A Field trip with EcoGovLab in Imperial Valley, California
After about a one-hour drive, the car stopped on the side of the road in the Californian desert. I was sitting with two other people I had just met a few hours earlier: a postdoc researcher from UC Irvine and her husband, who works in the film industry and was documenting the field trip. The meeting point we had been driving to was neither a building nor an interview appointment, and the navigation system had abruptly indicated that we had arrived. We were a few miles from Desert Hot Springs, and there was a sign marking the San Andreas fault, a major earthquake hazard in Southern California. This spot was the starting point of our field trip to the Salton Sea. The field trip’s goal was to contribute to the understanding of environmental injustice, learn about dynamics and elements that impact the environment, and build university-community relationships in urban and rural settings. In this blog post, I want to share my experience visiting the Imperial Valley with EcoGovLab and
collaborating on topics related to environmental stressors in communities.
We stepped out of the car and met part of the EcoGovLab, the organizers of this field trip, a research lab based at the Department of Anthropology at the University of California Irvine, as well as an activist from the Initiative MPNA-Green, Santa Ana, a community-based organization that also participated in this field trip. The EcoGovlab, directed by Prof. Kim Fortun, focuses on enhancing a social sciences perspective in interdisciplinary environmental research and education. One of the driving ideas of EcoGovLab is to approach the Anthropocene’s consequences with different methodological tools and in doing so to ask how archiving on a collaborative open platform such as the Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography (PECE) can help communities to act in the context of the climate catastrophe by sharing their knowledge and experiences with other communities and researchers. Therefore, an essential aspect of this was to work collaboratively in preparing the fieldwork on the platform: sharing information, maps, and many press articles about water scarcity, low water levels, and respiratory problems. This would help facilitate the work with our partners on-site.
The first community we visited in the area was Desert Hot Springs. A student from UCI was leading us. He grew up in this community and knew the place and the people very well. Desert Hot Springs seemed to be empty. There was a huge contrast to the cities near the coast. The student showed us around and told us about all the facilities that are now empty. Many people have left. Some other buildings are currently being used as farming facilities for regional dispensaries. There is a new school, but there is also a lack of workplaces, as many of the former hotels have been shut down in the last decades. Many women used to work as cocineras in hotels or in housekeeping; now that people, tourists, and hotels have left, many of these workplaces are gone. My attention was drawn to the absence of sidewalks in the community, an aspect that would recur during the fieldwork in California. Before our next meeting, we stopped to buy some fruit on the side of the street; our student guide told us that many undocumented migrants work as fruit sellers. There used to be two fruit sellers in Hot Springs, but now only one was still working. The other seller had been deported a few weeks ago.
The Salton Sea
Area of the Salton Sea- OpenStreet Map, https://www.openstreetmap.org/ – map=9/33.4177/-116.9879
The area we were visiting is the Salton Sea, located approximately 250 km from Los Angeles, bordering the counties of Riverside and Imperial County in Southern California’s Imperial Valley. This region is renowned as an extensive agricultural area that produces 2/3 of the winter vegetables consumed in the U.S. (Quandt 2023). Some of the most important crops are lettuce, broccoli, alfalfa, and onions. However, the drought crisis plaguing the Colorado River has resulted in declining water levels, significantly impacting agriculture.
In 1905, an overflow from the Colorado River flooded an ancient basin of Lake Cahuilla, „creating“ the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea quickly became a popular destination for celebrities and sports enthusiasts. However, the area has experienced a downturn, with hotels closing, tourists leaving, and the lake’s water levels plummeting. Over the past few decades, the Salton Sea – which relies on the Colorado River’s water – has been shrinking, causing the death of fish species that attract migratory birds. In fact, it is now twice as salty as the ocean due to reduced precipitation, affecting its fish and wildlife habitat. In addition to the environmental catastrophe, the lake’s shrinking has caused severe health problems for the local community due to toxic air. It is important to note that the sea’s water is also full of pesticide runoff from Californian farms. As the lake bed is exposed, the air quality is impacted by fugitive dust emissions from the playa. Air quality in the Imperial Valley is among the worst in the state – leading to high childhood asthma and other respiratory illnesses among the valley’s residents.
The next stop on our trip was a meeting with activists from the Coachella Valley, the same valley where the famous festival takes place. We met at a restaurant to have lunch. We didn’t talk about the festival, instead I spoke with a woman about dust, health problems of children, water scarcity, poverty, lithium extraction, lack of access to services due to residence status, and damages from pesticides used in this agriculture-oriented region of the state of California. This story would not be the only one. During our field trip, we met with communities, visited places, walked on the shores of the Salton Sea, and observed and heard from activists about the environmental problems they witness and endure.
During lunch, I met Ryan Sinclair from the Environmental Microbiology Research Laboratory (EMRL) at Loma Linda University School of Public Health. He accompanied us to the Salton Sea. After visiting the North Shore Community, we drove to the Yacht Club. Yes, a yacht club in a dried-up sea. We walked into the basin. The bottom of the lake smelled strange, and it caved in a little as we walked; one can sink in. Every step generated a peculiar sound. We stopped and talked about the sea’s rapid degrowth, how this affects the population, and how a water mass became a dust cloud that damages lungs, not just in human bodies.
We also met with Líderes Campesinas, an organization dealing with health issues in the Salton Sea. We walked together and discussed the dust and the severe problems for children in the area. They also showed us a pilot project of the state of California to stop the dust with grass bales and to start reforestation of the banks of the Salton Sea. This is part of a Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP), which is working on habitat restoration and dust control projects to reduce the amount of exposed lake bed. Nevertheless, there is some skepticism about how these bales can or cannot stop all the dust from the now-dried sea bottom and how much time such a program will require before it has an impact on their lives. Activists from the organization Líderes Campesinas told us how they also advocated for workers‘ rights in the fields around the valley during the pandemic since the work on the crops did not stop.
In this last part of this blog post, I would like to highlight the interdisciplinary approach to environmental problems, as pursued by EcoGovLab, in addressing the climate crisis and understanding spatial figurations through an environmental (in)justice lens. The environmental justice approach takes into account several aspects linked to the refiguration of spaces without entering into an in-depth conceptual engagement with spatial production, but nonetheless considering some of its crucial elements. The communities I visited during my stay in California live in disadvantaged territories; access to infrastructure, such as water, health care, or even sidewalks, are often scarce, and all are exposed to health hazards. In short, there is a concentration of hazards, pollution, deprivation, and discrimination in some territories that sets them apart from others.
There is a cumulative impact of all the hazards affecting the communities that inhabit the Salton Sea area. This account is only a partial testimony from one field trip on exposure to dust, bad air, bad smells, metals, risks linked to lithium explorations, and other environmental stressors that shape life worlds and routines in hazardous territories, giving form to spatial experiences. But we can observe that the mess of the Anthropocene manifests itself more acutely and in a more condensed form in some parts of the world than in others. Some communities face more environmental harm than others. The lungs of some human and non-human bodies in certain parts of the world breathe more metals than others. The cumulative impact of all these hazards affecting communities is figurating spaces of injustice. This should also remind us that the non-human dimension is always present in the figuration of spaces, an aspect that has been overlooked in many accounts of spatial production. Spaces are shaped not only by people but also by particles, environmental regulations, and data, among other actors, constituting ecological challenges concurrently caused by old (post-)industrial infrastructures, consumption, and risky industrial activities (Fortun 2014). Exploring alternative research approaches and engaging in spaces co-shaped by environmental stressors is essential to address these harmful entanglements.
Fortun, Kim. 2014. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4(1): 309–29.
Quandt, Amy. 2023. „‚You Have to Be Resilient‘: Producer Perspectives to Navigating a Changing Agricultural System in California, USA.“ Agricultural Systems 207: 103630.
Francisco Aguilera is a Ph.D. researcher at the Institute of European Ethnology at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin since 2022. He holds a degree in Sociology from the Universität Bielefeld and in Historical Urban Studies from TU Berlin, with a focus on urban policy, infrastructure, and sustainable urban development. His research interests include infrastructures, participation, sustainability, and STS. His current project is about street re-design projects in Berlin.