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The initial East Valley goal of the Agua4All campaign: Bring relief to thousands of students who had no access to safe drinking water by installing 60 bottle-filling stations at the schools of the Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD).

An April 8 rally at Toro Canyon Middle School in Thermal celebrated success: By the end of March, that goal had been eclipsed, as 75 stations had been set up. As a result, students now have free reusable water bottles and on-campus access to one or more Agua4All stations, providing safe drinking water on a continuous basis.

“It’s been an extremely important effort that was initiated by the California Endowment, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Community Water Center. Now we want to take it statewide,” said Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, of the East Valley’s 56th District, in an interview. “We introduced a piece of legislation (AB 2124) that allocates the resources to enable taking this effort across the state of California.”

The bill is currently in the hands of the state Assembly.

Sarah Buck, the RCAC Agua4All campaign supervisor and rural development specialist, said she hopes the program will be expanded to other Coachella Valley schools.

“One of our goals down the road is to get the interest and attention of the Desert Sands Unified School District to create a partnership and replicate what we’ve done with the CVUSD so that we can install filling stations in all of their schools as well,” she said. Desert Sands operates schools in parts of Bermuda Dunes, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indian Wells. “But that may be a little ways out. Right now, we’re in the phase of looking for and waiting for funding to continue those efforts.”

Still, a lot of work remains, especially when it comes to the numerous unpermitted trailer parks where so many families live without infrastructure.

“We have installed at least one filling station and up to six at every single one of the schools in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, with the exception of Westside (Elementary School in Thermal),” Buck said. “But we’ve only put a few stations in community access sites. We put two at the Mecca Boys and Girls Club and two at the San Jose Community Learning Center. So in this next phase in Coachella, the goal is to put them in more community places so that not just kids have safe water access … but that their families (do) as well.”

Victor Gonzalez, a Coachella resident, shed more light on the depths of the problem. “I lived in Lake St. Anthony trailer park from 1992 all the way up to 2015, so I grew up in those conditions,” he said. “We were not connected to the (Coachella Valley Water District) system, so a lot of these trailer parks resorted to using wells. For a long time, we were getting water in our homes that had dirt in it. This was the water that we would be drinking. We’d shower in it, and my mom and my dad cooked with it.”

Fortunately, recent actions have improved life for Gonzalez’s sister and friends who still live at St. Anthony’s.

“About two years ago,” Gonzalez said, “Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation established a reverse-osmosis center in the trailer park where people can go to get safe water for cooking or brushing their teeth, for example. But the tap water is still untreated.”

Is it possible to bring about permanent and convenient solutions that would deliver safe drinking water to the homes of all residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley? Garcia said he could foresee such a reality. “I do. In some places far sooner than others, but I really do. I think the Flint, Mich., case has shed light on what I call the smaller Flint, Mich., communities throughout the country—and I’m speaking specifically of those in California.

“California adopted a position that water is a right, and everyone should have access to safe water. Last year, we were successful in getting a bill signed by the governor that would allow very specific point-of-use technologies to be utilized in remote, rural areas to address the high levels of arsenic being found. This bill was directly beneficial to households in the communities of the eastern Coachella Valley, and it was sponsored by Sergio Carranza (executive director of PUDC) and the Pueblo Unido Development Corporation out of the eastern valley.”

The Coachella Valley Water District must play a prominent role in implementing permanent long-term solutions for the communities of the eastern valley it serves. Toward that end, a Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Committee was established within CVWD late in 2015. Garcia said the committee came into existence “thanks to the leadership of (CVWD board member) Castulo Estrada, who represents the district that has the majority of these communities being affected by the lack of infrastructure. He’s to be credited for that effort. He’s spearheading the CVWD efforts to address these issues in a timely and responsible way.”

Gonzalez also said Estrada’s election to the board in 2014 is leading to positive change. “For a long time, our area was not really represented by the board members we cast our votes for,” he said. “But in these last elections, we were able to vote for someone who really represented the people of our community. And it came as a result of community input and advocacy to change the voting mechanisms.”

Published in Local Issues

A smile grows on Jacqueline Aguilar’s face when she talks about local art and her community.

Aguilar, a senior at Coachella Valley High School, is passionate about these topics—and she’s eager to share her insight with anyone willing to listen.

Aguilar represented Raices Cultura when she spoke about art and her community to an audience of city planners at the 2014 Annual Conference of the American Planning Association’s California Chapter in Anaheim in mid-September.

“I was really nervous. I was shaking,” Aguilar said. “I’m not usually that nervous, but people started showing up, and it was really weird to have such a large audience.”

Aguilar and other youth representatives from the eastern Coachella Valley participated in a youth panel at the annual conference titled “Legitimate Voices: Youth Perspectives on the Meaning of Building Healthy Communities in the Eastern Coachella Valley.”

The youth panel was an opportunity for planners to hear from youth who are working in the Eastern Coachella Valley. The Building Healthy Communities Initiative was represented by Adriana Diaz-Ordaz, and Pueblo Unido CDC was represented by Sahara Huazano and Victor Gonzalez.

Daisy Ramirez, a health education assistant for the County of Riverside Department of Public Health, said she was proud of the panel, because the youth representatives were able to better educate the planners about the work that is going on in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“Some planners didn’t even know where the eastern Coachella Valley was, or what was going on in the eastern Coachella Valley,” Ramirez said. “Sometimes, we assume people already know.”

The youth panel met again on Sept. 22 at the Building Healthy Communities office in Coachella to debrief. Diaz-Ordaz and Huazano both said they felt honored to present their community projects to people who are responsible for planning future communities.

“There’s this realm, or sphere of influence, that comes with being a planner,” Diaz-Ordaz said. “There’s that network, there’s that community, and that social capital that comes along with even being in that place.”

At the conference, Huazano and Gonzalez presented Pueblo Unido’s Coachella Valley Mobile Home Pavement Project, which is aimed at improving the health of more than 400 families in 39 mobile home parks in the eastern Coachella Valley. Huazano said the conference helped her identify skills she needs to build in order to keep representing the eastern Coachella Valley well.

“I’ve been thinking of how I can improve my speaking skills, because I want to continue on doing this work.” Huazano said. “And in order for me to represent my community how they deserve, I need to learn how to speak properly.”

Miguel Vazquez, the co-chair for the California Planning Roundtable Healthy Communities Workgroup, organized the panel and moderated the session. At the debriefing, Vazquez said he’d never heard an audience applaud so long for a panel.

Vasquez encouraged the youth presenters to use the momentum they built at the conference to keep working on community issues.

“It would be really cool if something came out of this, and next year, we could go back and say, ‘Remember that group of youth? Well, they did this. And it wasn’t futile,’” Vasquez said.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media organization 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 Local Issues

While a storm-water master plan exists for some undeveloped areas of Coachella Valley, residents will continue to suffer from the consequences of inadequate storm-water infrastructure for years to come, due to a lack of funding

Portions of the east valley learned this lesson the hard way on Monday, Sept. 8, when storms—including the remnants of Hurricane Norbert—flooded portions of Mecca, Thermal and other communities.

In many of the unincorporated communities, storm-water systems have yet to be installed, said Mark Johnson, director of engineering for the Coachella Valley Water District.

Mecca and North Shore, for example, are both subject to flooding, even though the master plan for the areas identifies what is needed to provide necessary flood protection. Needed flood control systems would be designed and constructed in the future in accordance with master planning for the area, Johnson said.

“I think the (residents of) unincorporated areas are aware of the fact that they don’t have regional storm-water protection, and hopefully, their homes are built above the 100-year storm levels,” Johnson said. “Until regional flood protection comes for these unincorporated areas, they’re really subject their local environment.”

Mecca and North Shore do receive some flood protection from the East Side Detention Dike. However, the dike is not recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a flood-control facility to provide regional flood protection, according to Johnson. The district plans to get the dike certified in the future, he added.

The Coachella Valley Water District has five master-plans projects: North Cathedral City, Thousand Palms, North Indio, Mecca/North Shore and the Oasis area. However, the district doesn’t have the funding to complete the plans; the total cost is estimated to be more than $1 billion, Johnson said.

Therefore, except for a few select projects, the current infrastructure is expected to remain relatively unchanged, and future projects will need to be funded through the water district and/or developer projects, Johnson said.

Johnson said reviews are done to ensure homes constructed in unincorporated areas are located above flooding areas, he said.

Some of the issues with flooding and water buildup are due to homes being built without a permit, and the fact that some were built before permits were required, according to Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit.

“There was no requirement or planning or retention basin put in place on those properties,” Benoit said. “You can’t put people out on the streets, but you can’t force them to improve it now. It’s unfortunate in some cases, but there’s not a lot the county can do, particularly where housing has been developed without proper engineering.”

Margarita Gamez, a Thermal resident, said she sees issues arise whenever there is heavy rain or flooding. She said kids are sometimes unable to make it to school because of the water, and no one comes to drain the puddles.

“They need to make larger and deeper channels,” said Gamez, who has lived in Thermal for 20 years. “It rains very little here, but when it rains in Indio, all the water comes here.”

Gamez said she has voiced her concerns to Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that works to provide better housing, infrastructure and economic-development opportunities in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Organization members have recommended that the county install adequate storm systems in order to prevent flooding, said Sergio Carranza, executive director of the organization.

“A very good efficient storm-water system can be implemented even if you don’t have the infrastructure you have in a city,” Carranza said. “It’s becoming very alarming. Those are remote areas, and very few people pay attention to them.”

Carranza said the county needs to find a way to develop storm-water systems, especially along Pierce Street, where Gamez lives, which he believes is one of the most flood-prone areas. The area from Avenue 66 going south all the way to Avenue 81 is particularly prone to flooding, he said.

Samuel Castro, a Thermal resident of nearly 33 years, also lives along Pierce and said when there are storms, cars are unable to pass because of the flooding. He said if there were an emergency, an ambulance wouldn’t be able to reach residents.

“There are a lot of families here,” Castro said. “When storms hit, it gets really ugly, and the streets flood. I would like to see them fix the channels here.”

Published in Local Issues

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

With its lavish resorts and golf courses, the Coachella Valley is a getaway to some, and a retirement home for others. But beyond the shadow of the country clubs and music festivals lies a Coachella Valley that is largely unknown.

“Revealing the Invisible Coachella Valley: Putting Cumulative Environmental Vulnerabilities on the Map,” a report released this month by the University of California at Davis Center for Regional Change, shows the cumulative environmental health hazards of living in the Eastern Coachella Valley.

“You can see the east versus west story,” said Jonathan London, the principal investigator and primary study author, “where in the west valley, there are much lower levels of environmental hazards, and much higher levels for quality of life, compared to the east.”

While this data seems to state the obvious to those living and working in the eastern Coachella Valley, it wasn’t until recently that people outside the area began to take notice of these environmental issues. Many people certainly took notice when a storm in September 2012 flooded mobile home parks, including Duroville, and spread the odor of decomposing organic matter from the Salton Sea to Los Angeles.

As a result, the Center for Regional Change partnered with local environmental-justice, health and farmworker advocates to document the environmental vulnerability in the area. Some of the issues that were studied included the failing water infrastructure, concentrated hazardous waste, and unauthorized dumping.

To better understand the environmental hazards, the report shows a demographic comparison between the eastern and western portions of the Coachella Valley. This analysis is necessary to understand how the areas with severe environmental hazards impact those with fewer social, economic and political resources.

A map (shown above) illustrates an assessment of the varying environmental vulnerabilities across the region.

There is a higher concentration of impaired water bodies when compared to the rest of the county, meaning there are drinking water wells in the eastern valley that contain much higher contaminant levels for arsenic, chromium 6, perchlorate, and nitrates than are allowed by law.

A different map (shown below) illustrates the levels of contaminants in the drinking water.

“Policy-makers, state and local government agencies finally have the data that they need to start making changes in our troubled system,” said Celia Garcia, a Mecca schoolteacher community advocate. “For the very first time, an accurate picture of our reality and our needs has been painted for them.”

Garcia continued, “We have an enormous problem with hazardous waste and illegal dumping in our community. And while I’d like to say the waste and dumping is the biggest problem, equally disturbing is the fact that thousands of children and families are allowed to live in, around, and near such dangerous waste.”

According to the report, the unemployment and poverty rates in the eastern Coachella Valley are much higher than the west side and the county as a whole.

The report also shows that 45 percent of the residents in the eastern Coachella Valley are limited English speakers, compared to the 16 percent in the west valley. Well more than half of the population in the ECV lives below the poverty level—65 percent as opposed to 37 percent on the west side.

Although the recent data shows overwhelming environmental hazards in valley communities, community members are hopeful that actions will now be taken toward improving conditions. The areas highlighted in the report—including the Salton Sea, Mecca, North Shore, Coachella and even La Quinta—could serve as a target for organized action by community advocates, elected officials and public agencies.

“The lack of consolidated and unbiased data documenting the inequities of our region has been one of the greatest challenges we face in our work for better infrastructure, water quality, housing, and environmental health. It has been incredibly frustrating to us at times to have decision-makers and policy-makers say or imply that we are exaggerating about our community experiences, or that they need to see science before they can help. This data will assist us greatly in demonstrating that our experiences are based in hard facts and statistics,” said Megan Beaman of Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation.

The report was designed and conducted by the CRC; it was commissioned by the California Institute for Rural Studies with support from The California Endowment/ Building Healthy Communities. Local non-profit organizations contributing to the production and release of this report are the Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation; California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.; Inland Congregations United for Change; and Comité Cívico del Valle.

The report is available for download in English or Spanish.

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

Published in Local Issues