CVIndependent

Mon11192018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

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

Driving north on Highway 86 one sunny fall afternoon, I almost crashed when I came across the sight of beautiful ladies and snakes hugging the walls of a market in Desert Shores.

“Shesha Sand Storm,” the mural that so surprised me, is a show-stopper. It’s monochrome, dramatic, loud and obviously the work of someone skilled and talented. It offers an urban contrast to the desert skies, yet somehow suits the backdrop of the market and surrounding area.

As it turns out, not one, but two artists created this mural: Finnbar Dac (aka FinDac) and Angelina Christina. They’re the same people who created the beautiful and controversial mural at Bar in downtown Palm Springs.

FinDac hails all the way from London, England; Angelina is from the Los Angeles area. They were traveling across the U.S., leaving their larger-than-life painted women and snakes all over the country, in places including Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Minneapolis and New York City—culminating in early December’s Art Basel, one of the largest art events in the world, in Miami Beach, Fla.

Urban areas like Minneapolis and even Palm Springs make sense for street-art-style murals. But Desert Shores? Its last Census population: 1,104. It’s in the middle of the Colorado Desert, sitting quietly alongside the Salton Sea. Desert Shores is largely populated by families, mostly lower-income. It has a laundromat, a closed bar, a couple of churches, a closed marina and a fire station. Life is quiet here. But sometimes what draws a mural artist is not mere location, but the size and availability of an empty wall.

Angelina and Fin came to Desert Shores with friend and fellow artist Craig, aka B4Flight, who has been documenting their journey. The muralists saw the sea for the first time and were intrigued.

Angelina had heard of the Salton Sea, but like most Angelinos, she had not ventured out this way. FinDac had come to Los Angeles to expand on his work. Born in Ireland and based in London, he wanted to explore the world and its empty wall spaces with his paintbrush, stencils and spray cans. He only started painting about five years ago—as an act of self-preservation. It gave him peace and a space away from whatever it was that was haunting him.

He met with Angelina, a muralist and artist based in Venice Beach, and they connected. Same vision, same ideas—including embarking on their epic road trip.

They arrived in Desert Shores and headed for the seashore. Slightly perturbed by the fish smell, ever curious about the circumstances of the sea, and on the lookout for potential wall space, they spoke with a local resident who recommended they pay the market a visit: There was a big, empty wall there.

The owner approved, so they got to work. Local residents came up, curious about their work and impressed by the scale and beauty; kids surrounded them, wanting to see their techniques. (Some of those kids had been tagging in the area and were well-versed in street art.)

The result: “Shesha Sand Storm.”


In addition to meeting with Fin and Angelina, I got in touch with Carmen Zella, whom I met at a Salton Sea-related conference. Carmen is the executive director of the Do Art Foundation, based in Los Angeles.

While Do Art did not play an official role in the Desert Shores mural, Carmen has been promoting Angelina and Fin, as well as other artists and projects that “are artistically uplifting spaces and communities’ access to art.”

Zells is well aware of the myriad issues surrounding the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea needs more positive attention, and Zella feels that bringing public art to the region will ultimately benefit the area.

I was intrigued by how it was that an L.A.-based foundation came across the Salton Sea, and why Zella felt it was important to bring public art to this location. I recently interviewed her via email.

When was the first time you came down to the sea? How did you hear about it, and what intrigued you?

Living in Los Angeles, the allure of the Salton Sea has been mystified and demystified. It’s an area of significance, and creative splendor—yet disregarded by the society at large because of its troubled waters. Artists see beauty where others do not; artists exemplify and portray beauty in areas that are largely ignored. By opening up the area for this type of investigation and exploration, wheels can start turning, and positive attention to the area can be restored.

Why public art? Why the Salton Sea?

Public art is an expression that is democratic. It is non-exclusionary, and is a form of communication that inspires thought—it provokes curiosity, but above all is a reminder that human expression and creativity is vital and should be shared with others. It’s our history and a major part of our evolutionary path. We lack waterways, and in an age of environmental crisis, making the right steps is no longer a choice—it’s a necessity to ensure our survival on this planet and way of life as we know it.

Do you have any particular locations in mind where you would like to see murals?

I love seeing murals that incorporate the surroundings and are sensitive to the architecture. Spaces that are more remote, or demand a sensitive palette, because they have exquisite qualities of decay, or abandon—when they are restored by an artist’s touch with an addition of character, love and tenderness in the way that they spend time together, it’s powerful. How the artist and the building can combine and collaborate to restore the facade into … “art” is my favorite.

Which artists are you thinking of bringing in?

I would love to move more into the Salton Sea … and the community of artists would as well. There are two classifications of artists: the ones who are born as artists who make work because their mission is to express and evolve, and those who make work because their mission is to be known and made legendary. I prefer the former, and I think that the sensitivity of the Salton Sea deserves this type of artist as well.

Do you think it might be possible to have collaboration between local artists and more well-known artists working together on these murals?

Absolutely. Involving the community is always important. Sometimes, outsiders see things that we do not; having lived in the same environment for so long, we forget. The freshness of new eyes that are speaking other languages or hearing strange sounds is a great reflection for ourselves and surroundings. Mixing this with a local culture is the best mix. Most artists need to develop collaborative relationships, so I would never pair people together in this practice, because it is a forced marriage … but there are many ways to incorporate unity. We learn from each other in observation as well as in shared experience.

What do you think the murals and public art will do for the Salton Sea?

Whenever artists move into areas, transformation begins to take shape. This area is equated to decay and environmental tragedy; artists (can) bring in new life and take what is existing and showcase its beauty.

The Do Art Foundation would love to work with local community members, (helping) owners and local artists to make a significant effort to bring the opportunity to the area in the form of a large-scale art movement. For this, we will need support, both financially and in terms of participation of businesses to house, feed and host the artists who would happily come there to share their work. In the wake of this, tourists, art-lovers and attention will be revived in this area—without any agenda other than to uplift the community. We are ready at Do Art Foundation to help connect the artists and make this happen.

Published in Visual Arts

“Litter, and it will hurt. It hurts the community, and the fines will hurt when you get caught. Half of the litter is accidental, from things blown off trucks and such, but the other half doesn't reflect positively on the community.” —Walt Thompson

I have a message for the person who intentionally dumps trash and unwanted items into the desert.

You are a total jackass.

It does not matter whether you dump in a neighborhood or an open space. Shame on you, as you are responsible for:

• Environmental degradation. Bringing in hazardous waste, plastics, plastic bags, diapers, clothes, tires and commercial waste is not conducive to a healthy ecosystem. Waste gets into waterways; it damages vegetation; animals and birds eat it; it attracts rodents and crickets.

“Dump sites containing waste tires provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can multiply 100 times faster than normal during our warmer months. Severe illnesses, including West Nile virus and encephalitis, have been attributed to disease-carrying mosquitoes originating from discarded waste tires,” said the Imperial County Public Health Department in a 2007 research paper.

• Physical and health risks—especially to kids. Kids might see some of these areas as improvised playgrounds—which means they could be playing in chemical waste. Rodents living at the dumpsite might have the hantavirus, and there is high risk of sharp objects like broken glass, rusty metal nails and so forth.

• Lowering property values. Who wants to live in a neighborhood where there is a large amount of trash? According to the Keep America Beautiful website: “93 percent of homeowners say a littered neighborhood would decrease their assessment of a home’s value and influences their decision to purchase a property. And 40 percent estimated that litter would reduce a home’s value by 10 percent to 24 percent.”

• Using taxpayer money unnecessarily. Billions of dollars, both from government and private sources, are spent each year cleaning up other people’s trash. According to a 2009 Keep America Beautiful study, the United States spends $11.5 BILLION on cleaning up litter every year. This does NOT include organizing campaigns to educate people not to dump. Let’s put that in perspective: If your salary is $29,000 per year, it would take 34,482 years to earn just $1 billion. Wouldn’t you prefer that this money be spent on something useful, rather than loathsome individuals or groups who can’t be responsible for their own shit?

• Trashing the Salton Sea. If you dump your trash into a wash, it will move down the wash. There isn’t much rain—but when it rains, it pours, and all that trash will end up in the sea. And let’s not forget our fabulous wind. Guess who eats the trash? The birds and the fish. Hazardous liquids seep into the soil and pollute the waterways. Oh, but I hear some of you say: The Salton Sea deserves to dry up anyway. Well, if the sea is allowed to dry up, the trash and the pollutants will not. Instead, they’ll blow through the valley during high winds.

Thanks for all that, illegal dumper.

So why do people dump in the desert? What on Earth makes them think it is OK? Laziness, a lack of education, because it is easy, or a total disregard for anything outside of their narrow world-view, for starters.

Perhaps it also includes a misunderstanding of the desert landscape: To many, the desert landscape is not alive; they do not see the damage that their dumping can create. However, the desert is actually an ecological wonder, and if people would spend more time in it and learn about the ecosystem, they may begin to have a different connection with this landscape in which we all live.

So, what can we do about illegal dumping? Mainly, it boils down to education:

• Most trash-haulers will pick up bulky items and electronic waste, often for free, on designated days, or if you ask in advance. Hazardous materials can be dropped off at various locations, and a lot of communities organize annual or twice-a-year household hazardous waste collection days. Each city is different, and it may take a little bit of research and planning—but that is what being an adult is all about. Google is handy; type in the name of your city, your trash service, and the service you require, and you’ll probably have more links and information than you can swing an old motor-oil bottle at.

• Educate kids while they are young about the effects of illegal dumping. Every school district should organize an annual cleanup day in the areas surrounding their schools. Every child is better off after attending a community cleanup, as they see first-hand the effects of illegal dumping—and the time and effort that is required to clear an area of trash.

• Spread the word about what we can all do if one of us sees someone in the act of dumping illegally, or the aftermath. For one, you can call the local sheriff’s department or police department. While illegal dumping tends to be unfortunately low on law enforcement’s priority list, they are responsible for acting on your behalf. There are also task forces and other resources in place, like IVAN, which is set up to take reports on illegal dumping activity. The website is pretty easy to use—and you can even upload photographs.

• Would-be illegal dumpers need to understand that there are consequences. In Riverside County, according to the waste-management website, “The fine is $5,000. If the illegal dumping involves commercial quantities, you may be imprisoned up to six months and fined $3,000 upon the first conviction, $6,000 upon the second conviction, and $10,000 for a third conviction. Vehicles may be seized and impounded for 30 days when used in the act of illegal dumping; related costs may exceed $1,000.” The county has started putting up cameras at well-known illegal trash sites, too.

If I had my way, I would walk every dumper out to their own personal dump site, make them pick up their own trash, videotape the whole thing, and shame them each publicly.

This year’s annual community cleanup at the Salton Sea takes place on Saturday, Nov. 9; please come and volunteer from 9 a.m. to noon at the corner of Sea Elf Street and Salton Bay Drive, off South Marina Drive in Salton City. Snacks and water will be provided, as will gloves, bags and some picker-uppers. If you have any questions, contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For more information:

Published in Community Voices

Page 1 of 3