CVIndependent

Thu06042020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Back in October, a mulch fire ignited at the Sun Valley Recycling Center near Thermal, on land owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians. The smoke plagued schools and neighborhoods for several weeks, creating health concerns for thousands of residents in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Communities and school boards called for help—and one of the organizations that answered that call was the recently expanded Desert Healthcare District, led by newly elected Board President Leticia De Lara, and Chief Executive Officer Conrado Barzaga.

“There were funds (accessible to the DHCD) that were identified for clean air and to address some of the air-quality issues related to the fires that were burning in the east valley last October,” De Lara said during a recent phone interview. “Our CEO, Conrado, was able to identify these funds and some partners who could bring some immediate health-care resources to the residents, including Borrego Health, Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, federally qualified health clinics, the Coachella Valley Unified School District and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians tribe. Also, (Barzaga) was able to identify some funds that were set aside to address issues like this in the future, and (allow potential responders) to avoid the chaos that resulted … (by facilitating) their coordination.”

This would not have been possible a couple of years ago: In November 2018, Coachella Valley residents voted to expand the Desert Healthcare District beyond its original, antiquated Cook Street boundary, all the way to the eastern end of the valley. Since then, seven districts were re-drawn and approved by the DHCD board, and directors were put in place for each. As 2019 drew to a close, the DHCD was starting to make its supportive influence felt in these historically underserved east valley communities.

In another recent dangerous health-related incident that drew substantial attention, the management of the Oasis Mobile Home Park in Thermal proved to be incapable of supplying reliable access to clean drinking water for its nearly 2,000 residents; the drinking water drawn from wells on the property, also owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, was found to contain unacceptably high levels of arsenic. Immediate attempts to import clean water proved insufficient.

“At our December meeting, we allocated some funding to be used in partnership with the county of Riverside to address some of the water-quality issues affecting the mobile home park in the Thermal area,” De Lara said. “And we also funded a request from Martha’s Village back in October. So, those are some examples of what’s already been accomplished” in the expansion territory.

The arrival of the DHCD as a new funding option in the east valley is welcomed by established nonprofit health service providers working with east valley residents, including the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine (CVVIM).

“It’s nice to see new things happening,” said Doug Morin, the executive director of CVVIM, in a phone interview. “There’s about $300,000 for east valley funding. So, when you consider all the (health-care-related) charities serving residents in the east valley, (the funding) is limited, but anything is better than nothing.”

Morin said he had just submitted an application for a $50,000 grant to be used to defray the costs of the east valley patient services his nonprofit provides. He hopes his proposal will get approved by the DHCD board in February. However, when compared to the roughly $120,000 annual grant that CVVIM has received from the DHCD to serve its west valley population, the geographic discrepancy in available support becomes apparent.

De Lara said the disparity comes from the fact that funding going toward efforts within the previous DHCD boundaries is not being reduced to fund efforts in the expanded portion.

“We’re continuing to provide the same level of funding for the west valley. … We are continuing to address homelessness and (work) for a regional solution,” she said. “We believe that in the west valley, there are some major gaps in services (for the homeless).”

According to the June 30, 2018, audited financial statements, the total outlay of funds to west valley grant recipients was $5,076,039 for fiscal year 2018, the last full fiscal year prior to the expansion eastward. However, efforts by the DHCD to raise comparable funds to support east valley service grants are foundering. Given this reality, it’s impossible for the grant levels to reach parity across the valley without cutting the grants to providers serving west valley residents. However, as De Lara indicated, that is not a likely scenario for the DHCD board to pursue.  

Morin sees his CVVIM as somewhat unique among Coachella Valley health-care service nonprofits, because it has served residents at both ends of the valley for years. He said the distinction and disparity between funding levels for the original DHCD territory and the new expanded territory is obvious and challenging.

“Their max funding request (for the recent proposal he submitted to serve east valley patients of his clinic) was $50,000, which is what I requested,” he said. “They don’t have that restriction on the west valley, because, of course, they have more funds for the west valley.”

How can the DHCD address this funding imbalance?

“I think we’re realizing that there’s going to be a need to include other partners,” De Lara said. “Sharing costs on some of these long-term visions, I think, is important. Also, there’s the potential to bring in dollars from the state and federal governments by communicating to them in a much better way, through our assessments and studies, where the gaps are, and how they can help us. We can put together a really strong, compelling case statement for some funding. I think the potential to bring in grants that add to our current resources is a very promising possibility for funding.”

In the past, DHCD representatives have approached Riverside County and the state government about various tax strategies designed to generate the new revenues necessary to fund the annexed east valley needs. However, that outreach has so far proved fruitless.

“The possibility of going to the voters or the county for some assessment is something that we have not discussed, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying where we’re at on that, because we’re nowhere,” she said. “But in the last board meeting (of 2019), we actually approved two positions to take the lead on exploring funds and grants to help support the work that we’re going to be doing on behavioral health. So I think that we’ll start with grants to try to generate more revenue.”

Despite the immediate challenges presented by the revenue shortfall, De Lara said she sees a bright future for her organization’s ability to enable much-needed quality health care through its grantee nonprofits.

“We have to think strategically,” De Lara said. “We have to think incrementally, and we have to think partnerships. I think that’s how we’ll be approaching the mass of the needs that we (face) now because of the additional area, as well as the district we had before. We’re one Coachella Valley. We’re one district, and we have to keep asking, ‘Are we advancing toward our mission, and are we doing it in a fair way, a smart way and collaboratively?’”

While Morin said the funding disparity is problematic, he praised the efforts the DHCD is making.

“They’re a great foundation,” Morin said. “They’re very transparent about everything that they do, and I like their plan of this ‘One Coachella Valley.’ Their (east valley) impact will be felt immediately, once we receive those (requested grant) funds. Even though I may wish that (those funds) were more, it’s a start. … Sources of funding in the east valley are somewhat limited, so this is valuable. It’s important for us, and it will allow a number of agencies to provide more services. So they’re out there doing their own fundraising, and hopefully, over the years, the amount of funding available to the east valley will increase, and that’s a good thing.”

Published in Local Issues

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

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