MOLLY PETERSON: From Northern California Public Media and Mensch Media, this is Living Downstream, the environmental justice podcast. I’m guest host Molly Peterson.
This time, from the Coachella Valley east of Los Angeles, we’re talking about the biggest lake in California — now starved of water — and the people who live around — The Sea Next Door.
SFX: theme music
The Salton Sea sits in a depression of land 30 miles from the Mexican border — and it poses a growing threat to public health. In this episode, two young women from the Eastern Coachella Valley introduce us to their neighbor.
We begin with Adriana Torres, who lives in a rural community there: an area called North Shore.
SFX: walking on crunchy north/west side part of Salton Sea
ADRIANA TORRES: A few years before I was born, this shoreline — we call it a playa — it was covered with fish. Almost eight MILLION of them: tilapia. They were dead. A lack of oxygen and a lot of algae killed them.
None of this is supposed to be here.
Not the fish. Their bones are under my feet. Mixed in with a LOT of barnacles — tiny, round shells. Like beads. They’re a sign that the food chain is failing.
ADRIANA TORRES: It’s surprising, but birds still come to the sea. Even though thousands of brown and white pelicans died here, from eating bad fish. This is a stop for birds on the Pacific Flyway — a migration route. And climate change is stealing bird habitat at other stops on the way.
SFX: wet, close shoreline
ADRIANA TORRES: The water? That was an accident too. Farmers came to settle this hot and dusty land. So they built canals to divert and control the Colorado River. More than a century ago, one canal broke open. The place it flooded, it hadn’t been a lake in hundreds of years.
None of us should be here. Not the fish or the birds or the people. But we are.
Now the sea is shrinking. Over time, officials have promised to do things to restore it — and protect us. Including California’s current Natural Resources Secretary, Wade Crowfoot.
WADE CROWFOOT: A receding sea worsens air quality that is a major public health crisis in Imperial and Riverside counties to tens of thousands of Californians and of course Americans.
ADRIANA TORRES: Fixing the sea is California’s responsibility. The state said so, the year I was born. Since then, they’ve spent millions of dollars on studies and meetings and reports.
But the Sea has been drying up faster. And the climate is changing. And there’s still no plan to finish the work.
[PART I: WHAT’S THE PROBLEM]
SFX: sounds of unloading equipment on shoreline
ROSA GONZALEZ: My name is Rosa Gonzalez. Adriana and I just graduated from high school together.
I live in Thermal. We don’t even have a mayor. It’s a small community a few minutes from the Salton Sea. But until a couple of months ago I really hadn’t seen the sea up close.
SFX: sounds of inflating boat
ROSA GONZALEZ: Here on the west shore, it’s gross. There’s trash, old bottles, a nasty muddy piece of carpet. It smells rotten. Rotten eggs, rotten fish.
And it’s hot. It’s going to be 112 today. A couple of volunteer scientists and a teacher from our old high school, Desert Mirage, they’re pumping up a small pontoon boat.
SFX: battery powered boat pump comes on
ROSA GONZALEZ: They’re here to help start a science program that local people can take part in. The idea is to monitor water quality in the Salton Sea.
ISA ARZENO SOLTERO: Is this your first time on a boat?
(in situ) ROSA GONZALES: yeah, and this close to the water…
ISA ARZENO SOLTERO & QUINN MONTGOMERY: that’s awesome!!!!
ROSA GONZALEZ: That’s Isabel Arzeno Soltero. She’s an oceanographer at UC Irvine. She’s here with Quinn Montgomery. An oceanographer at Scripps.
They’re working for free.
To go out with them, I put on blue waders so I can splash into the boat.
SFX: sound of Rosa putting on waders, loading boat into shallow water
ROSA GONZALEZ: People here know the sea is dirty. Arzeno Soltero says it’s really unique.
ISA ARZENO SOLTERO: It’s almost twice as salty as the ocean, actually it’s more than twice as salty as the ocean in a lot of parts.
ROSA GONZALES: Also the water has been starved of oxygen.
ISA ARZENO SOLTERO: so unfortunately a lot of biology dies around here, and it’s quickly receding, due to the different water policies that have been implemented.
ROSA GONZALEZ: State and federal scientists monitor water quality out here. But not frequently. And their data reports are hard to find.
These scientists and a group called Alianza Coachella Valley want to do more — and share more about water quality with the community.
(in situ) ROSA GONZALES: So we are preparing to leave right now!
SCIENTIST, in BACKGROUND: a three hour tour (laughs), paddling sounds
(in situ) ROSA GONZALES: So as he is rowing us into the sea I can see the kind of dark brown, kind of yellow water. Kind of reddish!
SFX: paddling/audible under next section
ROSA GONZALES: As we started to paddle out…I remembered…when I was six. My dad once told me and my siblings that we were going to a beautiful beach. We were so excited. We packed things up. In the car, he kept talking about it, how beautiful it was.
He stopped the car and we ran out. We saw dead fish. It smelled gross. My dad, was just laughing at us. My mom scolded him. We eventually went to a beach in LA. But I never came back here.
Out *ON* the water, it’s a different view.
SCIENTIST: “I heard it.”
SFX: longer beep, engine starts.
SCIENTIST/EDUCATOR: Alright, check your throttle, so you know which way….
ROSA GONZALES: For one thing, the sea is about 35 miles long. It takes almost half an hour to get to the first sampling site, by the mouth of a river.
SFX: motor revs high, splashing, low rev
ISA ARZENO-SOLTERO: we can use the salinity as a marker for where the river is coming out.
ROSA GONZALES: Even in the middle, the sea is shallow. Arzeno-Soltero uses a monitoring tool called a sonde — it looks like a flashlight. It tracks time, location, the oxygen levels…how cloudy the water is. and how salty.
ISA ARZENO-SOLTERO: Ok, so salinity here is 54 so it is fresher. We have gotten into the river plume.
ROSA GONZALES: For most of a century, four rivers have kept this area wet. Their water arrives less salty than the sea — but also polluted.
ISA ARZENO-SOLTERO: river water tends to have other pesticides in it that are feeding into the Salton Sea. So, we can say that if the salinity tells us that we’re getting into the area that is getting influenced by the river water then maybe that area also has other pesticides and nutrients.
ROSA GONZALES: The scientists are training at least 10 community members to come on sampling trips just like this. The group Alianza will pay them each time.
ISA ARZENO-SOLTERO: I guess what we’re trying to help them is, just to get information. Because essentially what we want is for the community to have their own measurements to advocate for themselves in terms of environmental policies.
ROSA GONZALES: My dad, he still thinks the Salton Sea is a nasty place. But on the water, I started to think of the sea more like someone I know: like a sick family member no one remembers or cares to bother with.
SFX: sound of a boat engine
SFX: sound of New River, echoy and wet, under a road
ROSA GONZALES: If the sea is sick, one place to examine it is at the mouth of the brown, smelly New River. It runs under a highway at the south end.
Drying the sea up is happening on purpose. California water users took more than their share from the Colorado River for a long time. So the year I was born, the state had to settle a fight with other Western states about that. It meant less water for crops…and less farm runoff going into THIS river that feeds the sea.
Pesticides are still in here, from Mexico and the US. Some of them are illegal now — like the termite killer Aldrin, and DDT.That’s what another scientist tells me.
RYAN SINCLAIR: My name is Ryan Sinclair. I’m an environmental microbiologist and I work at the Loma Linda University School of Public Health.
ROSA GONZALES: For one of his projects, Ryan Sinclair used a balloon to raise a camera up above the playa to help show how fast it’s growing.
By one estimate the sea could lose three-quarters of its volume within a decade. Within 25 years, there could be 100-thousand acres of exposed playa.
Authorities said to avoid the sea this year because of algae blooms that could harm people and animals. Sinclair points out an agricultural ditch: THAT could harm people too.
RYAN SINCLAIR: The concern is, the pesticides will be emissive because they’re in the sediment, which would be this stuff here.
ROSA GONZALES: Toxic chemicals are in the water and the mud drying out.
RYAN SINCLAIR: There’s no way out for all of this.
So we know that those are still there, but we don’t know if they’re going to be attached to the dust and they’re going to be blowing up into the wind and then coming out to where people are living and breathing.
ROSA GONZALES: State pesticide regulators check water quality at two rivers that go into the sea, a couple times a year. But this isn’t drinking water, so they don’t study human health impacts.
No state agency understands what happens to the pollution as the sea dries up.
RYAN SINCLAIR: Everything’s an uncertainty right now. I don’t think anybody’s been able to quantify anything about any of this.
ROSA GONZALES: So people want to do some science themselves. Just like the community already does for air quality: a group called Comite Civico del Valle put in 40 of its own air monitors to supplement the few the state has here.
For THIS water monitoring, way more people signed up than Alianza can train. The budget for this whole project is tiny, a few thousand dollars. So far, the state of California has authorized more than 700 million dollars for restoration projects at the Salton Sea.
(archive, 2014) JERRY BROWN That Salton sea is a pretty big challenge.
ROSA GONZALES: In 2014, governor Jerry Brown said fixing the sea could be quite expensive.
(archive, 2014) JERRY BROWN I’ve heard numbers into the billions. so it’s important. I certainly would like to do better by the Salton Sea than we’ve been doing…
ROSA GONZALES: But none of the money spent so far has gone to study the questions people ask the most about health risks.
What’s in the dust that’s getting exposed on the playa? And who’s going to be affected by it?
RYAN SINCLAIR: So all of those districts are involved, the water district, the regional water board, the pesticide and the air quality districts.
ROSA GONZALES: Researcher and microbiologist Ryan Sinclair.
RYAN SINCLAIR: they just don’t take responsibility to, you know, solve this complicated problem. And so that’s the main issue the community has.
ROSA GONZALES: Other airborne pollution blows into the Coachella Valley too, so it’s hard to know how much to blame on the sea.
There’s smog from bigger cities nearby.
Emissions from cars.
From trains and trucks that move cargo.
SFX: train horn
ROSA GONZALES: Power plants, and factories.
Near where I live, there’s burning on agricultural fields.
And particles of dust from the desert.
Still. UC Riverside scientists who collected dust estimated that about 10 percent of their samples came from the playa. AND: there’s more playa at the sea every day.
This pollution…already causes many diseases of the lungs and heart. It makes people sick. Including my classmate Adriana’s mother.
[PART II: WHO’S AFFECTED]
ADRIANA TORRES: My mom’s name is Silvia Torres Ceja. She has lived near the Salton Sea since she was around 17.
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: Empecé a sentir esos problemas como a los 17 años, pero de primero no le tomo mucha importancia porque comenzaron más como alergias al aire, a la tierra.
ADRIANA TORRES: Within a year, she started to have trouble breathing. At first she didn’t think much of it — it felt like allergies to the air, or dirt. But the symptoms got worse. And she discovered that she was asthmatic.
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: …a descubrir que era asmática…
ADRIANA TORRES: She couldn’t run fast. She couldn’t be outside. Now she controls her asthma with medication.
It’s worse in the spring — and she says it’s aggravated when the wind shifts, and comes from the sea toward our house, in North Shore.
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: Pues un ataque de asma en veces lo comienzo a sentir en vez como en la garganta, tomándolas comenzó uno a sentirse desesperado, desesperado…
ADRIANA TORRES: When an attack starts, she feels it in her throat. and then she begins to feel desperate for air. Then sometimes she’s sweating and feeling like she can’t get enough air.
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: tienes que correr inmediatamente a un doctor, porque si no, ahí, ahí queda uno
ADRIANA TORRES: It feels like you have to immediately run to a doctor, she says, because if not, there’s no one who can help.
My mom went to the emergency room a few times for this. But the people who can’t afford doctors, or American health care? They’re not counted in public health statistics.
DAVID LO: The accelerating ecological crisis is really there for people to see. The ongoing community health crisis has been going on for quite a while. And so it’s not as obvious to people.
ADRIANA TORRES: Dr. David Lo is an immunologist and a dean at the UC Riverside School of Medicine.
In Imperial County, at the south end of the sea, one in every five people has been diagnosed with asthma. But in Riverside County, in North Shore, we’ve only got *estimates.*
DAVID LO: We just don’t have the detailed information on who is sick, where they are living, what they’re exposed to and what kind of sick they are. Right. So we need that information because we have not made that investment.
ADRIANA TORRES: Around the Salton Sea, Lo says the rate of children who go to the emergency room or stay in the hospital for asthma is twice as high as the rest of the state.
And — just like people who live here — he suspects more people may have health problems than we know.
SFX: sound of gate opening at Conchita’s house, little dog
ADRIANA TORRES: My neighbor is a woman named CONCHITA POZAR: . She is a mother and an advocate, from the indigenous Purépecha community of Michoacán, Mexico.
Sometimes, neighbors will drive her around North Shore with a megaphone, to let people know in their own language when there’s something to pay attention to.
Her house is the place people gather. To talk about their health, and their kids. She says that’s how the community has noticed patterns among the problems.
CONCHITA POZAR: Porque por ejemplo, señora, en una familia hay tres niños. Un niño va a tener asma. Un niño va a tener alergia. Un niño va a tener alergia en los ojos o sangrado en la nariz. Cada niño está teniendo problemas a base de su sistema inmunológico.
ENGLISH V/O: For example, say you have a family with three children. One child may have asthma. One child may have allergies. One child may have allergies in the eyes or nosebleeds. Every child may be having problems based on their immune system.
ADRIANA TORRES: Conchita has tried to talk to local and state air officials. But nothing requires these regulators to take her seriously — and she says they continue to dismiss her concerns.
CONCHITA POZAR: …nosotros dimos testimonios de lo que los niños tenían sangrados nasales, asma, alergias. Pero ellos dijeron que no, que necesitaban una prueba.
ENGLISH V/O: We gave testimonies, that the children had nosebleeds, asthma, allergies. But they said no, that they needed proof.
ADRIANA TORRES: So the rate of respiratory illness is not well tracked.
The nearest hospital to my house in North Shore is in a city, 35 minutes away.
Here’s the thing: people go to doctors in two different counties. AND two countries: sometimes, when they get sick, people go to Mexico. And sometimes, traveling there… can even make them sicker.
Once, when my mom DID drive all the way to Mexicali, they got mad at her, they scolded her in the hospital. They said she could have died on the way.
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: me dijo que cómo era posible que me vea ido tan lejos. Hasta en el camino me podía morir, pero pos ya ni modo. Pues ya que, ya había llegado allá.
ADRIANA TORRES: But the doctor in Mexicali helped: she got medicine, and they showed her how to handle attacks with a nebulizer at home.
My neighbor Conchita says doctors in Mexico are better.
CONCHITA POZAR: Lamentablemente si los llevamos a una cita médica aquí en nuestras clínicas o en nuestros hospitales, no nos dan medicamento. Nos dicen que es una alergia que va a pasar y nuestros niños siguen empeorando. Pero en cambio si lo llevas a un doctor en Mexicali, allá les dan tratamiento que les ayuda mucho mejor a los niños y puedan estar un poco más, diría mejor, más en mejores condiciones con estos polvos que nos están afectando a todos.
ENGLISH V/O: Unfortunately, if we take them to a medical appointment here in the U.S., in our clinics or hospitals, they don’t give us medicine. They tell us that it is an allergy that is going to pass and our children continue to get worse. But if you take them to a doctor in Mexicali, they will give us treatment that helps the children much better and they can be a little more, I would say, in better condition with this dust that is affecting us all.
ADRIANA TORRES: The issues we’re talking about might affect more than a hundred thousand people — who live right near the Salton Sea.
David Lo, at UC Riverside, runs the Center for Health Disparities Research. He says that the symptoms we describe offer clues that the problem is specific to the sea.
DAVID LO: …its a drying lake, It’s becoming ecologically unstable…it’s more of an environmental exposure hazard.
ADRIANA TORRES: And because that’s the case, he says it’s worth seeing the sea…differently.
In ancient times, people blamed a poisonous vapor for diseases, like plague. Lo says this was called a miasma. And he says that is one way to think about the Salton Sea.
But really, he says, the Salton Sea is a system: an ecosystem. The sea, and the dust and the algae and the fish, and the birds. AND people. Together.
DAVID LO The communities can really direct us to where the real research questions are. We think that this drying Salton Sea, and the dynamic degradation of the ecology in the sea, and its secondary effects on the aerosols, and that association with pulmonary health is something that really needs to be studied.
ADRIANA TORRES: People in this area say they feel connected to it — like a neighbor. And its changes are rippling into their lives.
SFX: walking outside, walking to the sea sounds
Dora Cecelia Tapia has lived in Salton City, on the west shore — for 25 years.
DORA CECELIA TAPIA: Cuando una vez que nos fuimos mi esposo y yo a caminar pa ya. Este estábamos ahí y como la había piedras. Bueno, están las piedras. Lo que ya no hay es agua. Estábamos así y había unos pelícanos porque ahorita ya ni pelícanos. Ay pobrecitos.
ENGLISH V/O: When, one time, we went on a walk, my husband and I, we went over there to the sea. We were there, and there was rocks. Well, there still are rocks. What’s gone now is the water. There WERE some pelicans, but right now there are no more pelicans, the poor things.
SFX: PELICANS (ARCHIVE)
DORA CECELIA TAPIA: Había unos pelícanos ahí a la orilla y se oían las olitas así y cerraba los ojos y se escuchaba el sonido del agua así, muy bonita, como un sonido de unas olitas y pegaban en las piedras. Se oía tan bonito que te relajaba.
ENGLISH V/O: There were pelicans there on the shore and you could hear the waves and I would close my eyes and I could hear the sound of the tiny waves, it’s beautiful, the sound of the tiny waves hitting the rocks. It sounded so beautiful that it relaxed you.
SFX: closes door, goes inside
SFX: KITCHEN BANGING SOUNDS, TALKING
ADRIANA TORRES: It’s not just the wildlife.
Dora’s kids grew up with pelicans and green parks. But now she volunteers at a school with red flag days – to warn everyone when the air is especially dangerous – and a dusty playground: she sees kids struggling.
DORA CECELIA TAPIA: Hay niños que vienen atrás de mi generación, de mis hijos, que no han disfrutado lo que mis hijos en esos tiempos disfrutaron. Porque?
ENGLISH VO: There are children who are coming after my children, who have not enjoyed what my children enjoyed at that time. Why?
SFX: KITCHEN BANGING SOUNDS, TALKING
ADRIANA TORRES: Dora is close with her neighbors — including Maria Molina. Who moved here 6 years ago.
Dora helped out when Maria and her husband had COVID.
MARIA MOLINA: Gracias a Dios hubo varias familias que me ayudaron, iban y me ponían mi comida fuera de mi casa. Ah, me ayudaban con medicamentos que ocupaba, pues el mandado también, cosas, comida hecha.
ENGLISH V/O: Thank God there were several families who helped me, they would go and put food outside my house. Ah, they helped me with medicines that I needed, the groceries, too, and other things, like cooked food.
ADRIANA TORRES: Like Dora, Maria thinks the sea is beautiful — but she also compares it to the coronavirus.
MARIA MOLINA: Porque se va a expander la enfermedad a todas partes o sea por eso yo lo siento así.
ENGLISH V/O: Because the illness will expand everywhere, that is why I feel like that.
ADRIANA TORRES: Maria and other people who had COVID here say their lungs are still recovering — and that makes dust, and allergies, and asthma, all harder to cope with.
As the health of the sea worsens, Dora says, so does her mental health.
DORA CECELIA TAPIA: Te deprime, es una depresión que a veces no tienes ganas ni de moverte ni de hacer nada y piensas ¿por qué pasan las cosas así?
ENGLISH V/O: It depresses me, it is a depression where sometimes you don’t feel like moving or doing anything and you wonder, why do things happen like this?
ADRIANA TORRES: ALL OF THIS is why David Lo says it’s important to study people — and the rest of this ecosystem — together.
DAVID LO: We can think about this as a real medical mystery that we need to solve if we’re to address their health issues more directly.
ADRIANA TORRES: So Lo and some other UC Riverside researchers decided to take a closer look at what the sea might do as it changes, and becomes more dangerous. They exposed mice to water from the Salton Sea — and the mice had a reaction. Not one like when my mom has asthma. And not like an allergy, like the allergy people get to something around the house.
And they tried water from the Pacific Ocean. Mice didn’t react to THAT.
Lo says maybe, there’s something unique about the Salton Sea.
DAVID LO: It may not be a specific bacteria or virus or fungus that’s causing it. It could be the components that’s released in the sea spray in the dust and things like that. That, because of chronic exposure, is causing this kind of response in the lung tissue.
ADRIANA TORRES: But they’re not sure.
At UC Riverside, they’re still studying the effect dust might have on lungs. But overall: Lo says there hasn’t been a lot of funding for this kind of research here.
DAVID LO: Getting people outside of the community to understand the benefits of addressing this is going to be a real tough. // If we improve the health of a migrant community of agriculture workers, the rich white people don’t benefit. So you don’t have the incentive to fix the problem.
ADRIANA TORRES: In Salton City, Dora says she tries to keep her spirits up. But she asks, if there are people who have the power to help, why aren’t they doing it?
DORA CECELIA TAPIA: ¿Si ellos son personas que tienen el poder de ayudar, por qué no lo hacen? Qué tanto corazón tienen ellos como seres humanos para hacer el cambio en esta área de La Laguna?
ENGLISH V/O: Don’t they have any heart, doesn’t it move them as human beings, to want to make improvements in this area of Salton Sea?
ADRIANA TORRES: My neighbor Conchita Pozar is more than sad. She’s angry, that the government ignores us and moves too slow.
CONCHITA POZAR: Que están tratando de ocultar a su mal trabajo y no quieren mirar las cosas realmente como están.
ENGLISH V/O: They are trying to hide their bad work and do not want to look at things really as they are.
[PART III: RESPONSE]
ADRIANA TORRES: Dora and Conchita and other people from the Eastern Coachella Valley have told the state they want more action and attention on human health. The person they try to reach the most is the head of the Salton Sea Management Program.
ARTURO DELGADO: Arturo Delgado.
ADRIANA TORRES: For 14 years, everyone knew that the water from the Colorado River and the farms nearby would stop coming to the Salton Sea. After it did, California set up the Program Delgado now runs.
Our producer, Molly Peterson, met him where the state is building waterways for an endangered fish on exposed playa. It’s a site covering six square miles, called the Species Conservation Habitat Project.
ARTURO DELGADO: something about shallow flooding
ADRIANA TORRES: Molly asked why this project happened first.
ARTURO DELGADO: The vision was to implement projects in areas where it was anticipated that we would have the most exposed lakebed area. That area’s the shallowest and so we started with the south end and this project in particular because we wanted to implement as much habitat as we can and cover as much exposed lakebed as soon as we can.
MOLLY PETERSON: How does this project consider the human health impact?
ARTURO DELGADO: Yes, Basically in the way that I just described it.
(fading) We’re trying to cover as much exposed lake bed by covering exposed lake bed where we’re suppressing dust.
ADRIANA TORRES: She asked him how the project considers the human health impact seven more times.
MOLLY PETERSON: I don’t see anywhere and I don’t hear how human health is considered scientifically in this process.
ARTURO DELGADO: It’s all about covering as much expose lakebed…(fade down)
MOLLY PETERSON: It sounds like you haven’t done a health analysis on how many people it’s going to help which pieces of land?
ARTURO DELGADO: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I would characterize it that we’re going to be very strategic about how we’re prioritizing and placing projects..
MOLLY PETERSON:How is the state of California considering human health when it decides how to make these decisions.
ARTURO DELGADO: When you say the state of California, there’s a lot of departments and agencies that have different jurisdictions….
ADRIANA TORRES: Land at the Salton sea is a patchwork. Some of it’s owned by the Torres Martinez tribe, some by the Imperial Irrigation District. And the rest is owned by the public: federal, state, and local government. Delgado wouldn’t say who is responsible for the dust at the Salton Sea — dust that definitely affects our community.
ARTURO DELGADO: There’s a lot there’s a lot of shared responsibility and there are different agencies that have different jurisdictions…
ARTURO DELGADO: …there’s a lot of different regulatory agencies that have responsibilities for different things, federal agencies, state agencies and local agencies, so
ARTURO DELGADO: I think I just shared with you that what we’re responsible for, I don’t want to speak for anybody else’s responsibility.
ADRIANA TORRES: No health analysis exists. Delgado told Molly that state air regulators were advising him about human impacts. So we asked her to follow up with them.
MOLLY PETERSON: The California Air Resources Board told me that they were NOT advising the Salton Sea Management Program about human health; they may in the future. They have not been asked to study health impacts from the sea. And there’s no funding for such work right now.
(archive) OBAMA: hello Tahoe!
ADRIANA TORRES: According to a congressional research service report, covering all of the exposed playa could cost nearly six BILLION dollars. California is trying to get funding from the U.S. Congress and the federal government now. There hasn’t been much federal spending so far. One time the Obama Administration committed to 30 million dollars in restoration spending, and that was a big deal.
(archive) OBAMA: In partnership with California, we’re going to reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it is too late, and that’s going to help a lot of folks all across the West. (Applause.)
ADRIANA TORRES: Federal and state authorities have spent 70 million dollars so far: mostly on studies and salaries. People on the north shore — like my mom, and other people who work in the fields –haven’t seen any benefit from this…yet.
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: calls for attention
My mom has been a farmworker for 40 years. Long enough that she’s a field boss now.
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: …cada racimo que estemos cortando, asegurar que lo estemos revisando por todos los lados…
ADRIANA TORRES: Working in the fields is extremely hard. It’s humid and sweaty, in Oasis – on the northwest corner of the sea. To avoid heat stroke and sunburns, people wear hats, and even sweaters.
SFX: handheld carts bumping on ground
ADRIANA TORRES: With all the dust and sand the winds carry, it can be very hard to breathe in the fields. Researchers at the Scripps institution of Oceanography say winds slosh around — north and south, up and down the sides of mountains — in the Salton Sea bowl.
SFX: sound of picking and packaging grapes
And on the north end of the sea, people have noticed it’s gotten worse. A tall slender man named Jesus tells me that his daughter suffers from asthma.
“JESUS,” A FARMWORKER: Sí es peor, por ejemplo se vienen las tolvaneras si se nota que empiezan a tener más frecuentemente los ataques de asma.
ENGLISH V/O: Yes, it’s worse, for example, when the dust storms come, you notice that asthma attacks begin to occur more frequently.
ADRIANA TORRES: There’s less exposed playa near here — but you can still see the dust storms at this north end of the sea from space. Jesus says that the state should focus more on people than on wildlife.
“JESUS,” A FARMWORKER: claro que sí, claro que influye lo de la contaminación de la laguna. Porque cuando se viene las tolvaneras, el aire fuerte pues todos los contaminantes se esparcen para donde uno vive y se nota rápido que empiezan a tener problemas los niños, los jóvenes, los que padecen de asma
ENGLISH V/O: Of course it does, of course it influences the pollution from the Salton Sea. Because when there’s dust storms, and the strong winds come, well then, all the pollutants spread where you live and you really notice that children, that young people, start to have problems, and those with asthma.
SFX: truck backing up equipment
ADRIANA TORRES: State officials say legal requirements and a lack of money limit how fast they can improve air quality at the Salton Sea.
To me and people in my community it feels like neglect.
And while they delay, climate change is making life harder. In the mobile homes and trailers where farmworkers live, people run air conditioners longer to make conditions livable. Like at my classmate Rosa Gonzales’ house.
SFX: swamp cooler sound
ROSA GONZALES: By the time I’m an old woman, my hometown will see 100-degree-days half the year. Every year the air conditioners cost us more money.
The Eastern Coachella Valley has the most mobile home parks per capita in California. I grew up in one. They’re called polancos – and they’re the best housing option people have. Melva Recinos — who used to work in the fields herself — now owns a polanco park near me in Thermal.
MELVA RECINOS: no nomás es un tráila encima de otra tráila. Estos parqueaderos se hicieron un poquito más diferente, con más espacio, más privacidad.
ENGLISH V/O it’s not just a trailer on top of another trailer. These mobile home parks were made a little differently, with more space, more privacy.
ROSA GONZALES: But the unpaved roads around polancos swirl with dust. And when it rains, roads run with mud.
SFX: KIDS playing outside by their homes, parents outside
ROSA GONZALES: Yaneth Andrade-Magaña, an advocate with Pueblo Unido, says, wealthier neighborhoods don’t have our problems.
YANETH ANDRADE-MAGANA: Que antes de salir tengo que ver a ver si va a salir mi carro para ir al doctor. O de que antes de que los niños se vayan a la escuela, ver cómo está en la carretera o de que si, si está bien, si no llueve, que que está seco. Pero si, si voy a llevarlos a la escuela y no se ve por el polvo o si tengo que salir y no puedo ver? Son cosas de que por más normal que que que sea de un día a día aquí, si fuera en el otro lado no tendrían que que pensarlo porque no pasa
ENGLISH V/O: Like, before leaving, I have to make sure that my car can even make it out so I can go to the doctor. Or before the children go to school, I have to check to see how the road is, if it is okay, if it is not raining, if it is dry. But if I’m going to take the kids to school or if I am going to go out, and I can’t see because of the dust?
These are things that are normal, day to day here. But if we were on the other side of the valley, we wouldn’t have to think about them, they don’t happen.
ROSA GONZALES: A short and quiet woman named Virginia calls this polanco home. She’s forty or so. She works in the fields. And she’s allergic to dust.
“VIRGINIA,” A POLANCO RESIDENT: Hace poco días pasó lo del polvo y agarré una rasquera y es lo que me dice doctor que es alergia. Ya me hicieron análisis que es alergia al polvo. Le digo pues es que tampoco puedo irme a vivir a la ciudad porque no. Mi situación económica no me lo permite. O sea que si aquí estoy un poquito mejor a comparación de donde estaba antes, pero si nos produce alergia a mi esposo y a mí también, él empieza a toser como estornudar mucho cuando el aire…estornuda mucho le causa alergia y a mí me da comezón en la piel todo esa es la alergia que me produce.
ENGLISH V/O: A few days ago when the dust event happened I got so itchy. That’s what the doctor tells me, that it’s allergies. They already tested me and it’s a dust allergy. I told him well, I can’t move anywhere else. My financial situation doesn’t allow it. I am a little better here compared to where I was before, but the dust does causes allergies to my husband and I, he starts to cough. It’s like he’s sneezing a lot. The coughing, and the itching — all that is the allergy that it produces in me.
ROSA GONZALES: Melva, the landlord, SHE has tried to help: she put down heavier black dirt around these homes, to fight the dust. It’s partway towards paving.
Some of that dust comes from the Salton Sea. Local air regulators have declared the eastern Coachella Valley an environmental justice community. And they set aside some money for paving projects – a grant Melva has applied for. But there’s so much competition she might not get it.
Melva points out that the Coachella Valley hasn’t met air quality standards for years.
MELVA RECINOS: Un derecho humano, es un derecho que todos tenemos, el derecho de respirar aire puro, el derecho. Por eso tenemos nuestras agencias para protegernos, para que esto no es algo como un lujo, es un derecho humano que necesitamos brindar a toda esa gente que está en North Shore.
ENGLISH V/O: It’s a right we all have: a human right, the right to breathe clean air. That is why we have our agencies to protect us. This isn’t like a luxury, it is a human right that we need to give to everyone near the sea, all these people in North Shore.
ROSA GONZALES: Paving makes life easier — you can get to work in the fields, or to doctor’s appointments, or to school. On top of that, it cuts dust, so it’s easier to breathe. Yaneth from Pueblo Unido says, it’s the kind of solution people here actually want.
YANETH ANDRADE-MAGANA:Entonces no nada más solución para una cosa, pero solución para muchas cosas.
ENGLISH V/O: So it hasn’t just been a solution for one thing: it’s a solution for many things.
ROSA GONZALES: The problems with the sea reveal what we’re missing: access to health care, and a good economy. It’s an environmental problem: but David Lo from UC Riverside agrees it’s even bigger than that.
DAVID LO: We can do that, try to improve access to health care. But there are many other ways that we need to benefit the community so that people can afford it. // So we have to think, you know, how do you take this, you know, diverse community and create an economy that gives people good reason to come back?
ROSA GONZALES: Like I said before, I’ve started to think of the sea like a person, or a neighbor. But I wasn’t the only one. In Salton City, Maria Molina did too.
MARIA MOLINA: Yo pienso que eres la persona que dice que está muerta, esa es la persona que está muerta.
ROSA GONZALES: She said, she believes that a person who sees the Salton Sea as a dead sea, that person has something dead inside them. That the Sea isn’t dead but alive, and like a person who is sick.
MARIA MOLINA: Si no le tiende quizás ya está enfermo, ya déjalo. Es como dejar una a una persona así, de esa manera, no hacerle seguir motivando para poder luchar por ella y que salga adelante.
ROSA GONZALES: When a person is sick, you don’t just leave them to die. You do everything you can to help them.
Not long ago, I left Thermal, and I’m in my first year at the University of California Irvine. I’m going to study medicine.
I’m excited even though I’m worried about my home and the people around it. I want to continue to support the people who have helped me grow and the community that has supported me. Our ecosystem is sick. I want to help.
Adriana Torres says, that’s her plan too.
ADRIANA TORRES: Where we’re from, other people we know, people who graduated before us, they left the valley, and they come back.
(talking to mom) ADRIANA TORRES: Y luego qué piensas? Como de, como yo otros niños que están viendo que están yendo a la escuela ahorita como al otro lado.
ADRIANA TORRES: So I talked to my mom about this. I said, what do you think about me, or other kids who are going to school right now, leaving to go other places. What do you think about that?
ADRIANA (in Spanish to her mom): otros niños que están viendo que están yendo a la escuela ahorita como al otro lado. (POST HERE) Qué piensas de eso?
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: Ellos que están viviendo aquí, miren lo que pasa. Saben qué es lo que hace falta? Para mí, qué gusto me diera que toda la juventud o todos los padres hicieran un propósito de ayudar a sus hijos e influir a que tienen que estudiar, que tienen que salir adelante para que vivan mejor y sobre todo hagan algo por la comunidad.
ADRIANA TORRES: She told me, people who live here, know what is happening, they know what is missing. She said, parents should encourage their kids to get ahead, to have goals. To study hard. That’s what she did for me. I just started at Stanford.
ADRIANA (in Spanish to her mom): Que es uno de tus sueños (take under) para los niños que están yendo al colegio ahorita y que piensan venir para atrás.
ADRIANA TORRES: I asked her, what are your dreams for the kids who are going to college right now and who plan to come back? And she said, her dream is that they could come back and serve their community.
SILVIA TORRES CEJA: Pues como les dije antes, (post here) mi sueño sería que sí, que regresaran para atrás y dieran servicio a su comunidad.
ADRIANA TORRES: We shouldn’t have to solve problems that we didn’t make. But I think we can. And I hope we will. I’m Adriana Torres…
ROSA GONZALES: And I’m Rosa Gonzalez, for Living Downstream.
CREDITS, READ BY STEVE MENCHER: Today’s episode was written by Molly Peterson, with Olivia Rodriguez Mendez. They produced this podcast with the help of Rosa Gonzalez and Adriana Torres, who narrated.
Additional interpretation services were contributed by Monica Desiderio and Mariel Sommers, who also contributed voice overs.
Special thanks to Jennie Whitcomb at Sacred Heart Preparatory, and Pati Leal of North Shore.
The featured musicians are Ocho Ojos, who are based in Coachella, California. They have a Bandcamp site.
The Living Downstream Theme music is by David Schulman.
Chris Lee is radio executive producer and Darren LaShelle is the President and CEO of Northern California Public Media.
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