Valley. As part of that movement, the inaugural Environmental Health Leadership Summit took place at Thermal’s Desert Mirage High School on Saturday, Feb. 23.
The summit was organized by Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto and the Comite Civico del Valle, and had more than 30 sponsors. The focus of the summit was to promote health and environmental awareness, leadership, systems change and cultural and linguistic competency.
Environmental health was the main topic—specifically air and water quality, public health and the Salton Sea restoration.
Information was distributed about ways people could help clean the air, asthma management in children, and cleaning products that are safe to use in the home. There were keynotes, speeches and workshops.
I participated in the summit as a vendor, where I displayed my photographs and my book, Portraits and Voices of the Salton Sea. Other vendors and information providers included 350.org, Occupy Coachella, the county Economic Development Agency, Legacy of Clean cleaning products, California Rural Legal Assistance and Planned Parenthood. The high school sold drinks and food to raise money. It was great to see the different stallholders share the same vision of environmental health and equality.
I was also on a panel regarding Salton Sea restoration. It was my first time as a panelist.
We were on the stage hidden behind a curtain as Congressman Raul Ruiz was announcing us. Nervousness aside, it was an honor to voice my opinion and pass on what other members of the community had been passing on to me over the years.
Along with me were Doug Barnum, of the U.S. Geological Survey; Bruce Wilcox, of the Imperial Irrigation District; Paul Reisman, acting superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreational Area; Jason Low, from the South Coast Air Quality Management District; and Phil Rosentrater of the Economic Development Agency. Jose Angel was the moderator, from the Regional Water Board.
After we each spoke, it was time for the questions from the moderator and the audience: What do we each think are the most pressing issues? What is the highest priority? If nothing is done, what is your biggest fear? What about the efforts to make a viable plan to restore the sea?
We spoke about how we need to prevent a toxic dust storm from becoming a reality; how we need to prevent another Big Stink; how we need to focus on health issues; and how it would be nice to have a thriving recreational area again, or at least a sea that will not turn into a toxic semi-dust bowl while emitting hydrogen sulfide burps that stink all the way to Los Angeles.
Barnum noted that there are many problems with restoration efforts, and one solution for one problem might be to the detriment of another.
I mentioned that the focus has to be on “keeping the Salton Sea wet,” a quote from Norm Niver, a Salton Sea activist since 1974. There was mention of how geothermal, algae, solar, wind and other renewable-energy industries might be the key to finding the funding so essential to saving the sea. The Salton Sea area is second to none for potential renewable energy.
I spoke about the disconnect between the community and the agencies, and how there need to be more opportunities to work together.
This summit was a great start. Area residents often feel as if they do not have a voice. They have been complaining about health issues and high asthma rates for years, and have been fearing the demise of the Salton Sea for decades. So, to say that the residents are having a hard time trusting the local agencies is an understatement. The current representatives of these government agencies need to work really hard to earn back this trust.
A couple members of the audience shared this feeling of frustration and questioned the currently proposed restoration project. The project, as it stands, would start small, by building a few shallow water ponds at the southern end of the sea. This would keep those areas, which are already exposed playa, wet, and would serve as habitat for wildlife. As time goes on, and more funding comes in, further small-scale projects would be implemented.
In the meantime, the question remains: Where would the money will come from for a large-scale restoration project?
This is not good enough, said one member of the audience. What about a comprehensive plan? And how is it that after so many years, only a couple of small shallow water ponds are being built? How can we trust these agencies? Why is the community not being listened to? And why are there no answers? He spoke about the state oversight meeting on the day before, led in part by Coachella area state Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, and how members of the public could come forward and voice their opinion—but they each had only a single minute to do so.
Not good enough.
My hope is that we can all work together. That the man in the audience gets the information he wants as to why the comprehensive plan will not be implemented. That there will be future summits like this one.
For more information on the summit, visit ejsummit.com. Organizers will add videos from workshops, keynotes and presentations in the coming weeks. There will also be updates on another summit, to be held in Imperial County, scheduled for the end of April 2013. Below: Fossil Fuel Not Cool is a campaign by Occupy Coachella and 350.org.