Salton Sea EJ Campaign: A Community Driven Goal

Proposed bird watching overlook and platform community amenity / Image: Kounkuey Design Initiative

The ASLA Environmental Justice PPN provides a forum for ASLA members involved in, inspired by, and interested in pursuing environmental justice through education, research, and practice. Throughout 2018, the Environmental Justice PPN has hosted virtual presentations with live Q&A, focused on issues most important to its members. All Environmental Justice PPN members are invited to participate in these monthly events, allowing members to expand their networks, and hear from design professionals who are playing an important role in addressing environmental justice. On November 8, Christian Rodriguez, Community Associate at Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), joined the conversation on KDI’s work in the Eastern Coachella Valley of southern California.

KDI is a non-profit design and community development organization with teams in Los Angeles, CA, and Nairobi, Kenya. KDI partners with under-resourced communities to advance equity and activate the unrealized potential in their neighborhoods and cities through advocacy, research, planning, and built works. KDI realizes this mission through advocacy, research, planning, and built works.

The Eastern Coachella Valley (ECV), located 2.5 hours east of Los Angeles, CA, is a cluster of unincorporated communities just minutes away from Palm Springs and some of the most expensive zip codes in the country. The ECV is a historically under resourced region and its communities, composed of agricultural workers and a migrant population, face environmental injustices such as poor air quality, substandard housing, lack of clean water, and basic infrastructure. The residents of these communities live along the shoreline of the rapidly drying Salton Sea, California’s largest lake.

For over a century, the Salton Sea water levels were maintained through surrounding agricultural runoff. In 2003, the primary water source for the surrounding agricultural lands was affected by the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), created to reduce California’s over-dependence on Colorado River water while also making more water available for urban use in San Diego County. This diversion of water and reduction of agricultural runoff has caused the Salton Sea waterline to recede. In the coming decades, more of the contaminated lake bed will become exposed, spreading harmful dust and fine particles, and exacerbating the already poor air quality in the region. KDI, in partnership with a larger NGO network, is part of an Environmental Justice Campaign that seeks to inform the government efforts to mitigate these environmental and health impacts with the voices and needs of the immediate community.

Image: Kounkuey Design Initiative

Project Activities
KDI’s work in ECV began in 2013, with a small project and soon expanded to larger projects that the firm calls Productive Public Spaces (PPS). These projects have taken different forms as parks or most recently as a wellness center in partnership with the City of Coachella.

KDI identifies Productive Public Spaces as:

  1. Formerly unusable and sometimes unsafe areas that become active public spaces such as community meeting areas, vegetable gardens, and micro-enterprise and recreation spaces, along with basic infrastructure (e.g. sanitation, bridges, walkways).
  2. Conceived, constructed and managed by the people who use them, in collaboration with local and international partners.
  3. Income-generating, socially constructive, and sustainable.
  4. Projects that would otherwise not be realized through traditional channels.
  5. Targeted areas that employ strong design concepts to create beautiful places.
  6. Catalysts by which communities improve the social, economic, and environmental lives of their residents.
Proposed raised berm with shared pedestrian and bike trail community amenity / Image: Kounkuey Design Initiative

In 2017, the Salton Sea Management Program – Phase I: 10-Year Plan was amended by the Department of Interior (DOI) and the California Natural Resource Agency (CNRA), to include a series of projects around the lake shoreline with the main project goals of habitat creation and dust suppression. Through their work in the community, KDI heard residents express concern that they did not know who the point of contact would be for the projects proposed as a part of the 10-year plan in order to learn more about the projects and provide input. KDI also recognized the needs for more robust project goals to champion the public health element, ensuring that the surrounding communities also benefit from these projects. KDI advocated for the creation of an interdisciplinary team to influence the state decision makers and promote a holistic understanding of what these projects could be. Under the umbrella of Alianza Coachella Valley, local organizations came together to establish goals beyond the state’s initial mitigation efforts of habit creation and dust suppression. They are helping residents, policymakers, and other stakeholders better collaborate to counteract environmental hazards, particularly air pollution, and are pushing to include community engagement and design as RFP criteria, as a way to introduce the projects within the 10-year plan to the community.

Community scientists / Image: Kounkuey Design Initiative

As part of this EJ campaign, KDI began the community engagement process through a youth cohort. High school and local community college students were invited to participate through three main initiatives:

  • Storytelling – Students were given an opportunity to change the narrative that has been placed on the Salton Sea, and share their stories with state agency staff and decision makers who may not live in their community.
  • Community scientists – Students were invited to become community scientists, and collect data to fill the gaps in understanding the current air and water quality. Starting on December 31, 2017, the water was turned off from the Colorado River, and at that point the water levels started to decrease and salinity started to increase. However, sufficient data has not been collected to understand the extent to which the water and wildlife is changing.
    • Dr. Ryan Sinclair, assistant professor in the Center for Community Resilience at the Loma Linda University School of Public Health, is working with students to detect dust particulate matters in the air that affect air quality. The associated health issues arising in communities are funneled through the EJ campaign to the responsible agencies.
  • Advocacy – These engaged youth cohorts are encouraged to champion the priorities of the EJ campaign, initiating community capacity building initiatives and acting as a catalyst for change.

    Image: Kounkuey Design Initiative

KDI is working with the youth cohort to create a community engagement best practices report which includes recommendations such as:

  • Accessible meeting locations – Find community leaders who are willing to open their homes for community meetings. Typical meeting venues are not accessible in these communities due to lack of infrastructure and transportation options. Meetings in residents’ homes have also included state agency staff.
  • Communications – Communities surrounding the Salton Sea are primarily migrant communities, some of which speak neither English or Spanish. Recommendations were made to translate brochures or other community engagement materials into languages beyond English or Spanish.
  • Youth cohort – Encourage youth to serve as a main organizing community body.
  • Participatory budgeting and design – KDI is working with the state to integrate participatory budgeting and design into the proposed and future projects.
  • Community engagement requirements – KDI is still working towards getting the government to include community engagement and design criteria into the RFPs
Image: Kounkuey Design Initiative

What is the future of the Salton Sea?
The Salton Sea is shrinking. The State of California is obligated to build projects that suppress dust and create habitat. By layering on community amenities, multi-beneficial infrastructure can be created to serve the residents and wildlife, creating a sustainable and resilient Salton Sea. Through the Environmental Justice Campaign, local organizations are working to shift the mindset and process at the state level to integrate meaningful community engagement and input into the planning process and the inclusion of community benefits for any new and future developments surrounding the Salton Sea.

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