ALEJANDRA ALARCON and BRENDA RINCON/Coachella Uninc
THERMAL – Residents scored a major victory in their 16-year fight for clean air when Riverside County was awarded the funding to pave roads at 31 trailer parks in the unincorporated communities of the eastern Coachella Valley.
The $4.1 million project is scheduled to begin as early as next summer and should be completed within two years.
Dirt roads at the trailer parks have long been a concern of residents for a number of reasons, chief among them being poor air quality.
“When cars pass by, they lift a lot of dust and it affects everyone that lives here,” explained Margarita Gamez, a resident of Gamez Mobile Home Park who has been active in the grassroots effort since 1997.
In 2008, Pueblo Unido, a community development corporation, joined the fight for improved environmental conditions in the region’s trailer parks, which are typically situated in areas that lack potable water, sewer systems and basic infrastructure.
Trailer park residents were the backbone of the organizing effort, and the idea to push for paved roads came from them, said Sergio Carranza, executive director and founder of Pueblo Unido, who added, “I’m just facilitating the project.”
Carranza said that dust and fine particulate pollution from the unpaved roads are linked to the prevalence of asthma and respiratory problems among the many families who live in the trailer parks. The paved roads will also improve accessibility for residents and visitors, and alleviate another major problem in these communities – flooding caused by heavy rains.
A long awaited opportunity
Pueblo Unido saw an opportunity for funding when South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) began accepting proposals for environmentally friendly projects, funded by AB 1318 emission mitigation fees from the nearby Sentinel Energy Project. Meetings were held in a number of Riverside County locations to gather input from residents about what projects should be funded, but many in the Eastern Coachella Valley felt left out of the conversation.
“There were only public hearings being made in the western Coachella Valley,” said Carranza. “We (Pueblo Unido) made sure that the eastern Coachella Valley was taken care of too.”
Pueblo Unido received backing for their roads proposal from State Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, who introduced AB 1318 in 2009, and Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who co-authored the bill when he was a state senator. As a result, county officials setup and held meetings in the eastern Coachella Valley.
“We had a lot of public hearings all over the valley on how this money should be spent. One of the witnesses was a young boy from the eastern Coachella Valley. He had to walk to school every day of his life. He felt that the air quality affected him greatly. [His story] impacted me and other members that are working on this project,” said Benoit, who is a member of the SCAQMD board of directors.
SCAQMD, which is managing the funds for the project, entered into a contract with Riverside County to pave approximately 8.3 miles of unpaved roads at 31 mobile home parks containing 483 mobile home units.
According to Darin Schemmer, communications director for Benoit, “The actual construction may begin as early as summer 2014. The remaining steps the Riverside County Transportation Department needs to take include completing the design and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) document, preparing, advertising, bidding and awarding a construction contract.”
The county, in turn, has contracted with Pueblo Unido to continue to be the liaison to the community members that came together to make their needs heard.
“I advocated strongly that SCAQMD must provide technical assistance to grantees, and ultimately we convinced them to do so. Another thing we did was to encourage smaller, community-based grantees, to the extent possible, to partner with agencies that had the resources and capacity to present a strong application,” said Perez. “Such was the case of Pueblo Unido in partnering with Riverside County for the successful paving project.”
‘Trail’ would connect east, west valley
Over $17 million of the $53 million mitigation fee fund total was awarded to CV Link, for a proposed 52-mile multi-purpose trail stretching from Palm Springs in the west valley to Mecca in the east. Tourism leaders aggressively pushed for these funds on the grounds that the entire Coachella Valley would benefit.
Not everyone in the eastern Coachella Valley expects that to be the case.
“The road from Palm Springs to Mecca doesn’t benefit us. It only benefits wealthier communities,” said Gamez, who believes the trail is being geared toward tourists.
Assemblymember Perez, however, said he sees the environmental benefits of both the trail project and the paving project at the trailer parks.
“One of the things we have emphasized from the beginning is the need for an equitable distribution of grant funding, so that many worthwhile projects and grantees would be able to use their ingenuity and community know-how to address local air quality concerns,” he said.
With the paving project now in place, Carranza said Pueblo Unido would continue listening to and organizing with residents of these rural communities, in their quest for a better living environment. Future projects include a water purification system and the opening of a learning center.