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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

In April 2016, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) held a rally to highlight its achievements in bringing safe, clean and potable water to schools in the Eastern Coachella Valley via its Agua4All campaign, which installed 75 clean water-bottle-filling stations for student use.

For many of these local children, these stations offer the only consistent and free access to safe drinking water they have. (See “Potable Progress: Agua4All Meets Its Goal of Giving East Valley Students Access to Safe Drinking Water—but There’s Work Left to Do,” May 8, 2016.)

Since then, however, Agua4All’s progress has slowed significantly. Just those initial 75 stations are operating; no others have been installed.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that the program has stalled,” said Olga Morales, the RCAC regional manager. “Originally, we had two pilot programs, in the Coachella Valley and Bakersfield. Most of our resources were utilized in those two communities. Then, we expanded our program into other counties throughout the state, and arguably, the available money didn’t go as far as it did when it was concentrated in one specific area.

“Our whole program thus far had been funded strictly by foundation and bank money. It takes a lot of effort to attract those kinds of dollars. … In the end, it doesn’t really go very far.

“We did succeed in expanding the program into other counties across the state,” Morales continued, “but there have not been sufficient resources to increase our outreach in Riverside County and the Coachella Valley. However, in the last two months, we were awarded what’s known as a ‘technical assistance (funding) program’ for our drinking-water-in-schools program, which is hosted under the State Water (Resources Control) Board. Under this new program, we’ve been directed to work with schools to identify the need either for access to, or treatment of, drinking water on their campuses. The program officially launches next month, and it has $9.5 million set aside for drinking water infrastructure to be installed at schools in primarily disadvantaged communities.”

Unfortunately, Morales said only school districts in cities with populations less than 20,000 can apply for that assistance for the first nine months—meaning most of the Coachella Valley schools in need will not qualify.

However, there is good news to report regarding infrastructure access in the Eastern Coachella Valley.

The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), in partnership with other governmental offices and community stakeholders, is poised to deliver some lasting improvements to East Valley communities. CVWD Board Vice President Castulo Estrada, who represents the East Valley, talked about the positive signs for valley residents who have struggled with a lack of access to potable water for decades.

“During discussions at the CVWD Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force meetings (chaired by Estrada), we can put some focus on the water needs of the east side, which is due to a lack of infrastructure,” Estrada said. “… Over this last year, our group at the meetings has grown to include a lot of the people who need to be part of the conversation, and who are essential to ensuring that these projects get done. Our group now includes the assemblymember’s office (Eduardo Garcia), the congressman’s office (Dr. Raul Ruiz) and the county supervisor’s office (V. Manuel Perez). We have folks from the Riverside County Transportation and Land Management Agency, which is the department in charge of issuing permits. We have folks from the United States Department of Agriculture, folks from Building Healthy Communities (BHC), folks from the leadership council, and folks from the housing coalition. Now folks from the Desert Recreation District want to join us.

“Our meetings now provide a place where everybody can talk about the projects that they’re working on, and it allows everybody to have a sense of what’s happening, and that way, things can get done better.”

Estrada mentioned the San Antonio del Desierto sewer-extension project as an example of how the task force is making progress.

“The county was holding back a grading permit that was stopping progress with the project, and as a result, we had to request at least two extensions for a grant from the USDA,” Estrada said. “Then, when Supervisor Perez came in, I spoke to him about it, and there was a big meeting called. After that, things got done. So now that project is going out to bid (for construction contractors) this month after a whole year of hiccups and delays.”

Supervisor V. Manuel Perez agreed that the CVWD task force’s work is leading to much-needed solutions to the East Valley’s longstanding needs for potable water and sewer-system access.

“Castulo’s attempts to ensure that we have reliable water infrastructure on the east side deserve recognition, particularly when it involves safe drinking water, which I view as a social-justice right.” Perez said. “This has been an historical issue for us for a very long time.”

District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia was also optimistic about the progress being made in the East Valley—including possible forward progress for Agua4All.

“From my perspective, we’re going to continue to build off our efforts with the legislation AB 2124, which included dollars to ensure safe, clean drinking water for our schools and communities in and around our school grounds,” Garcia said. “That was part of the Agua4All campaign, which received approximately $10 million in support of their efforts.

“In this last budget approved by the governor, there is roughly $17 million budgeted toward these types of efforts. That’s specifically a result of our advocacy and the advocacy of other legislators who represent similar geographic districts that are primarily rural, agricultural economies, where you have remote housing circumstances, as we do here in the Coachella Valley, that are unable to centralize infrastructure. … My job, and the job of Castulo Estrada, and the job of RCAC is now to try to bring those dollars to our backyard.”

Published in Local Issues

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