In late March, a press release landed in inboxes announcing the launch of the Coachella Valley Waterkeeper organization.
The release included some fairly inflammatory language about what the CVWK claimed were serious and ongoing aquifer-overdraft issues—and the failure to address Salton Sea degradation challenges. The CVWK, it seemed, was sailing into the Coachella Valley on a white warship to protect the environment and conserve water—two things, the release implied, had been dangerously mishandled by local and state stakeholders over the past decade or more.
The CVWK, as a program being launched and supervised under the auspices of the Orange County Coastkeeper (OCCK) organization in Costa Mesa, is a member of the national Waterkeeper Alliance, based in New York and headed up by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. On the Waterkeeper Alliance website, you can find this description of the CVWK and the valley: “The rich history of Coachella Valley in the desert region of Riverside County, California, is embedded within the Whitewater River watershed and the Coachella Valley aquifer … Today, the Whitewater River continues to serve as a critical water resource that replenishes the Coachella Valley aquifer—a drinking source for 400,000 people, including the reservation for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla people, and 66,000 acres of farmland. Coachella Valley is also home to a diverse array of animals and plant species that are now threatened by degradation of water quality caused by urban and agricultural development. The river, aquifer and Salton Sea, to which it drains, suffer from a legacy of poor development practices, antiquated infrastructure insufficient for the area’s current and future growth, pollution from agricultural return flow and unpermitted concentrated animal feeding operations, industrial runoff, and aquifer overdrafting.”
We wondered: Who were these people from Orange County who were convinced they could drop into the midst of our dusty valley and solve all of our water-related problems? For answers, we reached out to Garry Brown, the founder and president of the Orange County Coastkeeper, the parent entity of the new CVWK.
“OCCK is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and what we wanted to do is try to help out in the Coachella Valley, because I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for it,” he said. “I love the area. But all areas have water problems and issues. … While I can’t sit here and tell you that we have a defined body of work that we want to do, we’re out there now talking to a lot of people and listening.
“Obviously, there’s the Whitewater River and everything that pertains to it and the wash, and the value (those resources) bring. It’s a source for the aquifer which is incredibly essential to the Coachella Valley. And there’s the Salton Sea, which is somewhere between an asset and a big liability. A lot must be done there, or it’s going to be catastrophic, not only for the habitats there, but for the people, too.”
With so many local stakeholders working full-time already on these critical issues (albeit with less-than-completely successful results), what can the CVWK offer that will prove to be the game-changer?
“It wouldn’t be responsible of me to go out to the Coachella Valley and disrespect people who have been working on these issues for a long time, and start saying, ‘We know what all the issues are, and we know all the solutions,’” Brown said. “So we’ve been talking to a lot of people out there. We are trying to learn. We are trying to be respectful of other organizations that have been doing work for a long time, particularly on the Salton Sea. We absolutely feel that we can be an added voice. If it takes pressure in Sacramento or in Washington, D.C., we can help out with that. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of the proposals and ideas on how to fix (the Salton Sea). I’ve watched many millions of dollars being spent without anyone turning a shovel of dirt or anything. There seem to be concrete plans, but if they don’t get moving, and they don’t get funded, we’re running out of time before it becomes a health issue for the people there and all the way down the Interstate 10 corridor.”
As a first step toward proving its commitment to the Coachella Valley, at the start of June, Brown and the OCCK hired recent Peace Corps veteran Nina Waszak as the associate director and on-the-ground program leader. During a recent phone interview, Waszak discussed her plan of action.
“My No. 1 priority right now is gaining visibility within the communities of the Coachella Valley,” Waszak said. “I’ve been working on putting together a list of other nonprofits or organizations who are not just working with water issues, but are working similarly along the lines as we are. These are people I can collaborate with, because there are a lot of great organizations doing a lot of work focused on water, especially the Salton Sea. I’ve talked with the National Parks Conservation Association, and they gave me some good tips about what’s going on here. Also, a lot of my job right now is learning about the local issues. As far as the Indian tribes, we would love to collaborate with the Agua Caliente (Band of Cahuilla Indians), but I’m still working on getting in contact with them. I do have some contacts with the Torres Martinez reservation in Thermal, which is working on a wetlands-restoration project at the Salton Sea.”
While in the Peace Corps, Waszak served in a remote indigenous community in Panama where they had their own language, culture and form of dress.
“I lived with them and learned their language,” Waszak said. “Also, because of the nature of where I lived, there wasn’t any potable water year-round, so everything I did was in the river. I bathed there, washed my clothes, washed my dishes there. … So I really learned to have an appreciation for water and what we have here in the States. That (experience) plays an interesting role in this position I have now, because I can see the importance of water and the fact that here in the Coachella Valley, there are still water issues, particularly in the eastern valley with potable-water sources.
“As a Peace Corps volunteer, my job was to hear what the community needed and then use my resources and my knowledge to bridge that gap and help them get what they needed. I’m definitely using that idea in this job.”
For his part, Brown appreciates the lonely role Waszak will be playing for a while.
“She’s going to be alone out there for the next few months, and yet she has a whole backup (team) here at the OCCK,” he said. “We have professional educators, attorneys, accounting people and media-publicity people she can rely on to help build her program. On another front, at over 40 high schools in the Costa Mesa region, we show kids where water comes from, besides the faucet, and where it goes, besides the drain. We pay for buses and take them on field trips to show them facilities that are dealing with water. These are all activities that we’ll soon be looking to incorporate in our program out there.”
Brown asked that those of us in the Coachella Valley give him, Waszak and their team a chance.
“When I started (the OCCK) 20 years ago, I didn’t know where it was going to wind up,” he said. “But we’ve been able to compile a long list of achievements and wins. I just want to extend that out to the Coachella Valley and help by being part of the team that makes things better out there.”