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Fri11152019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Mark Twain was one of the first to publicly sing the praises of the California red-legged frog.

Back in 1867, in a short story titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” he wrote about a fellow “by the name of Jim Smiley … He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump.”

In 2014, the ancestors of that exceptionally “edercated” California red-legged frog became the catalyst for a local educational experience involving Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, and some inspirational students and faculty members at Salton City’s Sea View Elementary School: fifth-grade student Samantha Lambarena; sixth-grade student Freedom America Payne; teacher and faculty adviser Virginia Haddad; and principal Dr. Timothy Steele.

With stylistic apologies to Mark Twain, Mrs. Haddad begins our modern inspirational tale: “I have an after-school class named the ‘Prodigy Cats.’ Samantha actually named it that, and it’s a group of kids who like to dream—high-achieving kids who like to do projects.

“A couple of years ago when I was looking on the Internet for contests for my students to get involved in, I found one art contest through an organization called Save the Frogs. They put me on a mailing list. … One person mentioned their state amphibian, so I was wondering what ours was. I looked and saw we didn’t have one.

“So I presented this idea to them: What if we work on getting a state amphibian for California? They thought it was a great idea. … So I asked the head of Save the Frogs, Dr. Kerry Kriger, who’s a well-known expert on frogs: What do you suggest would be a good frog to be our state amphibian? He said the California red-legged frog. … He suggested we go to our local assemblyperson. Then last November, sixth-grader Freedom Payne wrote the letter; we all pitched in, then he typed it up; about 10 kids signed it, and we sent it up to Assemblymember Perez at his office in Indio.

The group didn’t hear back, so they sent a second letter to Perez’s Sacramento office.

Samantha takes over the story. “We did get a reply to that,” she says. “After that, we started working on our project and learning more about the frog.”

Perez picks up the narrative: “I really didn’t think much about it in the beginning, other than it was a cute idea. But it never left the back of my mind.”

Haddad and some students went to an open house at Perez’s Indio office back in January. “There was music and tamales and cookies,” she says. “But Mr. Perez was so nice to these kids. He literally took them under his arms. There were a lot of important people there, but Mr. Perez took time with these kids and showed us around his office.”

Perez says, “As a result of that, I thought, ‘You know what? Let’s give this a shot.’ This could truly be an educational experience for the students in which they can see how a bill becomes law and experientially go through it.”

Samantha says the students then got to work. “We learned more facts about the frog: its behavior, its habitat and what it eats.”

“It’s indigenous to California,” interjects Freedom.

It’s a threatened species which does not quite reach the level of endangered.

“The bullfrog has been eating the California frogs lately, and it’s our frog’s worst enemy now,” Samantha says.

Back we go to the unfolding story of the legislative initiative. “In February of this year, Mr. Perez came to Sea View Elementary and did a presentation for all of our fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students about how a bill becomes law,” Steele says. “Then, Mr. Perez announced that he was going to move forward and present this bill, which he identified as AB 2364. He invited us up to Sacramento.”

The students made the trip to the state Capitol and gave testimony. “In the committee session, I said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I waive my presentation. I have a couple of students here who would like to present this bill, and they’re ready for you.’ And they basically took over,” Perez says. “The assemblymembers were impressed. They really appreciated what the kids had to say, and they took a liking to the bill. On the Assembly floor, it was passed by a 52-10 vote, and now it’s going to the Senate.”

Steele says it was an amazing experience. “When you talk about learning being a part of students’ real lives, this was the epitome. You can’t get any more involved than sitting in the state Capitol in Sacramento, and you’re facing a panel of assemblymembers, and you’re in fifth- or sixth-grade.”

So what hurdles remain before the battle for designation of the state amphibian is won? “It’s going to the Senate, where it will be referred to a committee, in Natural Resources, perhaps,” Perez explains. “But that’s not going to happen until sometime in June. I’ll have to present the bill to the committee in the Senate as well at that time. It’s expensive to take the students up to Sacramento. It takes a lot of time and resources, so I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that again, quite frankly.”

However, Freedom and Samantha would jump at the opportunity. When asked if they’d be returning to Sacramento they reply in unison, “I hope!”

Has this ambitious enterprise changed their view on life at all? “Being a part of this whole experience has definitely changed my life,” says Freedom, “because not a lot of kids get this kind of opportunity. And getting this opportunity makes me happy and helps me move on. In my free time now, whenever I’m bored, I go on my iPad and start drawing frogs.”

As for Samantha: “It changed my life, because before, I used to feel bored and sad and not knowing what to do. But now, since Mrs. Haddad told me about the Save the Frogs website and because of what we’ve been doing, I stay involved and have been educated about this issue. And I feel better.”

Published in Politics

Unless you’re one of those people targeted to receive vitriolic mailers from candidates blasting other candidates, you may not even know there’s a primary election taking place in California on Tuesday, June 3.

Even if you do know about the election: Are you one of those who doesn’t think it really matters—and might blow off voting?

Midterm elections are notorious for low turnouts, largely because the hype isn’t as great. They’re the elections in which nasty low blows and last-minute revelations dominate, yet they are often the elections which affect us most: city council members, judges, county supervisors, sheriffs and school board members are chosen. These are the offices closest to our everyday lives, and yet only the most ardent citizens follow these elections.

In the Coachella Valley, we have a couple of really interesting races, especially in light of the new open primary that means all candidates are in the same race, and the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, go into a final runoff election in November. California voters approved this by ballot initiative in 2010, another midterm lower-turnout election, apparently hoping it would end political gridlock. So much for that notion. If you don’t like this system, you should have voted against it.

As I recall, Republicans pushed for this open primary, because they felt they were getting completely shut out of California politics in this largely Democratic state. Its supporters claimed to want all parties to have an equal chance. That’s why you’ll see Democrats, Republicans, Peace and Freedom, and Green party candidates all running on this ballot, as well as some candidates who don’t identify with any party.

One of the offices up this election is Riverside County supervisor. We have the chance to fill this one seat with what would be the only non-Republican on that panel—and the first Hispanic, V. Manuel Perez. He was recently appointed as majority floor leader of the California Assembly, but he is termed out and cannot run again for that seat. Perez is running against present County Supervisor John Benoit. These are the people who decide how county funds are spent, and oversee programs that cater to populations and nonprofit efforts at the local level. How often have you heard complaints that the supervisors don’t take enough interest in our end of the county? This is a chance to impact who sits in that seat.

In the newly designated State Senate District 28—formed through redistricting and covering the desert communities, southwest Riverside County and Corona—the open primary is taking center stage. Drawn to be a Republican district (fair or not, that’s the way these things get done), the 28th has an active campaign that’s not always pleasant to watch, especially because it’s an “open” seat, meaning there is no incumbent with a presumed advantage up for re-election.

Four Republicans are running alongside two Democrats. Philip Drucker, a local attorney and educator, is a first-time candidate; he’s a lifelong Democrat, though he’s not well-known in local Democratic politics. The other is Anna Nevenic, who has run for various offices in the past, and is considered by local Democrats as something of a political gadfly.

On the Republican side, four candidates are vying for votes. Bill Carns is a business owner who is seen as having little chance to pull many votes. The other three Republican candidates are all political veterans who are running very hard campaigns.

Bonnie Garcia previously served in Sacramento, and was known for a while as the woman who wouldn’t “kick (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) out of my bed”; she has responded strongly to attacks on her integrity and family issues by her opponents.

Jeff Stone is a county supervisor who touts that he knows firsthand as a medical professional (owner of a compounding pharmacy) that Obamacare is a disaster. Of course, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is already law, is not on the ballot, and is not administered by county supervisors.

The Riverside County Young Republicans and Coachella Valley Young Republicans endorsed Garcia. The Southwest Young Republicans of Riverside County are going with Stone.

Also on the ballot for this Senate seat is Republican Glenn Miller, City Councilmember and former mayor of Indio. Miller describes himself as a fiscal conservative with progressive views on “social issues,” saying he supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He has recently been endorsed by no less than Equality California, a gay-marriage activist organization, and by some local Democrats (although these endorsements do not yet appear on his website).

These endorsements have caused no end of dissent among local Democrats, who ask: Why endorse a primary vote for a Republican, when there is a credible Democrat on the ballot? Wouldn’t that mean there is less likelihood that the Democrat might be one of the top two vote-getters? Or are they willing to bet on a friendly Republican, assuming any Democratic candidate will lose in the final election, anyway?

Some Republicans ask whether they can support a candidate who has gotten support from Democrats, especially pro-gay-marriage activists. Doesn’t that mean he’s a RINO—a Republican in Name Only? Are they saying not to vote for Miller because he might actually get elected? Is ideology more important than winning?

Since the district is presumed to be majority Republican, and since it’s not a bad bet that the primary will result in two Republicans being the highest vote-getters, why shouldn’t the Democrats hedge their bets and support the moderate Republican who could be a friendly ear in the State Senate? Remember the Rush Limbaugh “Vote for Hillary” campaign to hurt the Obama campaign, assuming Hillary could be beaten by John McCain?

I thought this kind of crap was what the open primary system was supposed to eliminate. What happened to caring about why they’re running, and how they plan to address issues and policies that matter to us?

Are you willing to let these decisions be made by political hacks playing games, or will you fulfill your responsibility as an American citizen, do some homework (the links are all here) and show up to vote for the best candidate?

The primary election is Tuesday, June 3. You don’t have to vote for everything on the ballot for your vote to count. But if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the results.

Full disclosure: I have interviewed Philip Drucker and Glenn Miller on my radio show. I have not publicly endorsed anyone. Podcasts are available at www.KNewsRadio.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Despite last weekend’s helpful storms, it’s a fact: There’s a water shortage in California.

Depending on your news source, we’re told that the state is suffering either through its worst drought ever, the worst since the 1880s, or—at the least—the worst in the last 15 years.

“Not only was 2013 one of the driest years on record in California; it followed two dry years in 2011 and 2012,” said Craig Ewing, the Desert Water Agency’s president of the board, during his opening remarks at a recent DWA public workshop regarding water conservation and management.

Concern is highest in communities farther north, like Santa Barbara, where water restrictions mandated by a Stage 1 drought alert were initiated on Feb. 4. Customers there are being asked to reduce water usage by 20 percent. But even as such measures are being taken, some projections say that available water resources for that city could run out as early as July. “I am not calm and collected,” said Ray Stokes, manager of the Central Coast Water Authority, the agency responsible for importing state water into Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, to the Santa Barbara Independent.

Here in the Coachella Valley, the news is comparatively good news for Desert Water Agency customers. The agency serves customers in Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. “We have underground storage called the aquifer here,” explained Ewing at the workshop. “Ninety percent of our water comes from that; 10 percent comes from snows and the creeks. So we aren’t in the desperate condition they’re in up north.”

The good news continues. Due to the combined efforts of the DWA on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District agency—which services most of the communities from Cathedral City to the Salton Sea—the water level in the aquifer has been supplemented frequently since 1973 through “recharging” of the supply with water obtained from the Colorado River as part of an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

“We started banking natural runoffs during wet years,” Ewing said. “Now we’re trying to maintain a stable supply. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, since they’re telling us that the 21st century will be drier than the 20th. This comes down to some big issues around climate and geology and water availability, and your role as a human being to leave a smaller water footprint as we go forward.”

Ewing noted the fortunate reality at play in the Coachella Valley. “We live in a desert, and yet we have direct access to the California State Water Project, so we don’t pay a middle man,” he said. “We have this aquifer that actually filters the water so we don’t have to spend money on treatment, and it provides a valuable natural storage resource. We have to recognize that we are probably the most fortunate people out there with regard to water—but that’s no reason to ignore the drought problem.”

Also in attendance at the public workshop was Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who is currently running for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. “I’m here because I felt it was important to hear about the concerns that our constituency may have and to hear from the DWA what they are proposing. Everyone has to do their part at the end of the day. We have to do everything we can to protect our most important natural asset.”

DWA officials discussed some of the water-conservation efforts currently under way. The first is operational efficiency, which involves the water agency’s efforts to make sure it saves water in the way it’s delivered to the customer. This includes replacing damaged water mains, providing homeowners with smart water meters, and identifying irrigation-system leaks, among other initiatives.

Other efforts include educational outreach, customer incentives or rebates, and regulatory restrictions on water usage. Another conservation strategy, tiered-rate billing, is under serious consideration and study by the DWA.

For CVWD customers, tiered-rate billing is already business as usual.

“We started tiered rates in 2009,” said Heather Engel, CVWD director of communications and legislation. “And we didn’t get a lot of resistance from our customers. We did a pretty heavy education campaign, which included sending ‘shadow bills’ to every customer for three months prior to implementation. They got to see if their bill would go up, down or stay the same. And for 80 percent of our customers, the bill actually went down by a couple of pennies.

“Some people did accuse us of just trying to make more money,” Engel continued. “But it really was an education program. People maybe thought they were being very conscientious with their water use, but here was a guide that they could look at and say, ‘Wow! I’m being excessive.’ Maybe they had leaks they didn’t know about and could now address.”

Are tiered rates definitely in the future for DWA customers?

“If you ask me, I’d say yes,” said DWA board president Ewing. “But it will be a discussion for the board. I think we need to go there.”

Barbara Ojena, a Palm Springs citizen, seemed pleased that she attended the workshop.

“I was very impressed how on top of things the organization is. Personally, I’d like to see a few more regulations put in place at this time, because we are in a severe situation statewide. I think we need to make people more aware of that and conserve what we’ve got.”

Published in Environment

It’s going to be a busy election year in the Coachella Valley.

Residents of Rancho Mirage will kick things off with a municipal election on April 8, before the spotlight moves to the hotly contested big-name races. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat, will be opposed by Republican State Assemblymember Brian Nestande in a fierce battle that could help determine which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives. And Gov. Jerry Brown will be seeking his second term as the 39th governor of California against an as-yet-undetermined Republican candidate.

Down the ballot a bit is the election for Riverside County District 4 supervisor, featuring Republican incumbent John Benoit, and Democrat V. Manuel Perez, who is currently serving as the state assemblymember for the 56th District (which includes the Salton Sea area and much of the northern and eastern parts of the Coachella Valley, including all or parts of Coachella, Indio, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs). However, both of the seat’s announced contenders insisted that their race is just as important—if not more important—than the bigger-name contests.

“This seat is very important. In my opinion, it is one of the most important seats in government, if not the most important,” said Perez, who, like Dr. Ruiz, is a graduate of Harvard University and is considered a rising star in Democratic circles. “Many people don’t understand that. For all the policies that I’ll decide at my level, or Congressman Raul Ruiz will decide at his level, county government is where the rubber meets the road.”

Benoit, on this point, agreed with Perez.

“I enjoyed being a senator, and (serving in) the State Senate was an honor and a privilege,” said Benoit. “But nothing I did in the Senate even comes close to the impacts I have, sometimes every week, in the decisions I make here as a member of the Board of Supervisors—real impacts on real projects that are going to have real significance.”

The office of county supervisor is considered a nonpartisan position, although the office can be attained only by enduring a political campaign and an election process. Benoit addressed this contrariety.

“Because this is a nonpartisan office, and most of what we deal with is nonpartisan issues, I would think the biggest distinction between myself and my opponent is that I have 42 years of public-service experience,” he said. “That all helps a lot when you’re managing an office as part of a board responsible for 58 departments and 18,000 employees.”

As for the “nonpartisan” nature of the office he’s seeking, Perez mused: “It’s supposed to be. You know, I’ve been approached by many different entities and different allies on both sides of the aisle—Republicans and Democrats—to run for this seat. I feel that’s because of my work in Sacramento and because of my strong ties within the networks of the leadership there. I’ve worked in a bipartisan way, where (most) of the (policies) I’ve passed have been bipartisan, so I’ll definitely bring independent thinking to the county Board of Supervisors. I feel I’m the person who can bridge through and build up the Coachella Valley.”

What initiatives will be the focus of their respective campaigns? Benoit cited work he’s been doing in Mecca and the East Valley.

“We have the (66th Avenue) overcross and the Comfort Station, which is a legacy issue that we’re working on with the Galilee Center,” he said.

The Mecca Comfort Station would provide “restroom, shower, laundry, and adequate parking facilities to migrant farm workers in Mecca and the surrounding communities,” according to a county document. The Galilee Center assists the underprivileged in the East Valley.

He also pledged to work on the economy of the district.

“Every where you look, there are initiatives for growth and, in particular, solar projects and a vast array of potential renewable projects involved with the Salton Sea moving forward,” Benoit said.

Perez also said he’d focus on the economy.

“Ultimately, jobs and the economy are the No. 1 issue, because we still see a major gap between the rich and the poor,” he said. “In Riverside County, the largest number of poor exist here compared to every county in California, except Imperial County. I’ve got to make sure I deal with regulation, incentives and credits to lure in business.”

Both candidates are acutely aware of the see-saw voter-registration struggle going on in the Coachella Valley. Democrats have been whittling away at the Republican advantage in the county in recent years, although Republicans seemingly stopped that trend in 2013; as of Dec. 31, 2013, Republicans had a 5.14 percent voter-registration edge, according to the California Secretary of State.

“I’m pleased to see that the Republican registration numbers have come back some,” said Benoit. “But frankly, I’m not worried about that. I’m spending as much time or more talking to Democrats, talking to folks in the western part of the valley where I’m not as well-known—and when I talk to them, it has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat. I talk about all of my experience during four years in this supervisor’s office, and that I’m the right choice to continue what I’m doing.”

However, Perez pointed out that District 4 bucks the county trend; according to those same Dec. 31 figures from the Secretary of State, there were 3,600 more registered Democrats than Republicans in District 4.

“We have a 4 percent advantage in District 4,” Perez said. “… Earlier, we laughed about how this is supposed to be a nonpartisan race. Ultimately, we’re going to win this not because of those numbers, but because we’re going to out-work them. The numbers, be what they may be, do exist. But this campaign is going to be won on the ground.”

How do the candidates view their position in the race at this point? As of the end of 2013, Benoit had about $57,000 more in the bank, but Pérez was closing that gap.

“We know we’re way ahead in endorsements … and we certainly have an advantage in fundraising,” said Benoit. “Also, we’ve seen some polling numbers that indicate we’re in very good shape. But we’re putting all that behind us and running like we’re losing, to win.”

Perez also said he expects a close, challenging race.

“Ultimately, people are going to have to make a decision between two individuals who are going to work hard to win this election,” Perez said. “For some voters, this decision may be a tough one. They may have to break loyalties. So, yes, it’s going to be a campaign that, in my hope, causes people to reflect and dig deep inside—not only into their pocketbooks, but into their hearts and minds. They know that I actually care, and they’ll come out and vote for me.”

Below: V. Manuel Perez: "I’ve worked in a bipartisan way, where (most) of the (policies) I’ve passed have been bipartisan, so I’ll definitely bring independent thinking to the county Board of Supervisors. I feel I’m the person who can bridge through and build up the Coachella Valley.” Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Politics

Fish-farming—also known as aquaculture—was the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the United States back in 1998, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

At that time, the Imperial and Coachella valleys generated roughly 70 percent of the farm-raised fish coming out of California, according to the same Times story. In 2012, the production of farmed fish worldwide surpassed the production of beef for the first time in modern history, according to an article from environmental think-tank Earth Policy Institute. That same piece notes that this year, the worldwide consumption of farmed fish may surpass the consumption of fish caught in the wild.

But here in the Coachella Valley, the aquaculture industry has suffered setbacks as the demand has grown.

"The whole fish farm industry in the U.S. has been hit by high feed costs and energy costs," said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO and inventor with OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company that develops water-cleanup technology. According to him, the problem got so bad that some California fish farms closed as the Great Recession set in back in 2007 and 2008—including some here in our valley. But Riggs Eckelberry and his brother Nicholas, OriginOil’s co-founder and chief inventor, believe that their new technology can bring about a resurgence of aquaculture in Coachella Valley.

On Wednesday, Dec. 18, the pair were present at Thermal’s Aqua Farming Technology fish farm, which farms tilapia and catfish, as OriginOil unveiled its relatively new Electro Water Separation (EWS) Algae screen S60 process, which couples with the Aqua Q60 water-purifying process to form the foundation of a relatively inexpensive solution to sustainable organic fish farming here and around the world. Aqua Farming Technology has partnered with OriginOil to become their permanent showcase facility.

“This farm is owned by a company that is trying—with the combination of solar panels to provide cheaper energy—our algae feed for nutrition and our inexpensive water cleanup solution, to create a package that will enable the restart of all the fish farms in Coachella Valley,” explained Riggs Eckelberry. “They want to make us part of their secret sauce. Hopefully, it won’t be so secret soon.”

The media event was attended by State Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia.

“Today’s a good day,” Mayor Garcia (right) said. “Anytime we can introduce a technology that is clean and green, and can address a wide range of issues here in our region, such as job creation and environmental matters ... it’s a good day.”

Of course, the other big-picture environmental matter that was discussed most frequently on this day was the threat to the survival of the Salton Sea.

“Working with partners like OriginOil,” said Pérez, “we can integrate and bring in academicians, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs and those who believe in sustainable communities to advance efforts to restore the Salton Sea.”

In fact, Nicholas Eckelberry said he already has at least a partial solution to the Salton Sea problem. The lake’s future is being threatened by a decreasing water supply, and increasing salinity and pollution.

“I’ve designed a system for ocean cleanup which could effectively clean up the Salton Sea—at least all the suspended solvents,” said Eckelberry. “The technology we’re showcasing today is applied to algae-harvesting. Then we apply this same technology in a different format to ammonia-reduction. And we apply it in another format to frack-water-cleaning in the oil industry. And in another format, we can apply it to waste water treatment as well.”

One immediate positive local impact resulting from the OriginOil presence is a newly established alliance with the Green Academy of the Desert Mirage High School in Thermal. Lead teacher Tony Korwin brought nine of his pupils (below) with him to gain some first-hand knowledge of this new technology in their neighborhood.

“The Green Academy is a school within a school,” said Korwin. “ These students study green energy—solar, wind, geothermal. We were invited to come down here today, and they want to partner with us for continued education and potential scholarships for my students.”

Riggs Eckelberry said he sees real value for all participating partners.

“The Coachella Valley can be a source of organic fish-farming, which is not only invaluable to this community, but will set an example for the rest of the world and change perceptions of farmed fish. We’re super excited.”

Published in Environment

Residents of Thermal scored a major victory in their 16-year fight for clean air when Riverside County was awarded the funding to pave the roads of 31 trailer parks in the unincorporated communities of Eastern Coachella Valley.

The $4.1 million project is scheduled to begin as early as next summer, and should be completed within two years.

“When cars pass by, they lift a lot of dust, and it affects everyone that lives here,” said Margarita Gamez, a resident who has been active in the grassroots effort since 1997.

In 2008, Pueblo Unido, a community-development corporation, joined the fight for improved environmental conditions in the region’s trailer parks, which are typically situated in areas that lack potable water, sewer systems and basic infrastructure.

Trailer-park residents were the backbone of the organizing effort, and the idea to push for paved roads came from them, said Sergio Carranza, executive director and founder of Pueblo Unido.

“I’m just facilitating the project,” he added

Carranza said that dust and fine-particulate pollution from the unpaved roads are linked to the prevalence of asthma and respiratory problems among the many families who live in the trailer parks. The paved roads will also improve accessibility for residents and alleviate another major problem in these communities: flooding caused by heavy rains.

A Long-Awaited Opportunity

Pueblo Unido saw hope for funding when the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) began accepting proposals for environmentally friendly projects, funded by AB 1318 emission-mitigation fees from the Sentinel Energy Project. Meetings were held in number of Riverside County locations to gather community input—but many in the eastern Coachella Valley felt left out of the conversation.

“There were only public hearings being made in the western Coachella Valley,” said Carranza. “We (Pueblo Unido) made sure that the eastern Coachella Valley was taken care of, too.”

Pueblo Unido received backing for their roads proposal from Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who introduced AB 1318 in 2009, and Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who co-authored the bill when he was a state senator. As a result, county officials and held meetings in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“We had a lot of public hearings all over the valley on how this money should be spent. One of the witnesses was a young boy from the eastern Coachella Valley. He had to walk to school every day of his life. He felt that the air quality affected him greatly. (His story) impacted me and other members that are working on this project,” said Benoit, who is a member of the SCAQMD governing board.

SCAQMD, the manager of the mitigation-fee funds, entered into a contract with Riverside County to pave approximately 8.3 miles of unpaved roads within 31 mobile home parks containing 483 mobile-home units.

According to Darin Schemmer, communications director for Benoit, “The actual construction may begin as early as summer 2014. The remaining steps the Riverside County Transportation Department needs to take include completing the design and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) environmental document, (and) preparing, advertising, bidding and awarding a construction contract.”

The county, in turn, has contracted with Pueblo Unido to continue to be the liaison to the community that came together to make their needs heard.

“I advocated strongly that AQMD must provide technical assistance to grantees, and ultimately, we convinced them to do so. Another thing we did was encourage smaller, community-based grantees, to the extent possible, to partner with agencies that had the resources and capacity to present a strong application,” said Perez. “Such was the case of Pueblo Unido in partnering with Riverside County for the successful paving project.”

"Trail" Would Connect East, West Valley

More than $17 million of the $53 million mitigation fee fund total was awarded to CV Link, a proposed 52-mile multipurpose trail from Palm Springs to Mecca. Tourism leaders aggressively pushed for these funds on the grounds that the entire Coachella Valley would benefit.

Not everyone in the eastern Coachella Valley believes that would be the case.

“The road from Palm Springs to Mecca doesn’t benefit us. It only benefits wealthier communities,” said Gamez, who believes the trail is being geared toward tourists.

Perez, however, said he sees the environmental benefits of both the trail project and the paving project at the trailer parks.

“One of the things we have emphasized from the beginning is the need for an equitable distribution of grant-funding, so that many worthwhile projects and grantees would be able to use their ingenuity and community know-how to address local air quality concerns,” he said.

With the paving project now in place, Carranza said Pueblo Unido would continue listening to and organizing residents of these rural communities, in their quest for a better living environment. Future projects include a water-purification system and the opening of a learning center.

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

Published in Local Issues

Over the last decade in the Coachella Valley (and Riverside County overall), there has been a seismic political shift that is not related to the proximity of the San Andreas Fault.

In 2004, as the presidential election drew near, the Republican Party in Riverside County held a voter-registration advantage of 12.5 percentage points over the Democratic Party.

Four years later, that Republican advantage had dwindled to slightly more than 5 percentage points. And in 2012, as the race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney neared its climax, the Democratic Party had narrowed the gap to just 4.5 percentage points.

According to data released on May 20 by the California Secretary of State, that differential is now just 4.1 percentage points.

It’s no surprise that many political insiders in Riverside County attribute the Democrats’ surprising wins at the polls last November—Obama actually beat Romney by almost 11,000 votes in the county, and Dr. Raul Ruiz edged out incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack to get elected to Congress—to the party’s effective voter-enlistment drive over the last decade.

“When we opened our headquarters five years ago (in Cathedral City), we realized that one of the most important activities we could pursue was voter registration,” explained Elle Kurpiewski, the manager of the aforementioned headquarters and a former president of the Democrats of the Desert. “Our facility plays host to 11 different Democratic clubs and organizations in the region; we sponsor a booth at the weekly Thursday night Palm Springs Village Fest; and in 2008, we had 27 semi-permanent voter-registration sites established.”

Other factors have impacted the registered-voter landscape, too. One was the California online voter registration legislation that took effect in 2012 and is credited with enabling some 800,000 new voters statewide to join the electoral rolls prior to the 2012 general election. This new registration method proved particularly effective in attracting eligible voters among the young and minority groups, favoring Democrats statewide by a 2-to-1 margin over Republicans. (There are no specific numbers for Riverside County available yet.)

“Our only concern was whether online registration would actually work: Would voters be able to navigate the system successfully to get registered?” Kurpiewski said. “What we want is that people take advantage of their constitutional right to vote. If it works and helps stop registration fraud, then we’re in favor of it.”

Another major factor is the rapid growth of the Latino population statewide. According to the California Department of Finance, by early 2014, Latinos will outnumber white people by early 2014. Along with the Latino segment’s rapid growth comes these political realities: While only 44 percent of eligible Latino voters in the state had registered, more than 60 percent of them identified themselves as Democrats; meanwhile, only about 15 percent said they were Republicans, according to the Public Policy Institute of California in an analysis released earlier this year.

Therein lies both an opportunity and a challenge for the two major political parties.

“I always say that the Republican Party in Riverside County has three ongoing and equally important goals: voter registration, fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Randon Lane, chairman of the Republican Party of Riverside County. “I will speak to any organization, representing any constituency, about the Republican Party message and values. Right now, it’s important for us to get outside the box to attract both new voters to register as Republicans, and convert those who may not completely understand our message and are registered now with other major parties.”

Kurpiewski said local Democrats have made specific efforts to reach Latino communities in Coachella, Indio and Mecca. “But our focus is not just the Latino community; we care about everyone. In all ethnic communities, we enlist participants who are members of that community and have skills and expertise unique to their community. They know their neighbors and can identify the areas where our voter registration outreach will succeed. Our whole thing is working together with the communities that make up Coachella Valley, and that has made us successful in turning this valley blue.”

All eyes are now on the 2014 Riverside County Board of Supervisors race between challenger V. Manuel Perez, a Democrat, and Republican incumbent John Benoit. Just how much of the voter-registration focus in Riverside County will be on recruiting Latino citizens?

“There are a lot of shared voter concerns that we speak to as a party in our outreach efforts, whether at meetings, via social media or direct mail,” said Lane, “but particular voter segments have their specific issues that we want to address. The Republican Party wants to speak to the Latino community’s concerns, just as we need to address concerns in the black, Asian, white or any ethnic constituency where voters will consider supporting the Republican Party.”

Kurpiewski said local Democrats are in the process of starting a major voter-registration drive this month. “I’d rather not share details, because we don’t want to give opposing parties a preview of our strategy, but we are very confident that this effort will enable us to accomplish everything we can to help V. Manuel Perez to get elected, and also to keep U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz in office,” she said.

Published in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Community Voices

Sunshine Week starts Sunday, March 10—so let’s celebrate by shining a light on the gifts received by Coachella Valley-area legislators.

Earlier this month, the California Fair Political Practices Commission released the 2012 Form 700 filings—aka “Statements of Economic Interests.” These documents contain all sorts of information—on investments, loans, etc.—but the most interesting disclosures involve gifts.

One area state senator received a five-digit trip to Brazil; the other received a trip to Australia and New Zealand. One local state assemblyman enjoyed free baseball tickets, while the other went to Disneyland on the house.

Here’s a list of all the reported gifts for four area state legislators.

 

State Sen. Bill Emmerson, District 23

League of California Cities: food and beverage, $19.16

Pacific Gas and Electric: food and beverage, $127.14 and $33.19

National Federation of Independent Business: food and beverage, $31.14

California Newspaper Publishers Association: food and beverage, $88.53

Comcast Cable: food and beverage, $134.82

California Dental Association: food and beverage, $21.22

California Citrus Mutual: oranges, $8.85

Eastern Municipal Water District: food and beverage, $25.12

CaliforniaState Floral Association: flowers, $16.95

CaliforniaHospital Association: food and beverage, $33

CaliforniaBuilding Industry Association: food and beverage, $60.74

HCC Life Insurance Company: food and beverage, $123.39

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan: food and beverage, $21.81

CalChamber: food and beverage, $32.31

Associated General Contractors of California: food and beverage, $38 and $82

NapaValley Vintners: food and beverage, $15.32

California Foundation on Environment and the Economy, “made a speech/participated in a panel,” $493.69 and $809.22

California Foundation on Environment and the Economy, “study travel project on energy issues" (trip to Brazil from Nov. 8 through Nov. 21), $13,846.46.

 

State Sen. Juan Vargas, District 40 (now in the U.S. House of Representatives)

ALS Association, Golden West Chapter: dinner, $63.16

CA Issues Forum: dinner with governor, $87.05

Neighborhood National Bank: dinner with Bob McGill, $50

Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee: food and lodging, $420

Union Bank: California Bankers’ Association Dinner, $87

Western States Petroleum Association: dinner at The Kitchen, $323

Phillips 66: dinner at Ella, $77

SDG&E: emergency preparedness backpacks, $119

DCCC: luncheon, $83.50

Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce: inaugural dinner, $140.58

Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee: panel discussion, lodging (two nights), no amount given

Legislative Council, Parliament of New South Wales: ground transportation, meals and beverage, cultural activities (Nov. 10-15), $2,379

New Zealand Parliament: dinner, Nov. 15, $260

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority: transportation, lunch and souvenir, Nov. 16: $104

Christchurch International Airport Limited: dinner, Nov. 16: $227

(Note on the previous four entries: “Trip was sponsored by the California International Relations Office to Australia and New Zealand and was attended by myself and my wife.”)

 

Assemblyman Brian Nestande, District 42

Edvoice: food and drink, $86 and $48

John A. Perez for Assembly 2012: food and drink, $23, $28, $50; gift—engraved box, $39; gift—glass bowl, $88

Comcast Corporation and Affliated Entities: food and drink, $32; Oakland A’s tickets, $175

Council for Legislative Excellence: dinner, $81

California Tribal Business Alliance: food/drink/entertainment, $66

City of Los Angeles: airport parking and shuttle services for official business only, OntarioAirport, $1,220

Institute of Government Relations: made a speech/participated in a panel, $1,376

Edvoice: made a speech/participated in a panel, $836

 

Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, District 80/56

California Issues Forum: meal, $65.26

Walt Disney Company: Disneyland park tickets, $348

California Tomato Growers’ Association: meal, $233.74

Covanta Energy: meal, $50.21

FexEx: meal, $271.25

California Professional Firefighters: authentic fire helmet, $152

Comcast Corporation and Affiliated Entities, Including NBC Universal media: park ticket, $94.79

Barona Band of Mission Indians: meal, $85.17

California Democratic Party: meal, $67.71

John A. Perez for Assembly 2012: personalized green glass bowl, $85.80

California Latino Caucus Leadership Political Action Committee: caricature and frame, $79

Desert Hot Springs Chamber: meals, $50

Published in Politics

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