CVIndependent

Tue10272020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

On Nov. 1, 2019, District 28 State Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican, resigned to become the western regional director of President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor. On March 3—the day of California’s primary election, as well as Super Tuesday nationally—voters will start the process of choosing Stone’s replacement.

Five candidates—three Democrats and two Republicans—are running in the district, which reaches from Temecula Valley in the west to the Colorado River in the east, and includes nearly the entire Coachella Valley. Presuming no candidate gets a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will move on to a special vote on May 12, and the winner will serve the final two years of the term.

The Independent recently spoke to all of the candidates and asked each of them the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the Salton Sea, to their personal accomplishments, to California’s primary format. Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity, and presented in the same order as the certified list of candidates.

Anna Nevenic

Retired registered nurse, nonprofit director and author

Democrat, 72

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

We have been talking for some 20 years about it, and we should have started doing something about it years ago, because you can’t fix that problem in one day or one year. But we haven’t done any of that. We’ve just been researching and analyzing and wasting more money in the process.

My plan always has been that we can’t save the whole lake. So we (should) cover the area with trees, so that we have a big park, which will also be good for the wildlife. They should have done that right away. Then (we) use what revenues we have and work together with the private sector to use the algae, because we have a lot of algae, which are good for renewable energy. There’s talk about bringing water in from the Sea (of Cortez) and using recycled water to help regenerate the sea. But you have to be sure before you can say there’s a plan.

People can say, “This is what I want,” but it has to be realistic.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

As a community activist working in the health-care profession for the last four decades, I’ve been working to have health care for all, because health care is the most important asset we have. It should not be treated like a commodity, because our bodies should not be for sale. We can save money, too, if we take measures and prevent people from becoming disabled. Prescription-drug treatment is a key component of any individual’s health care plan, and we need to be increasing access to safe and affordable prescription drugs. It is unacceptable that Americans pay inflated prices for vital medications. Health care for all ensures that health services are appropriate, effective, cost efficient and focused on consumer needs. Preventative care will play a major role in meeting health-care needs. Prevention works, costs less, and it saves lives.

Also, we should be diversifying our economy. Most of the jobs created in our area are low-wage jobs in hospitality and the restaurant business and so on. A lot of them are part-time jobs, which are OK for senior citizens, but are not OK for the young people, because they don’t have health care overage or retirement plans. We need to bring high-tech industry (into our district). It’s growing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but in the entire Inland (Empire) area, we have maybe a few startups, but nothing really. And that’s very important to bring wages up, especially for young people who are supposed to be our future.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

I’ve been a community activist and rallying for health care for all for the last 40 years. I’ve been going to Sacramento and trying to get a bill passed. Every year, we lobby for that … but it’s the regular citizens who are making this happen. So I’ve been working with the environmental movement, and fighting for sex education in schools. Each time, you have to gather signatures on the petitions, and then you go and lobby for the bill. I’ve been doing that for the last four decades. I’ve educated many people as to why they should get involved, why it’s important to go to alternative media like PBS to get the information you need. I give lectures to young people wherever I go, and I’ve spoken to thousands and thousands of young people explaining what the generations before them did to provide them with things they all enjoy today like civil rights.

I never got married … that’s my point. So I’m proud I didn’t do it. Instead, I’ve spent thousands of hours of my time going to different conferences, and participating in annual summits where you talk about the economy, and other issues of importance to the average citizen. I’ve spent more time doing that than making my own living, because I felt as a young girl that there were many people who were not as strong as I, and they needed help in some way.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

The only reason I’m running is because I hope to educate enough people that influence and money is a problem, and (they should) not to be influenced by the establishment that only promotes people who raise big money while ignoring the others. I feel that, because of my professional background, my educational background and my civic engagement, I’m the most prepared for this position. I have traveled, and I’ve seen how other countries deal with their health-care issues. If you listen to all these powerful voices like the (American) Medical Association or the trial lawyers or big pharma, somebody’s always standing in the way. So I try to educate as many people as possible that they have to use their own minds.

There is a solution to every problem, and for every dollar we invest in preventing problems and intervening early, we save $7. So, I believe that one person can make a difference. That’s why I wrote a book called Out of the Shadows about American women who changed the world. I do believe that I could influence (legislative) colleagues to put the money in the right place where we really need it.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

From when I was about 11 years old, I saw all these horrible movies about war and misery and what people are capable of (doing to each other), and I always thought that when I grew up, I might be able to help make a better world, and a better society by working together rather than against each other. I’ve been a peace activist all my life, and I still am. People don’t understand that $1 trillion is going to the military, and how are we going to pay for all the other problems that we have? We have such a broken system. But if you believe in the Constitution, you know that it says, ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ It doesn’t say anything about being led by the professional politicians. I think it’s a problem, because we have people (in elected office) who want to stay there forever, because it’s a good position, right? But I just want two years, and I believe that if I’m elected, I’ll be able to put my agenda in front (of my legislative colleagues) and say, ‘OK. There’s already a solution for this problem, and this one, and this one. So let’s do it!’

I’m an independent voice. I will do what is right for the people who elected me, and not what’s right for wealthy corporations and individuals. I will never change my positions. I don’t blindly obey any policy platform. So if I’m elected I will take the approach that everybody matters. Every child matters. Every person matters. And all my decisions will be based on human needs, not on corporate needs.


Elizabeth Romero

Assistant vice chancellor of governmental community relations at UC Riverside

Democrat, 36

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

As a resident of the eastern Coachella Valley, obviously I have firsthand experience and knowledge about what is happening in and around the sea, especially related to some of the environmental-justice issues that are currently impacting our communities. I think the most important thing is that we have to ensure that we are moving forward in a way that is founded in science and research, so that we can find the best solution to mitigate—not only the current dust (pollution being dispersed into the air), but also find long term solutions that allow us to restore the sea, not only for habitat (redevelopment), but for economic development, as well as long term continuity of the sea.

If we have an option to bring water into the sea, which is something that I think has been on the table and is still being explored, then we should pursue that. So there are various proposals out there, and I’m open to listening to and assessing all of them. But what I think is really important now is to also leverage the $220 million in funding that has already been allocated in the budget through the water bond so that we can actually get some projects moving.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

There are several issues that I’m passionate about addressing. I don’t think there’s one single issue that we need to point our finger at, but there’s a whole host of things that are intersectional and that we need to focus on. Those include the state’s affordability issues, which some would say is what’s pushing us into the crisis around homelessness. But it’s deeper than that. It’s about people having access to affordable and diverse housing in the region, which means (we need better) transportation access, health care and quality education. There is this whole host of different issues that I think it’s really important that we focus on. … We’re finding that as we talk to people, there’s not one single issue. People want quality jobs. People want a quality environment and quality education. So, (overall) we want to make sure that we’re focusing on issues that matter to the residents of the 28th District.

When you mention “diverse housing” as a need, what exactly are you referring to?

I think we need to have entry-level housing and affordable housing, (which can be done) obviously by expanding access through California’s Section 8—a government funded program that aims to help low-income families find housing—but also through self-help programs. We need to have first-time home-buyer programs and veteran housing programs. So there are many programs that exist, not only through the state, but through the federal government that we need to leverage and expand here in the desert. This housing needs to be built throughout the Coachella Valley, so that our communities are built out in a way that allows people to live closer to where they work.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

Most recently, professionally, as assistant vice chancellor of governmental community relations at UC Riverside, I’ve been very focused on helping to expand the number of doctors serving our region. I’ve worked to help raise $100 million to build a School of Medicine education building that will double the size of the current class at UC Riverside from 250 (per class) to 500 over time. Also, we’re focused on leveraging the state funds to fully fund residencies and programs that are addressing direct health-care access needs in our region. As you know, we have a health care crisis in our region (due to the fact) that the underserved communities of our region don’t have the same number of doctors that the more affluent communities do. So we’re trying to level the field in terms of having primary-care physicians who are focused on serving the entire region. The best way to predict where a doctor will actually start their practice is (determined by) where they did their residency. So that’s why it’s important to embed these doctors in our communities throughout the 28th District. That way, we will be able to deal with the health-care shortage we’re experiencing long term.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

My career in the region has spanned over 20 years of serving the greater Coachella Valley area, and throughout Riverside County. I’ve been elected for 13 years in a very purple part of the district (to the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees and then the Riverside County Board of Education). I’ve been successful in serving this area for a couple of reasons, and I think they underscore the qualities that you’re speaking to: I’m a coalition builder and a good listener, too. Even though I may not agree with someone’s point (of view), I’m always willing to engage in the conversation. Also, I’m someone who’s able to bring people together to solve issues. My campaign currently has the support of Republicans and Democrats and everything in between. I’ve worked on both sides of the aisle. I’ve served for county supervisors in a nonpartisan office, and I’ve sought to just do the work. I think that’s really important for this race.

Moving forward as a state senator, I think we need somebody who’s focused on getting results, and addressing the issues that matter to everyone. There are issues that are cross-cutting. People, regardless of their party affiliation, want to have quality schools. They want to have access to healthcare. They want quality jobs that have benefits. So I think it’s important to focus on the issues that matter to the people in our region, and work across the aisle to make things happen.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

Obviously, it’s the system that we have. I think it’s important to communicate, as a candidate, to the voters. So, in all fairness, I think it’s definitely a process that allows us to put the best candidates forward, and have them come to voters who can participate in the democratic process and decide (which candidates) they want to move forward.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I’d be honored to have the votes of your readers. As a lifelong resident and a homegrown candidate that has served this community for over 20 years, I am poised to hit the ground running on day one. I can ensure that our voice will be heard in Sacramento and that we will be leveraging the state resources that we need to address the issues that are important in our region. So, I would be honored to have the vote of all of your readers on March 3.


Joy Silver

Businesswoman; housing adviser; political activist

Democrat, 64

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

I’m really happy to talk about (this issue), because, for me, running for this office is the continuation of working on the things that I’m already doing. A lot of times, politicians get elected and say, “When I get elected, I will do this and the other thing,” and they elucidate some things that they’ll accomplish should you elect them. But for me … it’s about continuing to finish what I’m already pursuing. … What’s important to know about the Salton Sea is the “sea-to-sea” solution which has received traction throughout the desert cities. Resolutions have been passed through a number of those city councils (supporting this approach) as an answer to stopping the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea.

The recommendation of the Salton Sea Coalition—of which I’m a member—is to put the engineering in place to start what is called the “ocean water import.” Now, the second part of this is to support the declarations of emergency that have been passed by Imperial County. The first declaration of emergency regards the local emergency for air pollution. The second one addresses the stoppage of emptying raw sewage into the New River. Both of those emergency declarations are of critical importance to overcome the delays that have happened (while trying) to implement any of the projects. What is great about these declarations is that they mitigate the permitting issues, procurement issues and agencies getting in each other’s way, including using money, because once the declarations of emergency are accepted, (any corrective actions) can be paid for without another bond. The total state revenue is $146 billion, and the “rainy day fund” has $16.5 billion, and the budget surplus is $21.5 billion. So the money is there to move forward and mitigate the declarations of emergency on both the raw sewage and the air.

Getting that into forward motion will push solutions toward getting done. We’ve got to use the available funds to clean the water and update sewage treatment. This needs to be for both the New River and the Salton Sea itself, since there’s been an increase in pesticides (flowing into the sea) along with the raw sewage and military munitions (contamination). The Region 7 State Water Control Board has been non-compliant around these issues for the past 27 years, and that has to change. (The region covers approximately 13,000,000 acres, some 20,000 square miles, in the southeastern portion of California.) There have been funds earmarked (by the state) for the Salton Sea, and we can use them to start the engineering plans to begin water import. There have been about 11 proposals for importing ocean water already submitted, and we need an unbiased agency to evaluate those proposals. That will determine what the actual cost is for importing ocean water. Ocean water, with salinity management, offers the most feasible path to restore the Salton Sea and protect the region from environmental disaster.

The good thing that’s happened is that (Arturo) Delgado is the assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. He has made the commitment to the community that there will be an open and unbiased evaluation of those ocean-water import proposals, and that’s really major, from our point of view. You know, the connection (from the Salton Sea) to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez was actually there at one time, so, fully restoring the sea would restore the environment, and bring back the birds and the plants, restore boating and fishing, and help with economic development in the area. All of that will mitigate the health issues (including elevated) asthma and respiratory illness rates. Right now, as that sea water evaporates, the playa just releases more and more toxins into the air.

It’s so interesting to me that people who are unaware of the challenge happening with the Salton Sea don’t realize that they’re actually breathing in the toxins released. We breathe the same air (all over Southern California). So, this is not simply a problem in Brawley, or Salton City, or Imperial or Riverside County. This is a problem for California and further. I think that understanding needs to be made clear to Sacramento, and that would be my job, to advocate for moving (a solution) forward in some way.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

Here’s where I have difficulty with this question: “the single.” The reason it’s so challenging is because the issues that we face are integrated. So, there is no one solution of one item that’s going to solve that very issue. See what I’m saying? Unless things are going on along, at least, three tracks, you can’t really solve any issues without the other things rolling forward.

That being said, what I would look at as one of the pressing issues that we’re facing is the need for affordable housing—whether it’s for seniors on fixed incomes or veterans in need of support services due to (post-traumatic stress disorder) challenges, or entry housing pricing for young families and work-force housing for those with jobs in the district and have to drive far out of their own neighborhoods. This (housing initiative) goes further in that it helps create solutions as well for the homelessness crisis. My intention to address this is to develop a legislative initiative—which I’m working on right now—that refocuses the funding efficiencies of the state to allow for easier permitting and funding when criteria has been met that is not dependent upon federal funding sources.

What actually is the strategy as to how you would go about accomplishing such objectives?

Well, we have to reallocate our existing resources to developing efficient strategies for funding affordable housing. Part of the funding of affordable housing relies on federal tax credits, for example. We see legislators who are putting together bills to mitigate the timelines of how long it takes to go through the processes to bring affordable housing into line and to go into construction in communities. Some of that has to do with the permitting process, and some of it has to do with conditional use of permits, which means that municipalities get to choose the location for what the use of the land can be. (What’s needed) is bringing municipalities on board to find land to integrate affordable housing communities. So, how do you fund that? It has to be more state focused. There has to be more incentive through the state, so that the competition for funding is lessened, and there are more no-profit developers who can begin the process of construction. So that’s one of the big issues that we’re facing.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

For me, we’re still on the subject of affordable housing, and what I’m most proud of is that, when Palm Springs says we have land available, but we can’t find a developer to come in and build an affordable housing community, I said at the time to someone who was on the City Council during that time period, “I’m going to bring a really good organization into Palm Springs to do that.” So, consequently, I did, and I now work as a consultant for that nonprofit organization (the Community Housing Opportunities Corporation) as their regional director for Southern California, and we’re bringing more affordable housing communities into Riverside County right now. I’m very proud of that.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

A couple of things. The first thing is that I am not a career politician, and that’s important, because I can afford to be strong in my stance to represent our district. Also, I have skills and experience in the real world that I bring to a legislative body. That’s important, because when you represent people, you represent those who actually are in the work force, who have experience in creating business, who actually provide health care and these are the kinds of skills that I have. So when a piece of legislation is put forward, knowing how things actually work in the real world can help that legislation be stronger and not simply be developed without being able to see that it may cause obstructions that no one intended, because they actually didn’t know how the thing itself works. I think that’s an important piece. I’m also able to motivate people into taking action, and that’s a quality that’s really critical in moving something forward. That’s why I got into running for this office, because I was already mobilizing and motivating people to move forward, and so I thought, “OK … we’re moving forward, but we have some challenges in getting things done—like with the Salton Sea Coalition or other things that I was moving forward with—so it’s time to move those obstructions out of the way on the state level.” We haven’t really had any representation in District 28 that moved things forward. Basically, we had representation that was saying “no” and keeping things at status quo, and certainly not fighting for our fair share of resources to get those things done.

Also, I am persistent, with a laser focus on goal attainment. I possess an awareness of different community needs throughout our district, because I’ve been out there talking to people for a good three years now. I hunt down the truth, and I stand up for solutions when they’re for the common good. (Because I’m not) a career politician, even if (the position) is politically unpopular, if the solution is for the common good, then I’m willing to take that stand. So, meeting people where they are in this district that’s more than 6,000 square miles means a lot of travelling. But I’m willing to go out and meet with people throughout the district, and I bring those people together to move things forward. I’m a fighter. I’m inclusionary, and I’m a negotiator.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

Here’s the thing: I’m not really sure about this, because my senate races have been my first such races (both in 2018 and the current 2020 campaign). I don’t know what it would be like in a different environment. I think what we’re seeing right now is the different political parties having their primaries let the political party’s strength (in a particular region) decide who is the stronger candidate. That could be advantageous, but not having experienced that (scenario), I don’t know for sure. Having the run-off election be between the two highest vote-getters can be difficult, because I don’t think it offers (the voters) the same amount of choice as, potentially, the party primaries do.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I would like to let your readers know that I’m a working-class kid who was once out on the street, but I worked my way up from an entry-level job at a health-care clinic to the executive suite. I have said before that I’m not a career politician, and I have real-life experience in health care, senior care, housing development and renewable fuel technology. I’m the renewable-energy-economy candidate, actually. I’m not running to get things done when I’m elected. I am running to get the things done that I’m already doing.

My agenda for change will focus on reducing the cost of prescription drugs and opposing harmful cuts to health care. I want to tackle the homelessness crisis and provide housing, also for homeless veterans. And I will fight for our fair share of state funding, because you know what? Riverside County cannot afford to wait any longer.


Melissa Melendez

U.S. Navy veteran; California District 67 assembly member

Republican, 52

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

From the people who I’ve talked to about this issue, and from the things we’ve seen coming through Sacramento, I can say from the beginning that we really need more money. The government really needs to step up here and help us out. But I do think there are things we can do in conjunction with that, which range from some wetland development along the edges and the open areas. We can partner with state, local and federal entities on that. I would say we could be creating some habitats in there, too. These would be habitats that the community could access as well. We could provide some other amenities in there to really get community buy-in. The reality is that we need more water out there, which we can do in the future by bringing it in from new sources.

I feel like we’ve just been standing still on this issue. A little bit of money gets thrown in there, but then the situation doesn’t change. I think that some of the things I mentioned are things we can do immediately. I think the governor promised about $220 million, but that is contingent on the bond measure passing. So what happens if the bond measure doesn’t pass? I don’t think that’s a fair solution. While I appreciate the (governor’s promise to direct) $220 million, let’s be honest: It’s going to take more than $220 million to solve this problem.

Is there any particular restoration strategy that you favor?

Yes. More water. We know that the issue is that we need to fill the sea back up. We have to do that. Years ago, my great uncle lived near the Salton Sea, and I remember him talking about it as the place to be, and the place to go. But now you look at it and say, “What the heck happened here?” Why has it been neglected for so long? So, it’s got to be a group effort, and now is not the time to point fingers and argue about whose fault it is. Let’s get something done.

I’ve heard talk about a “sea-to-sea” water replenishment strategy. Do you think that’s a viable approach?

The problem we always seem to run into is that environmental groups come in and challenge whatever is trying to be done. That’s always going to be an issue. The question is how we can get everybody to at least agree to some (restorative actions) in the middle, because it’s a health hazard out there. People are getting nose bleeds, and there are asthma problems and other respiratory problems. This is not something that we can argue about all day long as far as environmental concerns, and then do nothing. People deserve better than that.

I’m in the western part of our district, and there are times when we can smell the Salton Sea where we are. And that (polluted air) wafts over Los Angeles, even. You’d think that they would say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” So, everybody thinks that there’s just one answer, but there isn’t. I think people need to be mature about this and (understand) that you’re not going to come with some silver bullet. This calls for a multifaceted solution, and we have to stop trying to find that magic wand to wave and fix everything, because that’s not going to happen.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

I think the two top issues, in the whole state really, are affordability and the homelessness crisis. That’s what people have been talking to me about, and that’s what we’ve seen in the polling. The cost of living is pretty darn high in California, and it impacts every aspect of our lives, from housing affordability to long commutes and the time that people are spending on freeways. I will say that I have personally authored legislation. … I’ve even offered bills to re-purpose the high-speed rail funding and put it into the building of new housing. There is a bill that we put forward to make sure that the gas tax money is actually going to (maintaining) the roads instead of other pet projects which everyone is frustrated with.

The homeless issue—which I think is the No. 1 polling issue in California—everyone’s concerned with that. I did put policies forward to address chronic homelessness that can be lessened, or averted, by providing more mental-health funding, because we know that there’s a large contingent of homeless out there who have some mental-health issues. They really need some help, so we’re going to beef up the funding for that, in addition to making sure that those out there who have substance abuse issues are getting the help that they need too.

Relating to “sober living” homes: Basically you (or anyone) living in your neighborhood could open a “sober living” home. As long as you have six or fewer clients living there, there are no regulations that you have to follow. It is literally the wild west. It’s kind of insane. So we put a bill forward saying there are certain standards that have to be met, because people have been coming out here from all over the country to get help. But, once (the patient’s) money runs out—their health insurance or whatever form of payment they’re using—they kick (the patient) out. They have a term for it: They call it “curbing.” Talk about dehumanizing someone. And (the patients) don’t get the help. So, now we’re back to square one. I think that’s all pretty important when we talk about the homelessness issue. It’s not just that people can’t afford a place to live, although that is a portion of it. But there’s a whole host of other issues out there that we can do something about and adjust.

These policies that you’ve been referring to: Are some of them still pending in the Legislature, or have they been passed already?

These are bills that have been introduced and have failed to get passed in the Legislature. We’ve gotten further with them each year we bring them up. Apparently it takes like 50 attempts to get something meaningful through, but we’re working on it. Even on the “sober living” homes bill, we had the coalition of the (home) operators who came forward in support of the bill. Their feeling is that they run a legitimate organization, and they want the bad actors to be gone. They want rules to be followed, because (the bad actors) aren’t helping people. But the other side is saying that when it comes to addiction issues, (the patients) are a protected class, and we don’t want to get into a situation where we’re somehow violating their civil rights by saying where these “sober living” homes can and can’t operate, which we weren’t trying to do. We were just trying to say that there are certain rules and certain standards to make sure that they are actually helping people.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

That’s an easy question. That would be marrying my husband and going on to have our five kids. They are the best thing ever. You know, politics is short-term, and even a career is not forever, but family is forever, and I’m very blessed. We’ve got great kids: the oldest one is a (United States) Navy diver; we’ve got one in college, and two in high school; one in eighth grade, and they are the loves of my life. That’s definitely the thing I’m most proud of.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

It’s a precarious situation at the end, but I think it’s important for all of us who are serving to remember that we serve the people that we represent. We are not to be serving the special interests that dominate the halls in the state capitol. I made that commitment to be their voice when I first got elected, and I’m going to continue to be their voice. I’ve hosted over 100 town halls since I’ve been in the Assembly. We do two a month: one during the day, and one in the evening. We do that because voices need to be heard. I always tell them that I can’t represent them effectively or well if I don’t know what’s on their minds and how they feel about the issues. Frankly, I wish every legislator would do that. It’s been very helpful, because sometimes we have bills that come up, and they are definitely partisan bills, and I have to ask my constituents what they want me to do. We had the late-school-start bill last year—and party politics don’t come into play there—and went and asked (constituents), ‘What do you want me to do?’ For everybody who has kids, this is going to affect you. So, I think I’ve been most effective and best represented the people, because I do that. You know, when you win your re-election (races) for the state Assembly by large margins with (backing) from Republican, Democrat and Independent voters, that means they like when their representatives listen to them and come talk with them.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

I get a lot of complaints about the “top-two” (primary format), and I have to remind people that the Legislature did not do that; the voters of California actually did that. I think (the voters at the time) were convinced that it would bring forward candidates who were more in the center (of political ideology) rather than on the fringes. But I have not seen that happen, actually, so I don’t know that it worked. But I know that people are really irritated when they look at their ballot, and if they’re a Democrat and they only see two Republicans, or if they’re Republican and they only see two Democrats—they don’t like it. They want choices. So has it served the public? I don’t think so. I don’t think it changed anything, to be honest with you, other than frustrating the voters.

From your perspective as a candidate, does it matter?

I think it does. I mean, if you have to make a choice, you’re making a choice ideally between two different things. But when you have two people in the same party, then it becomes (a question of), “How different are they, really?” Maybe those candidates aren’t really different, and it just comes down to who has more money. And, who has more special interests backing them. I don’t think that’s fair to the voters. They want clear and distinct choices, and that’s very hard to get when you have two people in the same party on your ballot. I mean, imagine how left out you feel as a voter if you’re in one particular party, and nobody from your party is on the ballot for you to choose from. When you talk about voter apathy, that could have something to do with it, because people say, “You know what? Someone I would prefer to support isn’t even on the ballot. So, why bother?” It has an effect on every (race) down ballot, too. If you don’t go in to vote for your state Assembly member or your state senator (for instance), because somebody from your party is not on there, that means maybe you’re not voting for ballot initiatives, either. And your vote could be very important (in terms of) determining whether or not something passes.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I do want to point out that I have the endorsement of the (Riverside) County sheriff, of the county district attorney and of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. I think that should let people know that I take public safety very seriously, and I take protecting their tax dollars very seriously, too—considering the fact that we’re going to have a ballot initiative in November that is going to tinker with Prop 13 and how property taxes are assessed.

I want people to know that I didn’t get into politics by design. Politics is not exactly where I expected that I would be. I got into because, after leaving the Navy, it’s just kind of a way of life. You go serve. You don’t just take care of yourself; you go serve everybody in your community. So, that’s how I look at it, and public service is pretty much all I’ve done for my entire adult life. I hope (the voters) see that in the work that I’ve done, and in the ways that I’ve communicated with my constituents, the outreach that we’ve engaged in. When I get emails from my constituents, I answer every single one of them myself personally. I don’t do it by email; I hand-write my response, and I like doing that better. Frankly, all we ever get in the mail now is bills and junk mail, and, it’s nice to have someone actually write something to you. So, I answer them all by hand, and I hope (constituents) recognize that I do that because I think that’s what (each constituent) deserves, and they deserve someone who respects them regardless of whether or not we agree on a particular issue.


John Schwab

U.S. Marine veteran; owner and operator of a residential facility for developmentally disabled adults; real estate broker/mortgage broker

Republican, 43

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

Ever since I was stationed at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, they’ve been talking about cleaning up the Salton Sea forever—and they just haven’t done anything. So we really need to take care of it, because it’s just become more of a problem with all the respiratory infections out there.

I’m willing to work on coming up with a solution to help start cleaning it up. I’ve come up with some ideas that can help the area out there, because they just keep kicking the can down the road. Nothing’s getting done, and it’s just getting worse

Any specific thoughts you have on how to attack the problem?

I’d like to talk to a lot of people about the environmental impact reports for that area and what needs to be done. We’re talking, in my estimation, about years of cleanup. It’s not going to happen quickly, but it is something that needs to be addressed.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

My No. 1 priority is traffic. I’ve lived in this state since I was 18 years old, so it’s been 25 years now, and traffic has gotten worse and worse. With more housing and more people, we still have limited space on the freeways and roads. So, I’m willing to work with the California Transportation Commission and the California Department of Transportation to come up with solutions to many of the issues that we have with traffic.

Do you have any particular strategy that you think could help alleviate this serious problem?

These are just some thoughts: scheduled commute times, more (traffic) lanes, maybe some roundabouts in certain areas and on certain roads, and maybe even look at additional roads. In this area, (to travel east-west), you’ve got to take the Interstate 10 freeway, and that’s it. It’s been that way forever, and if something happens on the 10, you’re not moving. I listen to the radio most of the time, to calm me down and soothe me. I even put the classical music on.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

It would be my personal life, because I’ve got really good kids. They’re very respectful, and they (reflect) what I grew up with. I’m originally from Richmond, Ind., and my kids are very respectful of their elders and people. They’re polite and well-mannered. When I started this campaign, I was trying to get signatures for the nomination, and you’d be surprised how people treat each other. So, just by raising great kids (who will be) great stewards, that helps make the state, counties and the cities better. That is the future, right?

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

I just look at the facts. I’m not all about fluff. I’m not going to sit here and promise you everything, and not deliver. What I talk about is coming up with solutions and trying to solve problems in the district. I’m not going to cure everything, but I’m going to work hard and diligently, and, it may be behind the scenes. I don’t have to be out here speaking in front of a crowd. I don’t need to be telling (people) what I want to do. I just need to put my nose to the grind, work with professionals who can give (me their) expert opinion, and try to get things done.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

I don’t have a problem with the best two (moving on). The top two vote-getters after the primary going (into the runoff election) is fine with me.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I’m just a regular neighbor, a father and husband; my kids are still in school. I’m just trying to do the best we can for the people in the district. I’m not a career politician. That’s not what I want to do. I’m just trying to stop some of the ridiculous laws, and lessen the tax burden that the state (government) keeps putting on the people of this state. I love California, but a lot of my friends and family are looking at the future, and trying to figure out if California is somewhere they want to stay, because (the state government) is burdening a lot of the people who live and work here. So, I decided to run for those particular reasons specifically.

I’m not an attorney. I don’t have any hidden agenda. My (focus) is on traffic, public safety and lowering fuel prices. I wasn’t a political major in college. I am really for the people, and that’s what I’d really like to share. They’re the ones who sit down and, hopefully, do the research. They look through the fluff and the rhetoric, and then they get to decide for themselves.

Published in Politics

In late March, a press release landed in inboxes announcing the launch of the Coachella Valley Waterkeeper organization.

The release included some fairly inflammatory language about what the CVWK claimed were serious and ongoing aquifer-overdraft issues—and the failure to address Salton Sea degradation challenges. The CVWK, it seemed, was sailing into the Coachella Valley on a white warship to protect the environment and conserve water—two things, the release implied, had been dangerously mishandled by local and state stakeholders over the past decade or more.

The CVWK, as a program being launched and supervised under the auspices of the Orange County Coastkeeper (OCCK) organization in Costa Mesa, is a member of the national Waterkeeper Alliance, based in New York and headed up by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. On the Waterkeeper Alliance website, you can find this description of the CVWK and the valley: “The rich history of Coachella Valley in the desert region of Riverside County, California, is embedded within the Whitewater River watershed and the Coachella Valley aquifer … Today, the Whitewater River continues to serve as a critical water resource that replenishes the Coachella Valley aquifer—a drinking source for 400,000 people, including the reservation for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla people, and 66,000 acres of farmland. Coachella Valley is also home to a diverse array of animals and plant species that are now threatened by degradation of water quality caused by urban and agricultural development. The river, aquifer and Salton Sea, to which it drains, suffer from a legacy of poor development practices, antiquated infrastructure insufficient for the area’s current and future growth, pollution from agricultural return flow and unpermitted concentrated animal feeding operations, industrial runoff, and aquifer overdrafting.”

We wondered: Who were these people from Orange County who were convinced they could drop into the midst of our dusty valley and solve all of our water-related problems? For answers, we reached out to Garry Brown, the founder and president of the Orange County Coastkeeper, the parent entity of the new CVWK.

“OCCK is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and what we wanted to do is try to help out in the Coachella Valley, because I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for it,” he said. “I love the area. But all areas have water problems and issues. … While I can’t sit here and tell you that we have a defined body of work that we want to do, we’re out there now talking to a lot of people and listening.

“Obviously, there’s the Whitewater River and everything that pertains to it and the wash, and the value (those resources) bring. It’s a source for the aquifer which is incredibly essential to the Coachella Valley. And there’s the Salton Sea, which is somewhere between an asset and a big liability. A lot must be done there, or it’s going to be catastrophic, not only for the habitats there, but for the people, too.”

With so many local stakeholders working full-time already on these critical issues (albeit with less-than-completely successful results), what can the CVWK offer that will prove to be the game-changer?

“It wouldn’t be responsible of me to go out to the Coachella Valley and disrespect people who have been working on these issues for a long time, and start saying, ‘We know what all the issues are, and we know all the solutions,’” Brown said. “So we’ve been talking to a lot of people out there. We are trying to learn. We are trying to be respectful of other organizations that have been doing work for a long time, particularly on the Salton Sea. We absolutely feel that we can be an added voice. If it takes pressure in Sacramento or in Washington, D.C., we can help out with that. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of the proposals and ideas on how to fix (the Salton Sea). I’ve watched many millions of dollars being spent without anyone turning a shovel of dirt or anything. There seem to be concrete plans, but if they don’t get moving, and they don’t get funded, we’re running out of time before it becomes a health issue for the people there and all the way down the Interstate 10 corridor.”

As a first step toward proving its commitment to the Coachella Valley, at the start of June, Brown and the OCCK hired recent Peace Corps veteran Nina Waszak as the associate director and on-the-ground program leader. During a recent phone interview, Waszak discussed her plan of action.

“My No. 1 priority right now is gaining visibility within the communities of the Coachella Valley,” Waszak said. “I’ve been working on putting together a list of other nonprofits or organizations who are not just working with water issues, but are working similarly along the lines as we are. These are people I can collaborate with, because there are a lot of great organizations doing a lot of work focused on water, especially the Salton Sea. I’ve talked with the National Parks Conservation Association, and they gave me some good tips about what’s going on here. Also, a lot of my job right now is learning about the local issues. As far as the Indian tribes, we would love to collaborate with the Agua Caliente (Band of Cahuilla Indians), but I’m still working on getting in contact with them. I do have some contacts with the Torres Martinez reservation in Thermal, which is working on a wetlands-restoration project at the Salton Sea.”

While in the Peace Corps, Waszak served in a remote indigenous community in Panama where they had their own language, culture and form of dress.

“I lived with them and learned their language,” Waszak said. “Also, because of the nature of where I lived, there wasn’t any potable water year-round, so everything I did was in the river. I bathed there, washed my clothes, washed my dishes there. … So I really learned to have an appreciation for water and what we have here in the States. That (experience) plays an interesting role in this position I have now, because I can see the importance of water and the fact that here in the Coachella Valley, there are still water issues, particularly in the eastern valley with potable-water sources.

“As a Peace Corps volunteer, my job was to hear what the community needed and then use my resources and my knowledge to bridge that gap and help them get what they needed. I’m definitely using that idea in this job.”

For his part, Brown appreciates the lonely role Waszak will be playing for a while.

“She’s going to be alone out there for the next few months, and yet she has a whole backup (team) here at the OCCK,” he said. “We have professional educators, attorneys, accounting people and media-publicity people she can rely on to help build her program. On another front, at over 40 high schools in the Costa Mesa region, we show kids where water comes from, besides the faucet, and where it goes, besides the drain. We pay for buses and take them on field trips to show them facilities that are dealing with water. These are all activities that we’ll soon be looking to incorporate in our program out there.”

Brown asked that those of us in the Coachella Valley give him, Waszak and their team a chance.

“When I started (the OCCK) 20 years ago, I didn’t know where it was going to wind up,” he said. “But we’ve been able to compile a long list of achievements and wins. I just want to extend that out to the Coachella Valley and help by being part of the team that makes things better out there.”

Published in Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May all of your adventures end well!

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

Published in Cocktails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

The waters then teemed with activity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Local Issues

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

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

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

Until now, that is.

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

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

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

What’s the goal of these workshops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Flores Jr. is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth-media group in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorpaorated.org.

Published in Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Environment

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