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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

Driving north on Highway 86 one sunny fall afternoon, I almost crashed when I came across the sight of beautiful ladies and snakes hugging the walls of a market in Desert Shores.

“Shesha Sand Storm,” the mural that so surprised me, is a show-stopper. It’s monochrome, dramatic, loud and obviously the work of someone skilled and talented. It offers an urban contrast to the desert skies, yet somehow suits the backdrop of the market and surrounding area.

As it turns out, not one, but two artists created this mural: Finnbar Dac (aka FinDac) and Angelina Christina. They’re the same people who created the beautiful and controversial mural at Bar in downtown Palm Springs.

FinDac hails all the way from London, England; Angelina is from the Los Angeles area. They were traveling across the U.S., leaving their larger-than-life painted women and snakes all over the country, in places including Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Minneapolis and New York City—culminating in early December’s Art Basel, one of the largest art events in the world, in Miami Beach, Fla.

Urban areas like Minneapolis and even Palm Springs make sense for street-art-style murals. But Desert Shores? Its last Census population: 1,104. It’s in the middle of the Colorado Desert, sitting quietly alongside the Salton Sea. Desert Shores is largely populated by families, mostly lower-income. It has a laundromat, a closed bar, a couple of churches, a closed marina and a fire station. Life is quiet here. But sometimes what draws a mural artist is not mere location, but the size and availability of an empty wall.

Angelina and Fin came to Desert Shores with friend and fellow artist Craig, aka B4Flight, who has been documenting their journey. The muralists saw the sea for the first time and were intrigued.

Angelina had heard of the Salton Sea, but like most Angelinos, she had not ventured out this way. FinDac had come to Los Angeles to expand on his work. Born in Ireland and based in London, he wanted to explore the world and its empty wall spaces with his paintbrush, stencils and spray cans. He only started painting about five years ago—as an act of self-preservation. It gave him peace and a space away from whatever it was that was haunting him.

He met with Angelina, a muralist and artist based in Venice Beach, and they connected. Same vision, same ideas—including embarking on their epic road trip.

They arrived in Desert Shores and headed for the seashore. Slightly perturbed by the fish smell, ever curious about the circumstances of the sea, and on the lookout for potential wall space, they spoke with a local resident who recommended they pay the market a visit: There was a big, empty wall there.

The owner approved, so they got to work. Local residents came up, curious about their work and impressed by the scale and beauty; kids surrounded them, wanting to see their techniques. (Some of those kids had been tagging in the area and were well-versed in street art.)

The result: “Shesha Sand Storm.”


In addition to meeting with Fin and Angelina, I got in touch with Carmen Zella, whom I met at a Salton Sea-related conference. Carmen is the executive director of the Do Art Foundation, based in Los Angeles.

While Do Art did not play an official role in the Desert Shores mural, Carmen has been promoting Angelina and Fin, as well as other artists and projects that “are artistically uplifting spaces and communities’ access to art.”

Zells is well aware of the myriad issues surrounding the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea needs more positive attention, and Zella feels that bringing public art to the region will ultimately benefit the area.

I was intrigued by how it was that an L.A.-based foundation came across the Salton Sea, and why Zella felt it was important to bring public art to this location. I recently interviewed her via email.

When was the first time you came down to the sea? How did you hear about it, and what intrigued you?

Living in Los Angeles, the allure of the Salton Sea has been mystified and demystified. It’s an area of significance, and creative splendor—yet disregarded by the society at large because of its troubled waters. Artists see beauty where others do not; artists exemplify and portray beauty in areas that are largely ignored. By opening up the area for this type of investigation and exploration, wheels can start turning, and positive attention to the area can be restored.

Why public art? Why the Salton Sea?

Public art is an expression that is democratic. It is non-exclusionary, and is a form of communication that inspires thought—it provokes curiosity, but above all is a reminder that human expression and creativity is vital and should be shared with others. It’s our history and a major part of our evolutionary path. We lack waterways, and in an age of environmental crisis, making the right steps is no longer a choice—it’s a necessity to ensure our survival on this planet and way of life as we know it.

Do you have any particular locations in mind where you would like to see murals?

I love seeing murals that incorporate the surroundings and are sensitive to the architecture. Spaces that are more remote, or demand a sensitive palette, because they have exquisite qualities of decay, or abandon—when they are restored by an artist’s touch with an addition of character, love and tenderness in the way that they spend time together, it’s powerful. How the artist and the building can combine and collaborate to restore the facade into … “art” is my favorite.

Which artists are you thinking of bringing in?

I would love to move more into the Salton Sea … and the community of artists would as well. There are two classifications of artists: the ones who are born as artists who make work because their mission is to express and evolve, and those who make work because their mission is to be known and made legendary. I prefer the former, and I think that the sensitivity of the Salton Sea deserves this type of artist as well.

Do you think it might be possible to have collaboration between local artists and more well-known artists working together on these murals?

Absolutely. Involving the community is always important. Sometimes, outsiders see things that we do not; having lived in the same environment for so long, we forget. The freshness of new eyes that are speaking other languages or hearing strange sounds is a great reflection for ourselves and surroundings. Mixing this with a local culture is the best mix. Most artists need to develop collaborative relationships, so I would never pair people together in this practice, because it is a forced marriage … but there are many ways to incorporate unity. We learn from each other in observation as well as in shared experience.

What do you think the murals and public art will do for the Salton Sea?

Whenever artists move into areas, transformation begins to take shape. This area is equated to decay and environmental tragedy; artists (can) bring in new life and take what is existing and showcase its beauty.

The Do Art Foundation would love to work with local community members, (helping) owners and local artists to make a significant effort to bring the opportunity to the area in the form of a large-scale art movement. For this, we will need support, both financially and in terms of participation of businesses to house, feed and host the artists who would happily come there to share their work. In the wake of this, tourists, art-lovers and attention will be revived in this area—without any agenda other than to uplift the community. We are ready at Do Art Foundation to help connect the artists and make this happen.

Published in Visual Arts

“Litter, and it will hurt. It hurts the community, and the fines will hurt when you get caught. Half of the litter is accidental, from things blown off trucks and such, but the other half doesn't reflect positively on the community.” —Walt Thompson

I have a message for the person who intentionally dumps trash and unwanted items into the desert.

You are a total jackass.

It does not matter whether you dump in a neighborhood or an open space. Shame on you, as you are responsible for:

• Environmental degradation. Bringing in hazardous waste, plastics, plastic bags, diapers, clothes, tires and commercial waste is not conducive to a healthy ecosystem. Waste gets into waterways; it damages vegetation; animals and birds eat it; it attracts rodents and crickets.

“Dump sites containing waste tires provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can multiply 100 times faster than normal during our warmer months. Severe illnesses, including West Nile virus and encephalitis, have been attributed to disease-carrying mosquitoes originating from discarded waste tires,” said the Imperial County Public Health Department in a 2007 research paper.

• Physical and health risks—especially to kids. Kids might see some of these areas as improvised playgrounds—which means they could be playing in chemical waste. Rodents living at the dumpsite might have the hantavirus, and there is high risk of sharp objects like broken glass, rusty metal nails and so forth.

• Lowering property values. Who wants to live in a neighborhood where there is a large amount of trash? According to the Keep America Beautiful website: “93 percent of homeowners say a littered neighborhood would decrease their assessment of a home’s value and influences their decision to purchase a property. And 40 percent estimated that litter would reduce a home’s value by 10 percent to 24 percent.”

• Using taxpayer money unnecessarily. Billions of dollars, both from government and private sources, are spent each year cleaning up other people’s trash. According to a 2009 Keep America Beautiful study, the United States spends $11.5 BILLION on cleaning up litter every year. This does NOT include organizing campaigns to educate people not to dump. Let’s put that in perspective: If your salary is $29,000 per year, it would take 34,482 years to earn just $1 billion. Wouldn’t you prefer that this money be spent on something useful, rather than loathsome individuals or groups who can’t be responsible for their own shit?

• Trashing the Salton Sea. If you dump your trash into a wash, it will move down the wash. There isn’t much rain—but when it rains, it pours, and all that trash will end up in the sea. And let’s not forget our fabulous wind. Guess who eats the trash? The birds and the fish. Hazardous liquids seep into the soil and pollute the waterways. Oh, but I hear some of you say: The Salton Sea deserves to dry up anyway. Well, if the sea is allowed to dry up, the trash and the pollutants will not. Instead, they’ll blow through the valley during high winds.

Thanks for all that, illegal dumper.

So why do people dump in the desert? What on Earth makes them think it is OK? Laziness, a lack of education, because it is easy, or a total disregard for anything outside of their narrow world-view, for starters.

Perhaps it also includes a misunderstanding of the desert landscape: To many, the desert landscape is not alive; they do not see the damage that their dumping can create. However, the desert is actually an ecological wonder, and if people would spend more time in it and learn about the ecosystem, they may begin to have a different connection with this landscape in which we all live.

So, what can we do about illegal dumping? Mainly, it boils down to education:

• Most trash-haulers will pick up bulky items and electronic waste, often for free, on designated days, or if you ask in advance. Hazardous materials can be dropped off at various locations, and a lot of communities organize annual or twice-a-year household hazardous waste collection days. Each city is different, and it may take a little bit of research and planning—but that is what being an adult is all about. Google is handy; type in the name of your city, your trash service, and the service you require, and you’ll probably have more links and information than you can swing an old motor-oil bottle at.

• Educate kids while they are young about the effects of illegal dumping. Every school district should organize an annual cleanup day in the areas surrounding their schools. Every child is better off after attending a community cleanup, as they see first-hand the effects of illegal dumping—and the time and effort that is required to clear an area of trash.

• Spread the word about what we can all do if one of us sees someone in the act of dumping illegally, or the aftermath. For one, you can call the local sheriff’s department or police department. While illegal dumping tends to be unfortunately low on law enforcement’s priority list, they are responsible for acting on your behalf. There are also task forces and other resources in place, like IVAN, which is set up to take reports on illegal dumping activity. The website is pretty easy to use—and you can even upload photographs.

• Would-be illegal dumpers need to understand that there are consequences. In Riverside County, according to the waste-management website, “The fine is $5,000. If the illegal dumping involves commercial quantities, you may be imprisoned up to six months and fined $3,000 upon the first conviction, $6,000 upon the second conviction, and $10,000 for a third conviction. Vehicles may be seized and impounded for 30 days when used in the act of illegal dumping; related costs may exceed $1,000.” The county has started putting up cameras at well-known illegal trash sites, too.

If I had my way, I would walk every dumper out to their own personal dump site, make them pick up their own trash, videotape the whole thing, and shame them each publicly.

This year’s annual community cleanup at the Salton Sea takes place on Saturday, Nov. 9; please come and volunteer from 9 a.m. to noon at the corner of Sea Elf Street and Salton Bay Drive, off South Marina Drive in Salton City. Snacks and water will be provided, as will gloves, bags and some picker-uppers. If you have any questions, contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For more information:

Published in Community Voices

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has an unenviable job even in a wet year, but in prolonged periods of drought, the task of managing the Colorado River is even harder.

The agency is in charge of balancing the water levels in the country’s two largest reservoirs: the serpentine desert lakes called Powell and Mead. Seven Western states depend on water from the Colorado for everything from showering to growing lettuce, and keeping the reservoirs at the proper level makes sure everyone gets their legal share—that is, until drought complicates things.

Fourteen years of drought exacerbated by a dry spring, and an even drier July, prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to do something it’s never done before: release less water from Lake Powell. That means water levels at Lake Mead, 250 miles downstream of Powell, will continue to drop, threatening to render one of two intake pumps inoperable, and leaving Las Vegas with only one source of water—and no backup.

Unlike many major cities in the Southwest that supplement Colorado River water with groundwater, Las Vegas depends almost entirely on the river. And according to a 2007 Colorado River water agreement, Arizona and Nevada would be the first to feel the effects of an official shortage declaration—when the Bureau of Reclamation would deliver less water to users in those states than normal—while California would not be affected. Reclamation's Lower Colorado River director, Terry Fulp, says a shortage could occur as soon as 2016.

So it’s easy to see why water managers in Southern Nevada are trying everything they can think of to get more water into Lake Mead—including going after a meager 10,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from a wildlife refuge on the Salton Sea. Just days after Reclamation announced its water cuts on the Colorado, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sent a letter to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge accusing its managers of illegally using Colorado River water to maintain wetlands and grow food for migrating birds.

The Salton Sea is a strange place. Created by accident in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal, the 381-square-mile lake became an important migratory stop-over and nesting site for many species of birds, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail. In 1930, President Hoover recognized the ecological importance of the sea by declaring portions of it a national wildlife refuge. Now, due to water efficiency measures on farms in the Imperial Valley and rural-to-urban water transfers, the sea is drying up, risking the health of both birds and people, who could choke on toxic dust from the sea bed, as happened downwind of Owens Lake in the early 20th century.

As a wildlife refuge, the folks at Sonny Bono are concerned primarily with the birds, and in order to maintain their wetland habitat, they have been buying 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) for decades. “It’s not like we’re stealing water here,” says Michael Woodbridge, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Southwest Region. “We’ve been doing it a long time and through the proper channels.”

But the Southern Nevada Water Authority disagrees, arguing that using Colorado River water to create habitat for birds is not technically irrigation, and therefore violates Imperial’s contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. (SNWA representatives declined to comment on the letter, citing “legal implications associated with this issue.”)

Although this water sale has been happening for years, a July court case gives SNWA a new legal leg to stand on. In Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians v. Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that using water to construct waterfowl habitat is not “irrigation,” and that Nevada water law speaks of “irrigation solely in the context of agriculture and distinguish(es) such use from the application of water for recreational, aesthetic and wildlife purposes.”

Even before this new legal challenge, Patricia Mulroy, who heads up SNWA, has long held a grudge against the Salton Sea, calling it “an accident” and “agricultural runoff; that’s all it is,” in the Las Vegas Review Journal. Mulroy also told the newspaper that “it’s ludicrous to imagine fresh water being sent to evaporate in a lake that’s already saltier than the Pacific Ocean while Lake Mead threatens to shrink low enough to shut down Las Vegas’ water intakes and the turbines at Hoover Dam.”

Mulroy is also critical of previous efforts by the IID to replenish the sea, including a 2010 delivery of nearly 50,000 acre-feet of water that Reclamation is now forcing the district to pay back. The fact that Imperial has the right to much more Colorado River water than Nevada—3.1 million acre-feet, more than 10 times the Silver State’s annual allotment—could also have something to do with Mulroy's grudge. Still, SNWA maintains that neither drought or the recent court case influenced its decision to criticize water use at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea refuge.

For its part, IID maintains that sending irrigation water to the Salton Sea is legal. “It is folly to object to Colorado River water being used for environmental purposes at the Salton Sea. It is misguided. It is wrong as a matter of environmental policy, and it is wrong as a matter of law,” IID General Manager Kevin Kelley told the Imperial Valley Press.

So what could SNWA’s accusation mean for the Salton Sea? If the refuge can no longer buy water from IID, it could accelerate the exposure of the sea bed and potentially hasten the creation of toxic dust clouds. More certain is that without Colorado River water, tens of thousands of migrating birds won’t have rye grass to eat in the winter, which could force them to chomp crops on neighboring fields, angering farmers.

As Woodbridge says, “You can’t manage for wildlife in a place like the Salton Sea without water.”

Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Local Issues

When you see Cristopher Cichocki's art installations, you senses will experience contradiction. He’s an organic artist, yet his works are illuminated by his signature neon paint, and often black lighting, creating an edgy yet natural composition. He brings attention to his underlying theme: the collision of man and nature.

Cichocki is the Palm Springs Art Museum’s 2013 Artist-in-Residence. His large-scale installation Desert Abyss: Cycle in Cycle opens Friday, Aug. 16, and will be on display through Saturday, Sept. 28. (Editor's note: The exhibit has been extended to run through Oct. 27.)

He often uses materials found in nature—such as on the desert floor. His works of art merge photography, painting, sculpture, video, sound and installation, creating a multi-sensory experience. Art-lovers raved about his Epicenter exhibition, at the Pacific Design Center's See Line Gallery in West Hollywood, earlier this year.

The Illinois native and Coachella Valley resident has been inspired by nature and the ever-present threat to an environment that is vulnerable due to man's actions and inactions. Water is a constant in his works; he often focuses on the Salton Sea and its problems, which threaten to affect everyone in Southern California.

Neon-painted dead fish and videos of water and life that coexist along the desert's edge are found in his works. There’s even a hint of nuclear catastrophe, perhaps, at his intersection of art, science and nature. Topography, art and geological forces are beautifully represented in his art forms, which include audio and visual stimulation.

Desert Abyss: Cycle in Cycle pays homage to the ancient body of water that once covered the Coachella Valley, and the remnants of that sea’s life, which are found along the mountains as fossilized fish and plants. Water was also his subject at his exhibits at ROJO Nova Museum in Rio de Janeiro and in São Paolo's Rojo Nova Museum of Image and Sound. Using locally drawn materials from the Amazon River and surrounding forests, Cichocki reflected the conflicts between civilization and nature—yes, it’s a worldwide theme.

I have watched Cichocki evolve throughout the years, and it’s exciting how he has been able to find a voice for the many issues that we face. This exhibit is a must-see; Cichocki has found inspiration in the desert and is making a difference by educating the public while also entertaining people with his eclectic art, showing both environmental beauty and the perils we face as a society.

I asked Cristopher where he sees himself in five years, and he replied that he wanted to be traveling the world with his curated exhibitions from museum to museum—kind of a nomadic artist at large.

See his work at the Palm Springs Art Museum while you can.

Cristopher Cichocki’s Desert Abyss: Cycle in Cycle will be on display at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, from Friday, Aug. 16, through Sunday, Oct. 27. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday, and Friday through Sunday; and noon to 8 p.m., Thursday. Admission is $12.50 for adults; $10.50 for seniors; $5 for students; and free to military members, museum members and children 12 and younger. Admission is free to all from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, and the second Sunday of the month. For more information, call 760-322-4800, or visit PSMuseum.org. An artists’ talk will be held on Thursday, Aug. 22, and a symposium on the future of the Salton Sea will be held from 3 to 5 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 22.

For more on Cichocki, visit cristophersea.com.

Richard Almada is the CEO and president of Artistic Relations and heads up Desert Art Tours. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Below: "Deep Breath" by Cristopher Cichocki.

Published in Visual Arts

Ah, San Diego: As Coachella Valley residents know, the city to the south features great weather, a zoo with adorable panda bears, sandy beaches, turquoise swimming pools—and very little water.

Unlike other arid Southwestern cities, San Diego doesn’t have an aquifer to draw its drinking water from, so it imports about 80 percent of it. For many years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supplied most of that water. But a policy that would allow the Los Angeles-dominated agency to cut San Diego’s supply by 50 percent during drought has always made the city uneasy.

For years, San Diego has been looking for ways to wean itself off L.A’s supply, and in the 1990s, the city began eyeing the Colorado River, which is diverted through the desert in a series of huge concrete canals to the Imperial Valley, where about 80 percent of the country’s winter vegetables are grown. The valley is a heavy-hitter in the water world, with rights to one-fifth of the Colorado’s flow. In 2003, under immense pressure from the feds, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell some of that water to San Diego. But Imperial County officials worried the water transfers would hasten the demise of the Salton Sea, and sued after the deal was inked. Now, a recent ruling should put much of the dispute to rest, allowing the largest rural to urban water transfer in U.S. history to continue.

Legally, California is allowed to take 4.4 million acre-feet from the Colorado, but for many years, the state sucked more than that. Upstream states didn’t mind, as they weren’t using their entire allocations. But that changed around the millennium, when, as Ed Marston reported in High Country News in 2001, “the other states, growing larger and thirstier with each passing year, worried that they would never get to use their full apportionments of the Colorado if California’s use became institutionalized.”

So the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rolled out the “4.4 plan,” designed to shrink California’s take of the Colorado back to its legal share. The plan called for lining the All-American Canal, which carries Colorado River water to Southern California, and sending the “reclaimed” water to cities. Cutting water use in the Imperial Valley, rather than in urban areas, was another major part of the plan.

In order to reduce its use of the Colorado without leaving urban residents dry, California has been scrambling to work out a series of conservation measures and farm-to-city water transfers. Under the terms of the plan, negotiated by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Department would wean California off the surplus Colorado River water slowly, over 15 years—if California could line up the water transfers by Dec. 31, 2002. If California couldn’t work it out, Babbitt and then his successor, Gale Norton, vowed to cut off the state from surplus water at the stroke of midnight.

And on New Year’s Eve, as California water agencies futilely struggled to finalize a crucial deal, Norton did just that, slashing California’s cut of the Colorado River by over 700,000 acre-feet, enough water for 1.6 million households.

The dramatic New Year’s cutoff worked. Later that year, the Imperial Irrigation District signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, agreeing to send 200,000 acre-feet of water per year to San Diego for the next 75 years, or about 9 percent of its total Colorado River allotment. To meet the terms of the deal, Imperial Valley farmers fallowed some 36,000 acres of farmland.

But the water transfer, and accompanying efficiency measures, had an unexpected consequence: They accelerated the demise of our very own Salton Sea, which was created in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal and fed only by continued leaks.

Here’s the problem: If the sea is allowed to dry without treatment, it will generate 17 tons of unhealthy dust a day, according to the Pacific Institute. Winds pebbled with stinking salty sand will sicken asthmatics, children and the elderly, especially in the eastern Coachella Valley. Crops in the nation’s winter salad bowl—the Imperial Valley—will be harmed. In short, if nothing is done to restore the Salton Sea by 2018, we’ll all feel the fallout. (One minor bit of fallout: a series of valley-wide foul smells from the decaying lake, most recently on July 2.)

So the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and other plaintiffs sued, arguing the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA, violated state environmental rules. In 2009, a judge agreed with the plaintiffs, but that decision was later overturned on appeal. The case finally made it to the Sacramento County Superior Court, where in June, Judge Lloyd Connelly upheld the 2003 agreement.

San Diego’s water authority was thrilled; General Manager Maureen Stapleton told the Los Angeles Times that the decision is “landmark victory in San Diego’s historic quest for a more reliable water supply.”

Up in the Imperial Valley, the mood was more somber. “Regardless of how the judge ruled, all parties to the agreement need to acknowledge that the Salton Sea is suffering, and its continued deterioration poses great risks in the future to the environment and public health,” Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, wrote in a statement.

As uncertain as the future of the sea is, Colorado River users may have a bigger problem on their hands: over-allocation. Last December, the Bureau of Reclamation released a report predicting water demand will soon outstrip supply, due to drought, climate change and increased growth in the Southwest. In May, water districts, environmental groups, farmers and tribal members met in San Diego to discuss a way forward. The Imperial Irrigation District participated in the meeting, but made one thing very clear: no more rural to urban water transfers.

“We like to farm,” Tina Shields, Colorado River resources manager for the irrigation district, told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think anybody down here is going to volunteer for more transfers.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor of High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

The Salton Sea area’s Salvation Mountain was handmade by folk artist Leonard Knight.

That is right—handmade. By himself. Every single line of paint, every tree limb, every handmade flower on the walls, every “Jesus” written on the side of the 50-foot-tall mountain—all of it.

Originally from the East Coast, Knight came out here to fly a balloon across the United States that he had made in the name of God, but the materials kept rotting. So Knight moved on to his new project and began to use what natural and materials were available to him. Using adobe clay, hay, water, found objects (such as tires and car parts) and—according to Leonard—a lot of faith, he built this gigantic tribute to God in the 1980s, epitomized by the words "God is Love" standing out underneath a giant cross at the top.

Both religious and nonreligious people's faces light up when they visit his creation out here in the desert, on the southeastern side of the Salton Sea near Niland—and if they’ve had a chance to meet Leonard, they seem to each have a story. He has received visitors from all over the world—and that number only increased when the film Into the Wild came out in 2007. In real life, the subject of the story, Chris McCandless, had spent some time with him; later, Sean Penn, the director of the film, got Knight to make an appearance in the film.

Today, Leonard Knight no longer lives onsite. He is turning 83 this year and has been living in El Cajon since December 2011. Knight had slept in a small trailer near the mountain, with no heating or air conditioning, no running water and no electricity, since 1984. In the summer, day time lows can hover around 95 degrees, and highs can hover around 115 for weeks on end. It can also get insanely humid.

Bob Levesque, of Salvation Mountain Inc.—a nonprofit organization tasked with preserving Knight’s work and legacy—says that Knight’s health has declined rapidly in the last two years. Knight lower left leg had to be amputated due to a blood clot, for example.

However, the news is not all bad: He underwent a much-needed operation on his cataracts, and he can properly see again. In fact, he is planning a visit to Salvation Mountain at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 19. If his health permits, for the first time in nearly 20 years, he will be able to see his mountain in full color.

The massive lifestyle change—from living independently at his mountain, to living in the El Cajon home—must have been quite the shock to his system.

“He made attempts to pay someone to smuggle him out and drop him off at the mountain,” Levesque says. “We, of course, didn't let this happen, as his health would not allow him to stay. After his amputation is when he finally realized he was at the best place he could be. He now tells Dan (Westfall, the Salvation Mountain board of directors president), ‘The kids here are taking good care of me, and I like it here.’”

In the meantime, the folks at Salvation Mountain Inc. are trying to figure out the best ways to maintain the site. Knight’s majestic mountain is not immune to the desert sun and heat, and is in need of repairs and constant maintenance. Throughout the cooler part of the year, the board organizes monthly work parties, and the members hope to attract more participants this fall.

The organization is accepting applications from people who wish to be onsite managers. So far, applicants have preferred short-term commitments.

“Weare planning to continue recruiting and fill the schedule with any qualified candidates for however long they can stay,” Levesque says. “I guess this will keep us truly living by faith. So far, we haven't had any lapses in coverage, but at times, the coverage is a local baby sitter who fills in when someone goes away.”

Managers receive a stipend and are supplied with “water, ice, solar, DSL and waste removal. For the right candidates, we may also be able to offer living quarters, but prefer if they have their own RV,” Levesque says.

The charity relies heavily on donations.

“The generosity of hundreds of people has helped maintain funds in our account so we can offer a stipend to onsite managers and buy supplies and other needed items. Most of all funding comes directly from the donation box at the mountain, but we also have been receiving donations via PayPal online and through private donations.”

Meanwhile, Salvation Mountain is worth visiting. In Knight’s words: “I just really believe that God built this mountain, that I didn’t. I am not really capable, especially being an artist, of doing anything, but God Almighty can do anything.”

For more information or to donate, visit www.salvationmountain.org, or www.facebook.com/SalvationMountainIncBoardOfDirectorsSite. To receive an application form to become an onsite manager, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Features

Once I stepped into the one-story building off of Highway 111 near North Shore, I knew I would be going bananas.

After all, this building is the home of the International Banana Museum. 

The first sense that is tested at the museum is smell, as you take in the aroma of banana-nut-bread candles. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but it becomes a welcome cloak as you peruse the collection.

Vision is the second sense that is bombarded: It’s hard to describe the sheer amount of banana-related items in that room. Books on bananas, plastic bananas, food with bananas, stuffed toy bananas, stuffed toy monkeys with bananas, Christmas banana trees, banana stickers, jewelry-encrusted plastic bananas, banana snow globes, crème de banana liqueur, banana monkey necklaces, a flute in the shape of a banana … the list goes on.

The purchaser of the original Banana Club collection started by Ken Bannister, Indio native Fred Garbutt is an excellent curator with an eye for detail. At the same time, he seems slightly confounded by his decision to have purchased the collection in the first place. He dons “a sporty banana look”: a yellow shirt, glasses, a banana pendant on a chain necklace, Hawaiian shorts, and green-and-yellow Converse shoes. Garbutt’s statement that “bananas are associated with humor, with monkeys, and are fun and whimsical” rings true—and he revels as he throws out banana puns, innuendos and fun facts. He said he tries to keep his obsession on the “right side of totally bananas” while having a great deal of fun.

He bought Bannister’s collection on eBay in April 2010 and opened the museum to the public in November 2012; it’s open four days a week. Garbutt believes the collection originally included 17,000 items, and he has added enough items to reach the 20,000 mark.

And he’s adding more: Every day, he scours eBay and other online auction houses for more stuff. Guinness World Records still lists Ken Bannister as the record-holder for the largest collection of banana memorabilia; Garbutt hopes Guinness will do a recount of his items.

Garbutt’s current pride and joy? A record player in the shape of banana that he bought via eBay. It’s perfect working order, much to his delight.

What song did he recently play on it? “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

I had to ask Garbutt: Does he like eating bananas? He said his mother made a dish when he was a child in which she would slice bananas, lay the slices out in a circle, and add whipped cream. Other than that, however, he ate no more bananas than an average kid. But, because of the museum, Garbutt has started eating more of them, he said. He has been working hard to expand the items on his soda-fountain menu. Visitors can enjoy banana splits, milkshakes and other banana-related items, including a banana soda ice cream float.

“Before making them available, I had to perfect my float and milkshake, so I would experiment. I have been having repeat customers coming in for the banana soda ice cream floats and milkshakes alone,” he said.

I had the milkshake, and my friend had the ice cream float. I would come back just for the milkshake goodness Garbutt put together.

Garbutt grew up in Indio and would visit the Salton Sea during its heyday in the 1950s. The building which houses the International Banana Museum and Skip’s liquor store has been in his family since 1959.

“There are so many misconceptions of the Salton Sea. The news leads people to believe that it is a cesspool that should just dry up,” he said. He wants the museum to help put the Salton Sea back on the map, and is even working on a “Banana Split Boat Trip” with an airboat operator who is setting up business at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. Visitors on this tour will be able to enjoy the sea on the boat and then afterward visit the museum.

I came away with the impression that Garbutt would have been just as excited about a collection starring any fruit, if that’s what would have been on offer. However, there is indeed something special about the banana. After all, bananas make numerous appearances in comedy bits, right? As a result, you cannot help but leave the museum with a smile.

The next step for Garbutt and Platty—check the museum’s Facebook page for portraits of Garbutt’s travelling banana friend—is to continue travelling around the world in search of more banana-related items for the museum.

The International Banana Museum, 98775 Highway 111, North Shore, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Monday. Admission is $2. For more information, call (619) 840-1429, or visit www.facebook.com/InternationalBananaMuseum.

Published in Features

I'm a health nut, so I almost never eat at fast-food restaurants. But I notice that every time there's a new burger joint here in the valley, it opens to much fanfare. These establishments are very popular with people who have little time on their hands, not to mention the slime on their hands when they're eating all the greasy food.

But what's wrong with this picture? Shouldn't we be encouraging people to live a healthier lifestyle? We live in an area that offers plenty of outdoor recreation, yet not everyone takes advantage of it.

We can eliminate much of the debate about health care by just focusing on prevention. If we teach people how to take care of themselves, that will decrease the chances of them becoming dependent on the system. For those who have already become ill, I propose instituting an incentive-based health-care system. For example, if an obese person loses a specific amount of weight, they would be offered a discount on their insurance premium; after all, money is a great motivator. But let's take a look at some practical solutions to get people started.

Anyone who has driven into the Coachella Valley has noticed those unsightly windmills located next to the freeway. They've always been an eyesore. Perhaps we should remove all the windmills and replace them with people. If someone is in need of more exercise, they would have the opportunity to stand in the wind-prone areas and flap their arms as hard as they could. By doing this, they could generate power, and burn calories at the same time. It would be a win-win situation for everyone, not to mention a wind-wind situation.

Another suggestion is to have our own “running of the bulls” event here in the desert. The idea would be to let loose a herd of bulls through the streets and have them chase a group of people who need exercise. There's no better way to get in shape quickly than be forced to run for your life.

But before you dismiss all this as a bunch of bull, we need to recognize the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Activity is the key to longevity.

One of the best ways to stay active is to swim, and here in the Coachella Valley, we're lucky to have a body of water large enough to accommodate thousands of swimmers. I'm talking about the jewel of the desert, the Salton Sea. There's nothing more satisfying than taking a dip on a beautiful day surrounded by the aroma of rotting fish. And that's the point: There could be a race called “Last One Out Is a Rotten Egg.” All the contestants would swim as fast as they could to get out of the water quickly. The last one out would, indeed, smell like rotten eggs.

The ideal solution would be to combine all of these activities together to create the First Annual Coachella Valley Turbine Toro Tilapia Triathlon. Participants would start off by flapping their arms like a wind turbine, then be chased by bulls all the way to the Salton Sea, where they could swim alongside floating tilapia.

When the swimmers emerge from the sea, each of them would be personally dried off by former Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who's used to throwing in the towel. The winner of the competition would be invited to have a Big Mac with Bono Mack and her husband, Connie Mack. Of course, Big Macs aren't exactly the healthiest food in the world, which leads us back to our original goal of living a healthier lifestyle.

Our new congressman, Dr. Raul Ruiz, spent a year as a medical student with Partners in Health, an organization dedicated to providing health care to impoverished countries. His services could certainly be used to educate people here about the benefits of taking care of themselves.

In the meantime, you deserve a break today. Forget the burger; get your buns out, and do something active.

Published in Humor

When I told my family I was going kayaking on the Salton Sea, their reaction was just what I expected: “Are you sure that’s safe?” my mother asked with uneasiness.

That is precisely what had crossed my mind when I was invited to join Assemblymembers V. Manuel Pérez and Ben Hueso (now a state senator) on a kayaking excursion on the manmade sea bordering Riverside and Imperial counties.

As a beat reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, there is no “standard” assignment. I never know what will come out of an editorial meeting, but I am usually up for anything. However, this particular assignment made me nervous and excited at the same time. The nervous part of me worried I would flip the kayak upside down, forcing me to swallow gallons of the toxic salt water. The excited part of me couldn’t wait to row a vessel across this controversial body of water.

The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, is a big part of our region’s history. Created more than 100 years ago in 1907, the inland sea was the product of high flooding on the Colorado River crashing into the canal gates leading into the Imperial Valley. At about 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, the Salton Sea would later have fish introduced; by 1920, the sea became a popular tourist attraction.

But those stories of the former greatness of the sea are only memories now—black-and-white images of surf signs, and tourists dancing along the shore with their radios and beach balls. Now the Salton Sea is known more for dead fish and bad odor.

Before I could think about it too much, I found myself at the Salton Sea Recreation Area, where, much to my surprise, I learned kayaking is an activity that anyone can do. As I settled into my individual kayak, I couldn’t help but notice the smell—the foul, fishy, dirty-water smell with which Eastern Coachella Valley residents are familiar. Nonetheless, I powered through it. After being pushed into the water, my kayak rocking side to side, I felt a rush of excitement. I was actually in the Salton Sea! On a kayak!

The smell seemed to disappear as I paddled farther and deeper into the sea. The water looked like a reflection of the blue sky above, while the mountains engulfed the space around us. I managed to lay the paddles on the kayak and take some photos, hoping to capture the picturesque scenes.

A Salton Sea official, kayaking along with the group, told us that kayaking is not the only activity available to the public. Campers, birdwatchers, photographers and hikers can enjoy the area’s many recreational opportunities. The high winds provide a perfect place to simply fly a kite.

I also learned that the sea is technically safe to swim in, although it was not advisable due to the presence of bacteria. Imagine my surprise when I saw Hueso jump into the sea for a swim! (Last I heard, he was doing just fine.)

Although I grew up in the Eastern Coachella Valley, not too far from the Salton Sea, I have only recently realized the impact this environment has had on my life. This sea is as much a part of our valley as the mountains that surround us and the sandstorms that wreak havoc on newly washed cars.

The Salton Sea is receiving a lot of attention these days, in part because of the high winds last year that blew the smell of dead fish and salt water as far away as Los Angeles and San Diego. People outside of our area were reminded of the unfiltered inland sea in our backyard. Many of our elected officials, including Pérez, are working on proposals to save the sea and improve the quality of life of those who live nearby. These proposed solutions are complex and may take years to come to fruition.

Kayaking along the Salton Sea felt like a mini getaway from the worries and pressure of the issues people my community faces daily. I feel almost ashamed that it took an invitation from our assemblymember in order for me to realize the potential of the Salton Sea. On that kayak, I saw firsthand how special our sea is—and why it is worth saving.

Coachella Unincorporated is a youth media startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. 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 coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Community Voices

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