With its lavish resorts and golf courses, the Coachella Valley is a getaway to some, and a retirement home for others. But beyond the shadow of the country clubs and music festivals lies a Coachella Valley that is largely unknown.
“Revealing the Invisible Coachella Valley: Putting Cumulative Environmental Vulnerabilities on the Map,” a report released this month by the University of California at Davis Center for Regional Change, shows the cumulative environmental health hazards of living in the Eastern Coachella Valley.
“You can see the east versus west story,” said Jonathan London, the principal investigator and primary study author, “where in the west valley, there are much lower levels of environmental hazards, and much higher levels for quality of life, compared to the east.”
While this data seems to state the obvious to those living and working in the eastern Coachella Valley, it wasn’t until recently that people outside the area began to take notice of these environmental issues. Many people certainly took notice when a storm in September 2012 flooded mobile home parks, including Duroville, and spread the odor of decomposing organic matter from the Salton Sea to Los Angeles.
As a result, the Center for Regional Change partnered with local environmental-justice, health and farmworker advocates to document the environmental vulnerability in the area. Some of the issues that were studied included the failing water infrastructure, concentrated hazardous waste, and unauthorized dumping.
To better understand the environmental hazards, the report shows a demographic comparison between the eastern and western portions of the Coachella Valley. This analysis is necessary to understand how the areas with severe environmental hazards impact those with fewer social, economic and political resources.
A map (shown above) illustrates an assessment of the varying environmental vulnerabilities across the region.
There is a higher concentration of impaired water bodies when compared to the rest of the county, meaning there are drinking water wells in the eastern valley that contain much higher contaminant levels for arsenic, chromium 6, perchlorate, and nitrates than are allowed by law.
A different map (shown below) illustrates the levels of contaminants in the drinking water.
“Policy-makers, state and local government agencies finally have the data that they need to start making changes in our troubled system,” said Celia Garcia, a Mecca schoolteacher community advocate. “For the very first time, an accurate picture of our reality and our needs has been painted for them.”
Garcia continued, “We have an enormous problem with hazardous waste and illegal dumping in our community. And while I’d like to say the waste and dumping is the biggest problem, equally disturbing is the fact that thousands of children and families are allowed to live in, around, and near such dangerous waste.”
According to the report, the unemployment and poverty rates in the eastern Coachella Valley are much higher than the west side and the county as a whole.
The report also shows that 45 percent of the residents in the eastern Coachella Valley are limited English speakers, compared to the 16 percent in the west valley. Well more than half of the population in the ECV lives below the poverty level—65 percent as opposed to 37 percent on the west side.
Although the recent data shows overwhelming environmental hazards in valley communities, community members are hopeful that actions will now be taken toward improving conditions. The areas highlighted in the report—including the Salton Sea, Mecca, North Shore, Coachella and even La Quinta—could serve as a target for organized action by community advocates, elected officials and public agencies.
“The lack of consolidated and unbiased data documenting the inequities of our region has been one of the greatest challenges we face in our work for better infrastructure, water quality, housing, and environmental health. It has been incredibly frustrating to us at times to have decision-makers and policy-makers say or imply that we are exaggerating about our community experiences, or that they need to see science before they can help. This data will assist us greatly in demonstrating that our experiences are based in hard facts and statistics,” said Megan Beaman of Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation.
The report was designed and conducted by the CRC; it was commissioned by the California Institute for Rural Studies with support from The California Endowment/ Building Healthy Communities. Local non-profit organizations contributing to the production and release of this report are the Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation; California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.; Inland Congregations United for Change; and Comité Cívico del Valle.
The report is available for download in English or Spanish.
Ivan Delgado is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, 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.