Neglect is Not an Option

by Maria Nava-Froelich

Center of Our Universe

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Growing up in the Northend of the Imperial Valley in California, in a townsite called Niland, my family along with fourteen other families lived in railroad section homes. My father worked for Southern Pacific, and my mother was a homemaker and worked part time picking tomatoes locally and grapes in the Coachella Valley. My parents had thirteen children with my twin being number ten and I number eleven in the pecking order. Both parents are gone now leaving fond and happy memories in our “center of our universe” with the natural everyday scenery of the Salton Sea, Chocolate Mountains, and agriculture fields, as we crossed the railroad tracks to go to and from school.

Heading south through Niland on Hwy 111.

Photos by: Christian Froelich

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All Niland kids are transported to the city of Calipatria located eight miles away to the feeder schools for grades 5 through 12. Many of our K-12 students from Niland and Calipatria that attend Calipatria Unified School District will eventually move away once they complete college, stay in the big cities, and never return to their home towns.This exodus is in addition to a decline of population due to lack of jobs, economic opportunities, and housing development to sustain the families, especially in our Northend communities.

Another major struggle is that Niland and Calipatria homeowners pay much higher property taxes than other residents of the Imperial County. These are among major factors that contribute to the Northend communities becoming ghost towns. We are the fence line communities closest to the Salton Sea. Today, it is so sad to witness the Sea becoming toxic with fish dying off. Years ago, there were recreational activities at the Salton Sea that attracted fisherman, ski boats, and families camping out over the weekend. It attracted people from near and far including snowbirds.

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Today, many abandoned single homes and trailers remain on both sides of the sea, where people who had bought homes or business properties decided to no longer invest or live around or near the sea. Yet, to this day, many who live here have hopes that someday the sea will be restored.

The City of Calipatria will be the most impacted municipality due to its close proximity to the Lithium Valley Area. The City of Calipatria is located in the northeastern end of the Imperial Valley, contiguous to the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area. The City of Calipatria has among the highest poverty rates in the nation with a median household income (in 2020 dollars) of $37,196, compared to County $46,220 and State $80,440. Both nearby Niland as well as Calipatria have been negatively affected by a lack of jobs, higher tax rates than some larger cities, and by several forms of environmental pollution.

Game Changer

The prospect of recovering lithium from brines that power the geothermal energy facilities at the south end of the Salton Sea have received a great deal of study. The recently released Imperial County Lithium Valley Economic Opportunity Investment Plan (the Plan) outlines the local, statewide, and national benefits of local lithium extraction. It also prescribes the specific activities we believe are necessary in order to best capitalize on those benefits. We believe this is definitely a game changer that can help the whole Imperial County.

As one of several disadvantaged communities in Imperial County, the City of Calipatria supports this Plan. The citizens of Calipatria believe that it will enable the responsible development of an industry that has the potential to improve the economic future of Calipatria and Niland residents for generations to come. Specifically, the plan stipulates that 20% of excise tax revenues be assigned to restoration of the Salton Sea with the remaining 80% going to Imperial County of which 30% would be earmarked for the Northend communities. The Plan also has the potential to severely impact the natural and built environment in and around the incorporated boundaries of Calipatria. Questions remain about where the water needed for the lithium extraction will come from and about health impacts from chemicals used during the Lithium extraction. This plan is still developing and is currently in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Report Phase.

The City of Calipatria welcomes the economic and global environmental benefits this Lithium Valley Industry will achieve. The city also recommends that a Calipatria Lithium Valley Disadvantaged Communities Economic Development Plan be written and adopted to directly support the economic and environmental needs of the communities that will be most directly affected by the newly created industries. Problems which might be anticipated include increased operational activity, toxic emissions, required public services, infrastructure upgrades, and potential annexation. Such a plan should follow the State of California Clean Energy Act of 2018 as well as the Federal Government Green Act of 2021. This community plan should zero in on the relevant social, economic, and environmental factors affecting the communities adjacent to the project site and would reveal those factors which will have the greatest influence on the successful implementation of the lithium extraction project and the final impact on the Northend.

The Disadvantaged Communities Plan Should Provide:

Quality Assurance

* An Environmental Impact Report specifically for the Lithium Valley and Salton Sea Geothermal Basin area.
* Efforts and increased funding to improve air quality to the impacted communities.
* Quality control funding for the lithium extraction and mining testing within the Lithium Valley project.

Community Needs

* Economic, environmental, and public health benefits to the Calipatria and Niland communities, particularly from the Salton Sea receding   shoreline.
* Job creation for locally impacted communities within the Lithium Valley and Geothermal Basin Area.
* Infrastructure funding for State Highway 111 and local streets, for acquisitions for the water system, sewer, public safety, and services for the redlined communities of Calipatria and Niland.
* Educational funding assistance to locally impacted Calipatria Unified School District, Imperial Valley College, and funding assistance for a higher institution of learning specializing in minerals and green energy curriculum and degrees, such as San Diego State University.
* Funding for the Calipatria and Niland Impact Severance Tax for the immediate impacts on infrastructure, job training, community enhancements, and environmental mitigation.
* Funding for increased and improved medical services to our local hospitals, including a children’s hospital.
* Immediate funding for improvements to the Calipatria State Prison wastewater collection system.
* Direct investment toward the most immediately impacted disadvantaged communities and households within the redline community of Calipatria and Niland of the Lithium Valley project.
* Provide opportunities for business, public agencies, nonprofits, and other community institutions to participate in and benefit from statewide and national efforts to promote green clean energy.

The Question of Water

As an active advocate of the community, it’s my fear that California’s current water shortage is going to become a local (county) emergency, and will become especially acute if and when the Lithium extraction becomes a reality and becomes fully operational as proposed by the lithium industry.

In explaining my fear, mining large amounts of lithium will require huge amounts of water to extract it. Imperial County can go years without rain, and the people and the local communities depend on fresh water from the Colorado River. Regardless of the extraction method, the process where lithium chloride is turned into Lithium carbonate requires water, and the Northend communities worry about how much fresh water will be required and used in the final stages of the process (hydrology) to receive the final work product.

Living Beside the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea depends on untreated and polluted water from Mexico (via the New River) and from the farming community (agriculture run-off) via the Alamo River. Conditions at the Salton Sea are getting worse, and now with climate change upon us, state-wide drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, and high asthma rates in the Imperial Valley, stakeholders in the area need to come together and strengthen the plan for the Sea. The California Natural Resources Agency has conducted community updates regarding the restoration projects that are underway and the proposed long-range plan. Many local community organizations are working for better education on the environmental exposures of the Salton Sea and for social justice to be included in the effort.

Down the road, and before the economic benefits begin to trickle in, I fear that the current water shortage will become worse as a result of the water usage and needs of the proposed lithium plants. I visualize restricted daily water access in the future. Many states are also suffering moderate to severe droughts. Can the reader imagine the cut-backs of water during the heat and humid summer months here in the Imperial Valley? Here, where we have poorest residents, high unemployment, and medically underserved people, the Northend will be forced to reduce their water usage. Eventually, the amount of water used by the local farming industry coupled with the water that will be required by the lithium plants will create unequal and unfair access to the basic needs of water. The Northend communities have been neglected and deprived for many years, therefore the water distribution network cannot be looted for unlimited use by or for use by the commercial/industrial projects that do not benefit our indigenous people in the Northend of the Imperial County.

The Imperial County and the State of California in collaboration with the Northend and the Lithium industry have developed a partnership. All parties must agree to treat water, food, jobs, and energy as human rights.

Besides having more community meetings and more state or federal government funded studies of the Salton Sea, the State, Federal and local stakeholders need to work as a cohesive group and exercise flexibility and develop and fund a “Wetlands” Strategy to start the hard work of restoring the Salton Sea.

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Receded Salton Seas shoreline at Red Hill Marina boat ramp.   Photo by Christian Froelich

During the interim period of planning long term solutions to save the sea, further development and implementation of wetland remedial projects are absolutely essential and beneficial to our local ecosystem. Wetland projects are needed before the Salton Sea becomes more laden with toxic minerals and agricultural runoff and before it becomes a super-saline body of water (dust bowl). It’s anticipated that such projects should bring tangible benefits to our long underserved Northend communities because of the close proximity to the Salton Sea.

On a positive note, although the effects of the Lithium Project are still uncertain, it is possible that over the long haul strong economic growth will help the Northend so that this section of the Imperial County be “saved” as a visible and self-sustainable and self-sufficient region.

Maria Elena Nava-Froelich graduated from Calipatria High School in 1980 and Imperial Valley College in 1986. She became a city council member in Calipatria in 2011 and as served several terms as Mayor in 2023, 2019, 2016 and 2014. The list of local community organizations for which she has worked is long and varied.