CVIndependent

Fri12062019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Christina Lange

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.

Ann Field and I stand on a dusty lot on Avenue 81. We’re in Oasis, south of Thermal and close to Highway 86. We’re watching for two dogs that have been abandoned and are running around the neighborhood.

As the sun starts to set, there they are—only instead of two dogs, there are now four. Ann sighs softly.

Animal-control officers from the Riverside County Department of Animal Services rarely venture south of 66th Avenue in Thermal. The department’s mission statement touts educating the public on keeping animals, the importance of spaying or neutering them, and ensuring they are in a good home. Yet Ann said that when she has spoken with people from the department—asking them about coming out to visit the nearby migrant work camps, where a lot of these dogs get left behind—they come up with a number of excuses.

Socioeconomic factors, as well as the inability to take their dogs with them, are just some of the reasons why the migrant farm workers leave behind their dogs. These animals often do not get spayed or neutered.

That’s where Lost Dogs of the Desert, Ann’s organization, comes in.

Ann has tried to work with local animal shelters, but she wants nothing to do with shelters that put animals down after a few days. There are some animal charities that have proven to be invaluable, she said. Michael Acosta, Ann’s partner, often drives to Morongo Casino to hand over dogs to people from no-kill shelters located in Los Angeles and San Diego. There is, for example, a charity dedicated to the rescue of boxers. Others rescue only purebreds, and yet others only rescue dogs less than 40 pounds. Still, these organizations are a big help.

But for dogs who are mutts, life is not so easy.

In the setting sun, the dogs are running toward a reservoir to get some water; they then cross a road and head toward a tunnel, where they will be safe for the night. Ann watches out for them. On the nearby stretches of highway, dead dogs are a common sight.

For the time being, she is only able to help two dogs at a time, given her limited resources. When I spoke to her, she was waiting for two dogs to get re-housed before being able to take in two more.

Honey and Rosie are two Australian shepherds currently being looked after by Holly Rose Martin, a young mother in Desert Hot Springs who volunteers to bring the dogs to the groomers and to keep them until new foster homes can be found.

Ann said Canadians who are staying at the nearby RV park often decide to take home a rescue dog. These people take on the costs of getting the dogs spayed or neutered, pay for all the shots, and apply for a health certificate, which each animal needs to have before being brought over the border.

She dreams of being able to build an animal shelter in the vacant lot opposite the RV park. However, she said that as of now, 80 percent of her income goes toward vet bills, feeding and grooming. This does not leave anything left over to put toward the fees needed for Lost Dogs of the Desert to become an official 501(c)3, much less start the process of building a shelter.

In the meantime, Ann, Michael and Holly and other volunteers do what they can to find funds and foster parents, one dog at a time.

Before I met with Mike and Ann, I asked her some questions via email. Her answers were so revealing that they are worth presenting here, as a Q&A.

I have been following via Facebook the hardships and difficulties you face finding homes for lost and abandoned dogs. Tell me: What led you to start rescuing dogs and other animals? How long have you been doing this?

My partner, Michael, and I began to rescue dogs quite by accident. One day, three years ago, a lovely white lab that was starving to death came to our door. I took it to the shelter, (and it) couldn't accept a dog over 40 pounds. I realized then there was little help here for dogs. I took the dog home, fostered it, provided vet care and in the process found out the dog belonged to a priest in the neighborhood (who had) died. … I kept the dog until a local farmer provided a wonderful home for the dog. The dog is in excellent health now and is happy. I knew I had to at least try to help some of them, as it would be impossible to help all.

What is the procedure when you find a dog?

When I find a dog—or the dog usually finds us—the first action is vet care. Due to the expense, we can only rescue one or two dogs at a time, and I only have one foster. We have to (check) the dog, check for owners, and do spay and shots. We have very few supporters, so a lot of the money is out of pocket. It limits me, because I am low-income. We do home checks (after dogs are adopted) and require monthly follow-up visits, even if it is by Skype. … We will drive anywhere we have to, to know a dog is in safe hands and can live happy, healthy and in peace. We make sure the intention is forever. The dogs that have been abandoned have been through enough. They can’t be left behind again.

What is the number of dogs/animals you find on a weekly basis?

The number varies. I can go three weeks with none, and one day with three. There is a cycle. When farm workers leave the area for their next job, we see a lot more, as they can’t take the dogs with them. Ninety of the dogs are over 40 pounds.

You are currently applying for 501(c)3 status. How is that going?

It's … at Financial First Aid in Beaumont. Due to needs of the dogs, we have never been able to finish paying for it. We hope one day, a miracle can happen, and it can get filed. A grant would make a huge difference to this effort.

What was the strangest animal you rescued?

A praying mantis. … Somehow, the guy got caught in a light. After the rescue, he stayed for one year and moved on.

What are your hopes for the future of Lost Dogs of the Desert?

My hope for Lost Dogs is the same hope for all shelters or rescuers: that people spay their animals, be responsible, and that we are no longer needed. For now, we pray for the 501(c)3 so we can see a no-kill sanctuary and a free spay clinic here. It can happen. It is our goal to see community awareness and education put into place, as we do not have that in my community right now. We would also love to see an educated professional volunteer coordinator come in and get the community geared up to foster. There are not enough fosters. Fosters are the glue of any no-kill system.

For more information on Lost Dogs of the Desert, or to help out, visit www.facebook.com/pages/Lost-Dogs-of-The-Desert Rescue/331058100310038, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I remember the first time I ever saw Tierra del Sol’s Desert Safari event.

It was March 2008. It was dark, and I was driving through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on Highway S22, toward the Salton Sea. Just outside of the state park, one enters an amazing area called the Badlands. From up on high in the hills, one suddenly descends onto the desert floor. And there it was—as though a city had appeared, a sea of lights hugged the badlands and continued south in an area normally blanketed by darkness or lit solely by the moon. It was quite astounding to see this enormous temporary city.

This coming weekend (Friday, March 1, through Sunday, March 3) is Tierra del Sol’s 51st annual Desert Safari event. Hosted by the “Four Wheel Drive Club of San Diego,” off-roaders meet each year just east of the Anza-Borrego State Park and at the northern end of the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Registration Area. Online registration is closed, but you can still register on-site for $65. In order to ride, you need to be registered. There are trail rides and rough runs, vendor showcases, demonstrations, a raffle and even fireworks.

As a relative newcomer to California, but with tremendous love for the desert, I had been blissfully unaware of just how popular off-roading is here. I was a European who loved to visit the desert in the heat of the summer, when most sane people sit around hugging their air conditioners, or just leave. Bikes, quads, ATV's, ORVs, 4WDs, AWDs sand rails, and many other off-roading toys filtered through to my world only as objects of death and destruction: death to the person riding them, and destruction to the landscapes they chew up.

Last year, I finally had to the chance to see what this Desert Safari event was all about, as I worked at the (very popular) empanada stand. I had moved to Salton City, and was thus more knowledgeable about some of these off-road vehicles. I can hear them all the time from my house, and I see the dust tracking behind the vehicles as they zoom through.

I realized the event was a significant gathering for lovers of all sorts of off-road vehicles. Some of the vehicles were standard, some modified, some totally outrageous, and some looked like vehicles you would find on a farm. People invest a lot of time and money into this pastime.

Onsite, there was a lot of action; a huge crowd was there, watching the big guys taking to the training park and trying their hand at the obstacles. (Think a skate park for Jeeps: Instead of half pipes and handrails, there are pyramids and rubber-tire mountains.)

There was also lots of dust flying, fumes and burning rubber burning. I spoke with a good number of people, and one of the things we spoke about was responsible off-roading and “treading lightly.” These trails already exist; they have specifically been cast for off-road vehicles and are intended to be kept to a maximum width, with as little destruction to the desert landscape as possible. The off-roaders are taught to practice “pack it in; pack it out” habits and not to leave the existing trails. They are asked to tread lightly and to minimize the damage to the areas.

But all too often, riders do not stick to existing trails and leave litter behind. Tire marks lead up hillsides and mounds. There is so much vegetation that is either dead or dying after being trampled on or shredded.

I am sure it is the action of a few that are causing the damage in reputation to the rest. But that damage needs to be pointed out.

At the height of off-roading season, one can see dust clouds forming and drifting toward residential areas near the Salton Sea. This is made worse as more vegetation is destroyed; this is a very windy area, and vegetation serves as excellent dust mitigation. There is not much an off-roader can do about the dust, but one can stick to trails, not ride over vegetation, and ensure that all the trash that is taken in is taken back out.

I recently went out with a resident whose house backs on to some of these washes and trails. We picked up cans, plastic bags, bottles, leftover tissues, frames from lanterns, plastic tubes and more. She goes out to these trails and washes everyday for hours at a time and returns home with mounds of litter that off-roaders leave behind. She will be at the Tierra del Sol event collecting cans and other litter, and teaching awareness.

If everyone who rides into these off-road areas took home not only all of their own trash, but a few additional items as well, the area could be cleaner for all to enjoy. It’s great enjoy the action, the noise, the dust, the trails, the food and the company—but please remember to tread lightly.

The eastern portion of the Coachella Valley struggles with poverty, bad air and water quality, high unemployment, high levels of asthma, a receding Salton Sea, high levels of arsenic in well water, pesticide-spraying—and the list goes on. It’s a far cry from the bright lights that shine over the golf courses to the west.

However, residents are trying to do something about these problems, and an environmental justice movement is growing in the eastern Coachella Valley. As part of that movement, the inaugural Environmental Health Leadership Summit took place at Thermal’s Desert Mirage High School on Saturday, Feb. 23.

The summit was organized by Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto and the Comite Civico del Valle, and had more than 30 sponsors. The focus of the summit was to promote health and environmental awareness, leadership, systems change and cultural and linguistic competency.

Environmental health was the main topic—specifically air and water quality, public health and the Salton Sea restoration.

Information was distributed about ways people could help clean the air, asthma management in children, and cleaning products that are safe to use in the home. There were keynotes, speeches and workshops.

I participated in the summit as a vendor, where I displayed my photographs and my book, Portraits and Voices of the Salton Sea. Other vendors and information providers included 350.org, Occupy Coachella, the county Economic Development Agency, Legacy of Clean cleaning products, California Rural Legal Assistance and Planned Parenthood. The high school sold drinks and food to raise money. It was great to see the different stallholders share the same vision of environmental health and equality.

I was also on a panel regarding Salton Sea restoration. It was my first time as a panelist.

We were on the stage hidden behind a curtain as Congressman Raul Ruiz was announcing us. Nervousness aside, it was an honor to voice my opinion and pass on what other members of the community had been passing on to me over the years.

Along with me were Doug Barnum, of the U.S. Geological Survey; Bruce Wilcox, of the Imperial Irrigation District; Paul Reisman, acting superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreational Area; Jason Low, from the South Coast Air Quality Management District; and Phil Rosentrater of the Economic Development Agency. Jose Angel was the moderator, from the Regional Water Board.

After we each spoke, it was time for the questions from the moderator and the audience: What do we each think are the most pressing issues? What is the highest priority? If nothing is done, what is your biggest fear? What about the efforts to make a viable plan to restore the sea?

We spoke about how we need to prevent a toxic dust storm from becoming a reality; how we need to prevent another Big Stink; how we need to focus on health issues; and how it would be nice to have a thriving recreational area again, or at least a sea that will not turn into a toxic semi-dust bowl while emitting hydrogen sulfide burps that stink all the way to Los Angeles.

Barnum noted that there are many problems with restoration efforts, and one solution for one problem might be to the detriment of another. 

I mentioned that the focus has to be on “keeping the Salton Sea wet,” a quote from Norm Niver, a Salton Sea activist since 1974. There was mention of how geothermal, algae, solar, wind and other renewable-energy industries might be the key to finding the funding so essential to saving the sea. The Salton Sea area is second to none for potential renewable energy.

I spoke about the disconnect between the community and the agencies, and how there need to be more opportunities to work together.

This summit was a great start. Area residents often feel as if they do not have a voice. They have been complaining about health issues and high asthma rates for years, and have been fearing the demise of the Salton Sea for decades. So, to say that the residents are having a hard time trusting the local agencies is an understatement. The current representatives of these government agencies need to work really hard to earn back this trust.

A couple members of the audience shared this feeling of frustration and questioned the currently proposed restoration project. The project, as it stands, would start small, by building a few shallow water ponds at the southern end of the sea. This would keep those areas, which are already exposed playa, wet, and would serve as habitat for wildlife. As time goes on, and more funding comes in, further small-scale projects would be implemented.

In the meantime, the question remains: Where would the money will come from for a large-scale restoration project?

This is not good enough, said one member of the audience. What about a comprehensive plan? And how is it that after so many years, only a couple of small shallow water ponds are being built? How can we trust these agencies? Why is the community not being listened to? And why are there no answers? He spoke about the state oversight meeting on the day before, led in part by Coachella area state Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, and how members of the public could come forward and voice their opinion—but they each had only a single minute to do so.

Not good enough.

My hope is that we can all work together. That the man in the audience gets the information he wants as to why the comprehensive plan will not be implemented. That there will be future summits like this one.

For more information on the summit, visit ejsummit.com. Organizers will add videos from workshops, keynotes and presentations in the coming weeks. There will also be updates on another summit, to be held in Imperial County, scheduled for the end of April 2013. Below: Fossil Fuel Not Cool is a campaign by Occupy Coachella and 350.org.

In the spring of 2011, I concluded a portrait project photographing residents, visitors, workers, scientists, park rangers and environmentalists who work and/or live at the Salton Sea.

I interviewed them regarding their personal backgrounds, stories and hopes for the future of the Salton Sea—as well as their fears. They shared their stories and knowledge and gave the reader an idea of the cultural, historical, environmental and natural aspects of this area.

This became a book, which was published in September 2012 by Salton Sink Press, entitled Portraits and Voices of the Salton Sea.

The idea was to create a photographic documentary that focuses on those who will be affected most by the declining water levels, and gives them a platform to speak out. I also spoke with those involved in the restoration to help inform the reader of what’s involved, as education is key to leading others to learn about conservation.

Some in the media still portray the Salton Sea in a very negative light, and a lot of people, even in California, still aren’t aware of its existence. After hearing from all of the people I interviewed, one gets a more-complete picture of the Salton Sea, and why it is so valuable, not only to this area, but beyond the Colorado Basin.

While that part of the project is done, as the book has been published, I would like to continue receiving the input of others who enjoy the Salton Sea, have meaningful ideas, and want to share personal stories, memories and photographs, through thesaltonseaspeaks.blogspot.com.

The aim is to show that people do not want the Salton Sea to dry up, as it will spell disaster, not just at the Salton Sea, but also throughout surrounding areas. The most recent “Big Stench” went as far as Los Angeles. The Salton Sea is not located in a bubble. Its drying up will affect people far and wide in Southern California and Arizona. These people all have a connection with the largest lake in California.

I am NOT looking for comments like, “The Salton Sea stinks; what a waste,” or, “It’s a man-made mistake and a cesspool and deserves to die.” These have been spouted out over and over again, and have become tiresome. These comments will not be published onto the blog.

Please, send me your stories, photographs, recollections, ideas, comments and histories. These can be in form of pictures, text, links, YouTube videos, news articles or anything or else of note!

I will publish as much as possible on thesaltonseaspeaks.blogspot.com, as it is meant to be a space for people to speak out.

Photographs and quotes from the book will be featured at an upcoming exhibition at the Palm Desert Community Gallery as part of a three-person show entitled Portraits of the Desert, which opens Thursday, Dec. 6, and runs through Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. An opening reception takes place from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Monday, Dec. 10.

The gallery is located at 73-510 Fred Waring Drive in Palm Desert, and is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more info on the gallery, call (760) 346-0611, ext. 664, or visit www.palmdesertart.org.

I look forward to reading your stories and seeing your photos—and perhaps seeing you at the opening of the upcoming exhibition!

Contact Christina Lange at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Find her work at thesaltonseaspeaks.blogspot.com; portraitsandvoices.blogspot.com and www.christinalange.com.

Below: "Steve Johnson," by Christina Lange

"Steve Johnson," by Christina Lange

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