CVIndependent

Tue09172019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.”

Published in Environment

This month, in an attempt to defeat sleeping in, I’ve been exploring all sorts of interesting spots in the desert with my intrepid companion. Among other things, we learned that visiting Giant Rock, near Landers, in a two-wheel-drive vehicle is not easy.

We’ve recently been checking out the Desert X exhibits all over the Coachella Valley. While I am no art aficionado, it was a great way to motivate myself to visit parts of the desert I don’t frequent. I heartily suggest getting out there!

Aside from the art, I got to bounce on the trampoline-like beach of the Salton Sea, which filled me with equal parts dread and wonder. I also got to visit The Ski Inn in Bombay Beach and had one of the friendliest (and most enjoyable) bar experiences I’ve had in a while. As the sun went down over the water, and I sipped a cold bottle of domestic beer while chatting with locals, it got me thinking about this unique place of beauty and the challenges it faces. But I will leave the Salton Sea story to the real journalists.

I have been thinking a lot about adventure lately. The desert, among other things, provides many opportunities for adventure. Whether that adventure is in search of spiritual growth or the downright silly, you can find it here. The very word “adventure” itself has meant many things throughout the centuries. It originally meant “that which happens by chance, fortune, luck.” These days, it means, more or less, exposing yourself to a certain amount of risk for some potential gain. What better description of a night (and/or day) of consuming cocktails?! If chance, fortune and luck tag along, what better companions?

Anyway, after much preamble, here are some tips for minimizing risk and maximizing luck on your desert adventure.

1. Don’t brunch. “Whaaaat?!?!” I can practically hear the clamor: “Brunch is the best! Brunch is part of the reason we come to Palm Springs!” Yes, and brunch is the reason you are in bed at 8 o’clock when you come here. Yeah, and it’s also the reason you never went to Joshua Tree for that hike or visited those homes on your list for Modernism Week. Anthony Bourdain famously once said something to the effect of, “Brunch is for ‘people who brunch.’” Another way to look at it is: If you brunch, then that is all you will do that day. I am known to enjoy the occasional brunch myself, but if you plan on enjoying the bottomless mimosas, you are really just buying yourself a bottomless headache for the rest of the day. What a bargain! Instead, maybe stick to a michelada/chavela, if you must brunch and you have any other plans that day.

2: Make reservations. The desert is an easy-going and friendly place … until you show up with your party of six on a Saturday night to one of the better restaurants without a reservation. Call before walking in, and if you get offered an earlier seating than you hoped for, take it.

3: Don’t show up to a craft cocktail bar with your entire wedding party, unannounced. Craft cocktails take time to make, and if you drop 50 people into a craft-cocktail place, you are not only creating bad service for yourselves, but everyone else who was already there. Also, you’re going to be so loud and/or obnoxious that it will create a negative environment for the people trying to enjoy their drinks in peace. There are plenty of high-volume bars and clubs in town that would be happy to have you (call them ahead as a courtesy, though) … and we don’t have Red Bull, anyway. Instead, please visit us with a smaller group of cocktail-lovers when you can get away from the pack. Most craft places are on the small side, too, so if you think you’re going to fit into a place like, say, Bootlegger Tiki with your entire extended family and friends … it’s not going to happen.

4: Respect the environment and the community. Just as you wouldn’t (I hope) trash a beautiful desert preserve or park, remember that people actually live here, and it’s a real community. While I think most of us locals understand and deal with the little annoyances that come with tourist season, that does not mean we have unlimited tolerance. If you’re cool, we’ll be cool. If you stumble around with solo cups and act like fools, you’re going to get some side eye, at the very least. Try to remember that, in a small town, if it isn’t “your bar,” you’re a guest. We’re all small towns at heart out here. Also, try not to be “indoor cicadas.” I came up with this term for the noise that comes from having multiple bachelorette parties in the same bar. Not sure if it can be helped … just throwing it out there!

5: Talk to strangers! You’re an adult—so you can eat ice cream for breakfast now, and you can talk to strangers, too. People here love to talk to visitors and give them suggestions about all their favorite restaurants and activities. Trust me: Everyone here has an opinion on everything. One of my favorite activities on a night off is “kidnapping” visitors and showing them around. Sometimes we end up with a veritable caravan by the end of the night. If you find yourself in one of the remaining “Old Palm Springs” places (not all of which are in Palm Springs proper), talk to the older folks. When’s the last time you chatted with seniors? It can be a lot of fun, especially when a few martinis are involved. You’ll probably get a dubious Frank Sinatra story to boot.

6: Put your phone away. I know … the light here is exquisite. Your Instagram story is going to be so cool. But resist the urge. Breathe. Put the phone away … just for like 10 minutes. Enjoy a moment of quiet reflection. Maybe you’ll see a hummingbird at just the right time, and it will give you an epiphany. It’s just for you and not for your followers. At the very least, you’ll be less likely to get hit by a car crossing Palm Canyon.

7: Day drink. “Wait, you said not to brunch!” Yes, but I would never tell you not to day drink. That’s what we do in the desert; it’s practically a civic duty. Get yourself a good breakfast; hit an easy trail (you can find then all over the Coachella Valley); see an art exhibit; or engage in some other activity so you don’t feel like you wasted the whole day … and then get your drink on. Make a communal punch for your friends to enjoy at the rental. Enjoy the hotel pool with some frozen coconut monstrosity. Hit a local bar, and play your favorite song on the jukebox. Stroll down the sidewalk with a nice buzz making unnecessary purchases. Be open to adventure. Just remember to hydrate, and keep in mind that club soda gets you drunk faster, so beware those vodka-and-sodas.

8: Be safe. There are so many more things I want to say, but I will end with this. Use your common sense, and don’t underestimate the effects the sun and alcohol can have on you. For Pete’s sake, don’t drive while drinking. That’s an adventure not worth taking.

May all of your adventures end well!

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

The desert isn’t just a place to create art for Cristopher Cichocki; the desert is also his muse—and at times, his art includes actual pieces of the desert. His works have showcased the beauty, the darkness and the catastrophes of the desert and its ecosystem.

Cichocki’s work has been shown around the world, and he’s taking many of his pieces to the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster for an exhibition called Divisions of Land and Sea; it’s part of a larger exhibit called The Robot Show, which features eight artists, each with their own solo exhibition. It will be on display from Saturday, Aug. 4, through Sunday, Sept. 30.

During a recent phone interview with Cichocki while he was in Guadalajara, Mexico, he explained his exhibit.

“It’ll be an installation of new paintings, video works, sculptures, photographic works and my audio work,” Cichocki said. “It relates to the collision that we’re in between humankind, the natural world and industrial production.”

Some of Cichocki works are not what they appear to be at first. For instance: If you look at his photos, you’ll discover he’s combined them with paint.

“After Palm Desert High School, where I graduated in 1997, I went directly to CalArts,” he said; also known as the California Institute of the Arts, the renowned school is located in Valencia. “CalArts is potentially one of the most multidisciplinary art schools in the world, and I was exposed to highly experimental and conceptual practices. They were completely mind-blowing, and to challenge myself and experiment, and I’ve always been striving to take my practice and insights to a different level. CalArts was a laboratory for me to work through this hybrid framework.

“As to when the work came into this cohesive relationship, I feel that really came around 2010, when I started combining my elements with the video, the photography, the painting and the performance. They came together and started to work together as a cross-reference—meaning they’re all pieces of a larger puzzle. I’m producing paintings that are photographs; I’m producing videos that are paintings, and vice versa. I find it necessary for exhibitions such as Divisions of Land and Sea to combine all of these elements into a larger narrative.”

Cichocki was part of a KCET documentary on the Salton Sea. He voiced his concerns about the growing ecological and environmental threat the lake poses to the Coachella Valley.

“The Salton Sea is one of the largest pending airborne catastrophes threatening the United States, and it’s right in our backyard,” he said. “It’s this issue that I feel is out of sight and out of mind for a majority of people in the area—not only in the Coachella Valley, but even spanning all the way into Los Angeles, people don’t even know about the Salton Sea.

“The Salton Sea was a manmade accident in 1905 when the Colorado River split and started filling what was then the Salton Sink, which was a huge basin ready for this water to enter it. Now we have California’s largest lake … and if the dust or particulate matter begins to advance further with the receding shoreline, we’re going to have major problems with the air quality. We already do have major problems. The high school in Mecca has one of the highest asthma rates in the nation. It’s not just dust that’s blowing around in the air; it’s particulate matter entering into people’s blood streams and causing asthma, especially in younger generations. There’s selenium, arsenic and all of these other things. It truly is this synthesis of nature and industry because of 100 years of agricultural runoff.”

His work gets quite detailed at times. His latest painting, “Shoreline,” includes barnacles, fish bones, sand and salt from the Salton Sea.

“I look at (Divisions of Land and Sea) as a hybrid between natural history and contemporary art. I’m bringing in elements of land art, minimalism and other historical points of trajectory,” he said. “Also, I’m bringing in raw organic materials. My paintings have actual barnacles; they have actual soil and things that are transforming within them. There’s black-light reactivity, which I actually refer to in the technical term—ultraviolet radiation. There’s evidence that there’s a metaphysical property under these elements. I’m interested in reality and also the biological and phenomenological structural makeup of these elements. There’s this idea that there’s something constantly in motion, and the work is alive.”

I asked Cichocki if there was a spiritual element to his work. He seemed to struggle with the question at first.

“I certainly feel that nature has a certain awareness to it. It can be as simple as we water a tree, or we don’t,” Cichocki said. “Or it can be as simple as we have classical music playing, and the tree thrives beyond the other trees in areas where there isn’t any classical music.”

Cichocki will be going out of state for his next exhibition.

“In September in Taos, New Mexico, I’ll be performing Circular Dimensions at a large video and installation festival called The Paseo Project. Circular Dimensions is ever-evolving, so I have new tricks up my sleeve for Taos.”

Cristopher Cichocki’s Divisions of Land and Sea, part of The Robot Show, will be on display from Saturday, Aug. 4, through Sunday, Sept. 30, at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, 665 W. Lancaster Blvd., in Lancaster, about 135 miles northwest of the Coachella Valley. For more information, call 661-723-6250, or visit www.lancastermoah.org. Below top: “Center of the Sea,” 2018, Salton Sea barnacles on wood composite with LED video panel. Below bottom: “Property Division,” 2016-2017; left side is a tilapia nest at Riviera Keys, Salton Sea, Calif.; right side is algae with birds, Salton City, Calif.

Published in Visual Arts

As a child, Ignacio Ochoa would jump into a car and make the trek from his home in Coachella down to the Salton Sea with his cousins. They’d sit on the playa, looking out across the vast lake and watching birds dive into the water.

The waters then teemed with activity.

“We would cup our hands in the water and see literally hundreds of tadpoles,” Ochoa said. “Then, it seemed like the next year, it was all so different.”

Over time, Ochoa noticed conditions at the lake deteriorating rapidly. He’d return each time and find the playa increasingly covered in trash and dead fish. The air became harder to breathe. Crowds dwindled, and birds showed up in vastly smaller numbers.

Eventually, his family’s trips to the sea stopped altogether. He felt as though he was losing a connection to the lake—forever.

The future of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake by surface area, remains uncertain. Water transfers at the lake have disrupted the area’s wetlands—indispensable stopovers for migratory birds from across the hemisphere.

According to the Audubon Society, a national organization that promotes policies that protect birds and the environments in which they live, more than 400 species of birds have been documented at the Salton Sea.

As water recedes, more of the playa is exposed, kicking up toxic dust in an area where air is already choked from agriculture production. The dust contains tiny particles that can trigger asthma and aggravate existing heart conditions in older adults.

The state recently rolled out its 10-year Salton Sea Management Program. The $383 million plan focuses on wetland restoration, which ostensibly will help suppress dust. However, issues regarding the Salton Sea go beyond science and the environment. Local advocates want state leaders to see this as an equity and social-justice issue, too.

The lake sits between Riverside and Imperial Counties. More than 20 percent of children in Imperial County are diagnosed with asthma, versus just 8 percent nationally, according to a 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ochoa reclaimed his connection to the Salton Sea by returning to organize community members to participate in advocacy campaigns in support of the lake. He works with young people who come from working-class families that are dealing with asthma and cardiovascular disease—health issues tied directly to conditions at the lake, according to the same CDCP report.

The population in the area is predominantly Mexican and Mexican American, according to 2015 Census figures.

Ochoa said the area’s high levels of poverty and unemployment—and the area’s majority communities of color—represent factors that lead to a lack of power in the state. Some media reports paint residents simply as victims, with no way to affect their future.

“There is people power, too,” he said. “If you help mobilize people and provide them with access to information, that is a force to be reckoned with.”


Residents have seen decades of political promises turn into stagnation, even as one estimate claims the cost of continued inaction could reach $37 billion in public health costs over the next 30 years.

Ruben Garza and Cristian Garza, two brothers from Mecca who became youth-environmental advocates, represent a generation of Coachella Valley youth who remain hopeful in spite of all the stories about a looming crisis.

For years, health risks prevented the Garza family from returning to the Salton Sea. Cristian developed asthma and eventually suffered a collapsed lung that doctors attributed to years of exposure to the polluted air. Even with the risk of aggravating his lungs, he still goes to the lake to speak to residents about ways in which they, too, can become advocates.

“What will I do if I have family members who develop asthma?” he said. “I have the ability to do something about this issue now.”

Alex Portillo, another youth organizer from Mecca, said undocumented residents who want to get involved face extra risks due to the presence of Border Patrol agents in the region. She said a checkpoint set up near the south end of the lake often deters her peers from going to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge for volunteer cleanup days. During an interfaith advocacy event at North Shore Yacht Club on Dec. 2, some residents quickly left after it was announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were spotted in the vicinity.

Frank Ruiz, a wildlife conservationist with the Audubon Society, which organized the event, said the fear of deportation or detention is palpable in the area. He said it’s difficult to inspire people to care for the birds and wetlands when there is a risk that you may not see your family the next day.

“A community that lives in fear is not going to come to events,” he said. “We have to care about their issues. It should concern us if this will truly be a community collaboration to restore the sea.”

Ruiz said restoration and conservation are the main focuses for statewide advocacy groups like Audubon, but the main driver must be protecting human health—which means empathizing with communities from across political and racial spectrums.

Ruiz said he uses “El Salton Sea” as a way to acknowledge diverse languages, cultures and connections to the lake. It also helps him connect with Latino residents who may not know about the health risks tied to the lake.

“Groups and individuals who work together on this issue come from (different) backgrounds, often with differing opinions on best solutions,” he said. “But we can always find the common denominator, which is human health.”

Ruiz said Latino residents don’t see conservation as a priority—but that’s not because they don’t care. He said many communities don’t have access to resources for information. That’s why he partnered with Spanish-language media company Univision to produce a series of public-service announcements about the lake. In one segment, the announcer asks, “Did you know your health issues could be tied to conditions at the Salton Sea?”

Ruiz is also finding ways for residents to feel a sense of ownership over restoration plans and designs. He said some residents don’t see the value of building wetlands, which they think of as swamps.

“There must be local incentives—benefits that make people feel their input is valued,” he said. “Why not make enticing designs that bring economic incentives for locals?”

Ruiz, who has lived in the area for almost a decade, is also a local police chaplain. He identifies as Native American, through his Yaqui heritage; the Yaqui are from the Mexican state of Sonora and the Southwestern United States. He said this part of his identity helps him connect with other Native American groups, such as the local Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians.

Raymond Torres from the Torres-Martinez tribe said disagreements between various interest groups were common in the past. However, the focus on protecting human health in the region resonates with him.

Torres said he wants the ancestral history of Native Americans acknowledged in restoration work. A portion of their land was submerged when the Salton Sea was accidentally created early last century—and that land remains covered.

For the current generation, Ruiz said, he is opening pathways for educational research and restorative projects. He said he cautions the next generation from seeing the relationship with the Salton Sea only as “utilitarian” and not one of harmony.

“We tend to see nature as something that exists away from home,” he said. “Nature is part of us; it’s our home.”

Below: A group of birders with Audubon Society California take part in a birding trip in an area near the lake’s alternative energy projects.

Published in Local Issues

The Salton Sea was accidentally created in 1905, and its relentless deterioration began in earnest after the area’s heyday as a resort area in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the decades since, water levels have dropped precipitously, while pollution and salinization levels have skyrocketed—and as a result, the lake is a gradually evolving natural disaster in our backyard.

Over the years, various scientific and political initiatives have been proposed to forestall the very real dangers posed by the degrading sea. But few, if any, of the proposed solutions have been implemented.

Until now, that is.

“The two-pronged approach is moving forward under the Salton Sea 10-Year Plan,” said Bruce Wilcox, the assistant secretary of Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. “(The first prong is) concentrating on getting some construction done out there so there’s some habitat restored, and more importantly, from a public health point of view, getting some dust suppression happening. We’re doing that right now. We’ve already started.”

The second prong is still being developed, and various Salton Sea threat-management stakeholders—including the Salton Sea Authority, the California Department of Water Resources, the Imperial Irrigation District and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife—are in the process of conducting a series of community workshops, led by Wilcox, in cities surrounding the Salton Sea.

“These meetings are for anyone, but they’re particularly designed for the public,” he said. “We hold them in the evenings so that folks who are working during the day can go.”

What’s the goal of these workshops?

“What we’re hoping to get from the general public is some input on whether or not they think the short-term projects make sense,” Wilcox said. “Are (people) happy with where they are located (geographically)? What other longer-range solutions do you see for the Salton Sea? So far, we’ve gotten some interesting feedback. For instance, there’s concern about water import. There’s concern on the part of people who live on the west side of the sea as to how soon there might be a restoration program under way near them. Those are the sorts of things we’re trying to get from folks.

“Also, longer-term, we want to know if they think the two-pronged approach will work, and how well they think it might work, or what they think we should do to change it.”

One encouraging aspect of the Salton Sea 10-Year Plan rollout is that it offers the first evidence that separate bureaucratic efforts are finally coming together. Signed by the governor in October 2015, Assembly Bill 1095 called for the creation of a list of “shovel-ready” Salton Sea restoration projects by March 31, 2016.

“All of the projects which were mentioned in that bill are included in the 10-Year Plan,” Wilcox said. “Red Hill Bay has started construction.”

The Red Hill Bay Project is a joint effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Imperial Irrigation District to restore habitat on the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea. Wilcox said the state-funded project includes about 500 acres.

Wilcox said other projects will get started later this year and early next year.

“The southwest corner of the sea includes the New River, and on the east side of that river, there are about 640 acres of species-conservation habitat,” he said. “We will advertise in the next month for a bid on the development of this project, and we should start construction on that later this year. That’s a deeper-water fisheries habitat. We now have salinity issues with the Salton Sea that are raising heck with the fisheries, so when we put these on the ground, we’ll manage the salinity in these impoundments. At least we’ll then have some stable fish habitats. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.”

The 10-Year Plan projects are expected to cost about $390 million in total. Who will provide that funding?

“We have $80 million in state of California grants stemming from (2014’s) Prop 1,” Wilcox said. “But we’re looking at getting additional funding from the (United States Department of Agriculture) perhaps, or from the (federal) watershed improvement acts. There’s a bill right now in the California State Senate that would provide additional funding. I’m confident that we’ll get the money we need.”

However, the Trump administration has not exactly embraced funding for environmental issues.

“Well, it’s a new administration, and we’re learning about them as they’re learning about us,” he said, rather diplomatically. “We have a signed memorandum of agreement with the Department of the Interior for funding. I’m going to assume that we’ll get that funding.”

However, Wilcox acknowledged that the memorandum was signed under the Obama administration.

“It certainly could be taken away,” Wilcox said. “But for the state of California, and for most people who look at this question, the cost of restoring the Salton Sea is a huge number. But when you look at it from the federal government’s perspective, it’s a line item in a budget, and there are all sorts of line items in there that are bigger than this one, so I’m reasonably confident that we’ll be able to prevail with the agencies. We’ve had some very productive discussions with them to this point. … But I don’t want to kid anybody. Funding is going to be an uphill fight. It always is, no matter what the project is.”

Wilcox expressed optimism that the 10-Year-Plan will succeed.

“I think the odds are reasonably good,” he said. “(The sea) won’t be like it was in the 1960s. It’ll be smaller, but sustainable. We call it the Salton Sea Management Program for that reason: It’s not restoration, necessarily. It’s to manage and impact all of the things going on.”

Workshops on the Salton Sea’s 10-Year-Plan are being held in cities all around the Salton Sea, including one at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, July 6, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio; and another at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 12, at the Rancho Mirage Public Library, 71100 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. For more information, including a complete schedule of workshops, visit resources.ca.gov/salton-sea.

Published in Environment

In 1922, seven Western states agreed to divvy up the water in the Colorado River, paving the way for giant dams, reservoirs and aqueducts to move and store it.

Over the next century, the arid region, prone to erratic storms and punishing droughts, saw farms and cities grow and grow—with the belief that the water they relied on so heavily was inexhaustible.

But the Colorado River Compact, as the agreement is known, contained a serious flaw: The states overestimated how much water flowed through the river, which begins high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and runs southwest for 1,450 miles, before entering the Gulf of California in Mexico. In nearly a century since then, roughly 40 million people have come to rely on an allocation of water that doesn’t actually exist.

That miscalculation underpinning management of the West’s most-important river is one of the many manmade errors that have contributed to the region’s current water crisis. That crisis and, more specifically, its human origins are the subject of a new documentary, Killing the Colorado, which premiered Aug. 4 on The Discovery Channel. Based on the award-winning series by ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, the film examines the Colorado River’s growing inability to deliver the water that farmers, cities and entire ecosystems across the West rely on. While a prolonged long dry spell has exacerbated current shortages throughout the region, the film posits that most of the scarcities were not caused by nature, but by short-sighted policies and poor planning.

That leaves a harder question: If the real problems are manmade, can’t we find a way to fix them?

The film begins in one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas, California’s Imperial Valley, where huge farms blanket what was once a desert. The transformation was made possible by water from the Colorado River, piped 80 miles across the desert through the All-American Canal. But in California, Imperial Valley farmers are coming under increasing scrutiny for using the vast majority of the state’s water—a pattern that repeats throughout the West, where roughly 80 percent of the available water goes to agriculture.

Blaming farmers for using so much water becomes suspect, however, if you’re sitting in New York in the middle of winter, eating an organic kale salad. The greens, as one farmer points out, probably came from the Imperial Valley. For audiences not accustomed to finger-pointing, such examples create an uncomfortable reckoning, as well as an iteration of the film’s central theme: that the water crisis is everyone’s doing.

The film offers plenty of painful moments, nowhere more so than in its discussion of our very own Salton Sea. Created by an accidental breach in an irrigation canal, the sea has been kept full for decades by drainage from Imperial Valley farms. But as farmers find ways to use less water, the Salton Sea is shrinking, exposing dry beds of toxic dust. The result is an impossible dilemma: Conserve water, and worsen the region’s sky-high asthma rates; or keep it full by using the region’s scarcest resource.

Elsewhere in the West, agonizing questions around scarcity play out over big water projects, such as one proposed for southern New Mexico’s Gila River. In early July, the state agency in charge of planning and operating the diversion finally disclosed its plans, setting in motion the environmental review process, which will inform the federal government’s final decision on whether to approve the project. Experts questioned the high cost and long-term viability of the project—and the risk of repeating last century’s mistakes. But in moving the diversion proposal this far, proponents have played on deeply held attitudes about water in the West: Get as much as you can, before someone else does.

That such fears continue to influence decisions about water management today is one of the film’s more pointed arguments. The proposal for the Gila, it notes, is just one of the many new dams and diversions currently planned for the Colorado as states throughout the Upper Basin scramble to claim every last drop they have a right to develop.

As Lustgarten says in the film, “When faced with scarcity, the unfortunate reaction for many is to take a little more.”

If pinpointing the problems associated with the water crisis is challenging, the solutions appear even more so. In recent years, for instance, city water providers have been buying up farmers’ water rights, addressing the imbalance between urban and agricultural water rights. But the water trading also creates a whole new set of problems.

Those costs are evident in towns like Crowley, Colo., a community built around irrigation canals and a once-vibrant agricultural economy. But beginning in the 1970s, farmers sold off most of their water rights to growing cities like Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Fields and orchards turned to weeds, and as one current resident describes, “Crowley became a ghost town.” Today, prisons are the biggest employer in the county. The filmmakers avoid judgment on the issue on water-trading, instead offering a cautionary tale about the massive consequences—largely unforeseen—surrounding those decisions.

Meanwhile, as water’s scarcity drives up its value, Wall Street investors are entering what is now a multi-billion dollar business in water trading. One of those players is Water Asset Management. The $500 million hedge fund has invested in everything from Imperial Valley farms with prime water rights to desert cities like Prescott, Ariz., in need of new water supplies to support its growth. In many ways, it’s a win-win; the hedge fund money is helping farmers and cities find ways to save water and develop, while also securing huge profits for themselves by selling the water saved. The film suggests that markets are going to play an increasingly important role in allocating water in the West, but leaves open the thornier questions of whether, for instance, the growth fueling demand for new water supplies should be revisited, or whether water should be treated solely as a commodity, rather than, say, a basic human right.

If there’s a central lesson the film wants to convey, it’s that there are no easy fixes when it comes to the West’s water crisis. Who, for instance, should bear the cost of using less water? The answer, at least, seems obvious: everyone.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

This has been one of the most highly charged and controversial election years in recent memory.

However, all is calm in State Assembly District 56, which includes Imperial County and much of the Eastern Coachella Valley. That’s the realm of Democratic State Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, who is facing no formal opposition for a second two-year term.

In 2015, Garcia reportedly made history by becoming the most successful freshman California assemblymember ever: The Democrat authored or co-authored 14 bills and two resolutions that were signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Independent recently chatted with Garcia about his first term, as well as his plans for his second.

What would you identify as the highlights of your legislative accomplishments to date?

There were a couple of different things. There were some environmental bills. Assembly Bill 1059 was introduced by our office, but it was an idea that came from a local organization. That’s an important bill for a place like Imperial County, which suffers from some of the highest asthma rates among children because of poor air quality. It became effective this year, and it is going to put air-monitoring systems along the California-Mexico border to begin quantifying and collecting the necessary data to make the case that there are emissions along the border that are in excess of safe levels. Because of border-crossing wait times due to a lack of infrastructure, those living in this region are subjected to this poor quality of air. Although this bill doesn’t address those problems directly, it positions this region to go after greenhouse-gas-reduction funds through the Air Resources Board of California.

In the East (Coachella) Valley, a bill that stands out to me is adopting the new regulations for the purpose of installing new water-filtration systems in the rural parts of the district that do not have centralized water and sewer infrastructure. These filtration systems protect people from consuming contaminated water. In this case, it’s water with high levels of arsenic.

Jumping back to Imperial County, we passed AB 1095, the Salton Sea projects. The bill required the Natural Resources Agency to report to the Legislature by March of this year a list of shovel-ready projects that are now going to be part of the execution of the $80.5 million in funds that we successfully included in this year’s state budget.

How do you feel about whether real tangible progress is being made to improve the fate of the Salton Sea, and remedy, or at least mitigate, the dangers its dissipation would pose?

I feel good, because through our legislation, we outlined what the shovel-ready projects are, and I feel good because now there’s some money available to be able to execute those projects. Also, I feel very optimistic about the state’s commitment moving forward, because $80.5 million has been allocated. But, look: For the first time, the state of California has committed a significant amount of money to a problem in our region, in this case the Salton Sea, so there’s a lot of optimism. But there’s still work to be done, and for some of us, it’s not happening fast enough. So now our message is beginning to change, from, “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” to, “Here’s what’s going to happen over the course of the next five to six years.”

What issues and challenges concern you the most during the remainder of this term, and looking ahead into your second term?

This year, we’ve got some tough bills that ask for money. I can tell you that our parks bond, asking for $3.2 billion, is probably going to be a heavy lift for the governor to sign. He’s not a big fan of going out and borrowing money, even if the return on the investment is good. But I’m confident that the bill will get through the legislative process.

For us in the 56th Assembly District, the bill has about $45 million that will go directly to programs, projects and services in our area. One example is that there is a direct allocation of an additional $25 million to the Salton Sea restoration efforts that would be very welcome. There’s another $5-$6 million that is going into the restoration of the New River. … That’s in the final stages of executing a strategic plan to develop the infrastructure to clean up the water and ultimately to develop a parkway in the city of Calexico, which would be beneficial to the entire Imperial County. Also, there’s $10 million for the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy to address their land acquisitions for the purpose of habitat conservation in the Coachella Valley. We’re going to keep our push going over the next couple of weeks as it makes its way through the Senate. It’s a two-thirds bill, and it required me to get a few votes from Republicans to get out of the Assembly and move to the Senate. We’ve got the backing of six Republican assembly members, which is unheard of. So we have a reputation in Sacramento thus far of collaboration and (taking) a bipartisan approach, and I think that, too, has helped us.”

What are your thoughts about the famous proposed Donald Trump wall between Mexico and the United States?

Mexico is a very important economic partner to the state of California and to our nation. Mexico is also an extremely important partner in the case of our national security. Our relationship with Mexico can determine the safety and well-being of this country. For those concerned with terrorists from other parts of the world entering the United States, I would think that our foreign policy with our neighbors to the south and our neighbors to the north would be one of cooperation, collaboration and good communication, to ensure that we all have each other’s backs. So I think it’s really ridiculous to try to continue the rhetoric of alienating our neighbors to the south. Our foreign policy needs to be a constructive and productive one with our neighbors to the south—and building a wall does not get us to that point.

Published in Politics

Sustainability. It’s a word that often comes up when discussing the Salton Sea—but what does “sustainability” truly mean?

On Saturday, May 24, environmental leaders and residents gathered at Second Annual Environmental Health Leadership Summit at Thermal's Desert Mirage High School to learn about the sustainability plan being proposed by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), as well as many other environmental issues.

Bruce Wilcox, environmental manager at the IID, presented the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative at the event organized by Comité Civico del Valle and Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto.

This initiative seeks to develop more than 1,500 megawatts of geothermal energy, with solar, wind and biofuel projects to follow in phases following the initial geothermal project.

According to the IID website, the Salton Sea possesses the largest capacity of geothermal energy in the nation. The agency's leaders believe the initiative would allow for the development of new jobs and economic development.

“IID has a network of air-quality monitors around the Salton Sea. Since the IID spans both sides of the sea, it pretty much does what (the South Coast Air Quality Management District) and (the Air Pollution Control District) do in Riverside and Imperial counties,” said Eduardo Guevara, executive director of Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto. “They have information we need them to share.”

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when a massive flood caused the Colorado River to burst through an irrigation canal and flow freely for 18 months into what was then known as the Salton Basin. It is a closed basin—which leads to the buildup of salt.

The Salton Sea, for now, is sustained by agricultural water inflow from the various agricultural locations within the Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali valleys. However, it is also evaporating at the same time.

It is important to note, however, that in 2017, an agreement that has led to an annual allotment of Colorado River water being diverted into the Salton Sea will end. The lack of incoming water will worsen the water-quality and air-pollution problems that are already prevalent. Year by year, the sea will slowly dry up, meaning pesticides, salts and fertilizers that have settled on the seabed will be exposed. Therefore, fine dust and toxins will become more airborne than they already are, thus endangering the health of the public, various agricultural fields and other parts of the local economy.

The IID initiative would create a renewable energy source in the Salton Sea, which would, in turn, provide some groundcover in the sea.

While the sea’s future depends on cooperation and deliberation by agencies and environmental leaders, the residents of the eastern Coachella Valley can aid in the effort to sustain the health and economy of the region by attending meetings and gatherings like the Environmental Health Leadership Summit.

“Ask, demand and be present,” urges Guevara. “Leaders are nothing without the people backing them up. They need to start demanding solutions and making elected officials accountable.”

To learn more about the IID’s Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative, visit www.iid.com/index.aspx?page=663.

Johnny Flores Jr. is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth-media group 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. 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 coachellaunincorpaorated.org.

Published in Environment

The Salton Sea—the picturesque historical landmark located at the southeastern edge of Coachella Valley—is receding.

Will it survive? Or will it dry up and become a massive generator of harmful dust emissions—posing a serious threat to public health and the local economy?

This simple and important question has been debated for more than 20 years now, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Salton Sea Authority (saltonsea.ca.gov), a joint-powers agency chartered by the state of California in 1993 to ensure the preservation and beneficial uses of the Salton Sea. The SSA is composed of two representatives from each of five member agencies: the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe, Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District.

This still-unanswered question spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to recently sign Assembly Bill 71. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would authorize the authority (SSA) to lead a restoration funding and feasibility study, in consultation with the (State of California Natural Resources) agency. This bill would also require the secretary (of the CNRA) to seek input from the authority with regard to specified components of restoration of the Salton Sea. By imposing duties on a local joint-powers authority (the SSA), the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.”

In plainer language: The bill is intended to identify strategies to address the serious environmental and social challenges facing the Coachella Valley and the rest of Southern California due to the Salton Sea’s tenuous future.

The most immediate result of the bill was the earmarking of $2 million in the 2014 state budget to fund a study to determine appropriate restorative actions.

“AB 71 was successful, because after it was passed, we managed to get funding, which was a really good feeling,” remarked Roger Shintaku, executive director of the SSA. “We fought long and hard to get the funding.”

Keali’i Bright, the deputy secretary for legislation with the California Natural Resources Agency, is the point-person on the state’s involvement in the Salton Sea campaign.

“We’ve gone into contract with the Salton Sea Authority and their sub-contractor. … The study itself is very promising,” said Bright. “There’s an idea out there that we can encourage the development of a lot of geothermal and renewable energy resources around the Salton Sea, and that development can bring economic prosperity, and also provide revenues for further restoration activities.”

How would the revenue created by such development flow back into the restoration effort?

“More than 91 percent of the land under the sea basin is owned either by the Imperial Irrigation District or the United States government, so they would probably do some kind of leasing with development companies,” said Bright. “But one of the specific task orders in the study is to look at how you actually get revenue.”

Shintaku’s SSA is supervising the creation of an action plan as the first phase of the study.

“The first step in the feasibility study is to take the plan and make it more detailed and goal-oriented,” he said. “We’ve broken down specific tasks we want to accomplish along with the schedule, because we need to finish the feasibility study by May 2016.”

Of course, revenue and cost considerations can make or break any long term plans—especially when it comes to a project as daunting as saving the Salton Sea.

“We need to examine what was laid out in the past and then try to inject the reality of today’s finances in an effort to see what we can do,” Shintaku said. “The bottom line is that we want to advance ecosystem restoration, and we want to advance any mitigation efforts, but we have to look at our own financial ability first, because we can’t really count on anyone else coming in.”

What about the state budget funds earmarked to support SSA efforts? “The state is obligated to help out,” agreed Shintaku. “At the same time, we’re looking at what we can do locally without help from the state or federal governments. We’re doing what we can to move this forward.”

Everyone agrees that time is of the essence—as the Salton Sea’s water supply will soon decrease. In 2003, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the State of California and the U.S. Interior Department signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which requires that annual allotments of Colorado River water are diverted into the Salton Sea. However, that agreement ends in 2017.

Can anything be done in the near term to address the other challenges linked to this looming environmental, economic and public-health crisis?

“The renewable projects themselves could be dust-storm preventers,” Bright observed. “… By this autumn, the state will begin constructing 600 to 700 acres of projects on the ground. Our focus and investment is in habitat ponds, which are really the most difficult to build. They’re deep-water habitats designed to grow fish, basically, so birds have fish to eat. Meanwhile, (the Imperial Irrigation District) is focusing on shallow-water habitats that are slightly less challenging, but equally important.”

Curiously, there seems to be no serious discussion about delaying the QSA deadline on Colorado River-water allotments.

“That’s way above my pay grade,” said Bright. “But I don’t know if the benefits are really there, because the tipping point on the salinity of the sea is already being reached. Undoing the QSA would be a monumental feat. We’re trying to work within our current framework toward the best solution and give us some kind of pathway to the future.”

Shintaku said that no matter what is done, the Salton Sea will always be around, in one form or another.

“If nothing else happens, and there’s still agriculture in the area, there’s going to be water draining into the sea,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the real question. The real question is: What kind of sea will there be?

“As we move forward after the feasibility study, we’d like to try to improve on what’s happening with the species-conservation habitat and develop projects that maintain habitats and address future concerns of dust proliferation,” he continued. “We cannot say for certain that all 365 square miles of seabed will be a dust bowl. We won’t know until the sea actually recedes. That’s another challenge for us, to develop a program that will allow us to do dust control when such conditions arise, or avoid it by keeping areas wet or planting vegetation.”

Of course, all of this work is being attempted in the midst of the worst drought California has seen in recorded history. How could this reality not serve as an impediment?

“My feeling is that it’s been helpful, because it’s put the focus on water issues in the Legislature and where we put our priorities for water,” said Bright. “So in this year’s California Water Action Plan, the Salton Sea was put in as one of the priorities. … Other water areas have definitely been impacted by the bandwidth suck of the drought, but this is probably one of the few areas that hasn’t.”

Published in Environment

Fish-farming—also known as aquaculture—was the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the United States back in 1998, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

At that time, the Imperial and Coachella valleys generated roughly 70 percent of the farm-raised fish coming out of California, according to the same Times story. In 2012, the production of farmed fish worldwide surpassed the production of beef for the first time in modern history, according to an article from environmental think-tank Earth Policy Institute. That same piece notes that this year, the worldwide consumption of farmed fish may surpass the consumption of fish caught in the wild.

But here in the Coachella Valley, the aquaculture industry has suffered setbacks as the demand has grown.

"The whole fish farm industry in the U.S. has been hit by high feed costs and energy costs," said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO and inventor with OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company that develops water-cleanup technology. According to him, the problem got so bad that some California fish farms closed as the Great Recession set in back in 2007 and 2008—including some here in our valley. But Riggs Eckelberry and his brother Nicholas, OriginOil’s co-founder and chief inventor, believe that their new technology can bring about a resurgence of aquaculture in Coachella Valley.

On Wednesday, Dec. 18, the pair were present at Thermal’s Aqua Farming Technology fish farm, which farms tilapia and catfish, as OriginOil unveiled its relatively new Electro Water Separation (EWS) Algae screen S60 process, which couples with the Aqua Q60 water-purifying process to form the foundation of a relatively inexpensive solution to sustainable organic fish farming here and around the world. Aqua Farming Technology has partnered with OriginOil to become their permanent showcase facility.

“This farm is owned by a company that is trying—with the combination of solar panels to provide cheaper energy—our algae feed for nutrition and our inexpensive water cleanup solution, to create a package that will enable the restart of all the fish farms in Coachella Valley,” explained Riggs Eckelberry. “They want to make us part of their secret sauce. Hopefully, it won’t be so secret soon.”

The media event was attended by State Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia.

“Today’s a good day,” Mayor Garcia (right) said. “Anytime we can introduce a technology that is clean and green, and can address a wide range of issues here in our region, such as job creation and environmental matters ... it’s a good day.”

Of course, the other big-picture environmental matter that was discussed most frequently on this day was the threat to the survival of the Salton Sea.

“Working with partners like OriginOil,” said Pérez, “we can integrate and bring in academicians, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs and those who believe in sustainable communities to advance efforts to restore the Salton Sea.”

In fact, Nicholas Eckelberry said he already has at least a partial solution to the Salton Sea problem. The lake’s future is being threatened by a decreasing water supply, and increasing salinity and pollution.

“I’ve designed a system for ocean cleanup which could effectively clean up the Salton Sea—at least all the suspended solvents,” said Eckelberry. “The technology we’re showcasing today is applied to algae-harvesting. Then we apply this same technology in a different format to ammonia-reduction. And we apply it in another format to frack-water-cleaning in the oil industry. And in another format, we can apply it to waste water treatment as well.”

One immediate positive local impact resulting from the OriginOil presence is a newly established alliance with the Green Academy of the Desert Mirage High School in Thermal. Lead teacher Tony Korwin brought nine of his pupils (below) with him to gain some first-hand knowledge of this new technology in their neighborhood.

“The Green Academy is a school within a school,” said Korwin. “ These students study green energy—solar, wind, geothermal. We were invited to come down here today, and they want to partner with us for continued education and potential scholarships for my students.”

Riggs Eckelberry said he sees real value for all participating partners.

“The Coachella Valley can be a source of organic fish-farming, which is not only invaluable to this community, but will set an example for the rest of the world and change perceptions of farmed fish. We’re super excited.”

Published in Environment

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