It’s not every day that a group of high school students chooses to drive around with a college professor taking pictures of sewage failure. But that’s what Uriel Gutierrez and three of his friends were doing on the day I visited them this spring. They’re showing professor Ryan Sinclair of Loma Linda University around mobile home parks that are prevalent in the Eastern Coachella Valley where they live, and they’re documenting problems to try to help their community.
“We’re looking for areas where there could potentially be a problem with black water,” Gutierrez says. “Contaminated water that could carry disease and bacteria.”
It’s just 40 miles from Palm Springs, but the Eastern Coachella Valley is home to a host of environmental concerns, ranging from arsenic in the well water to toxic dump sites. The people who live there are predominantly poor, Latino and farmworkers. Increasingly, however, young people are joining the ranks of community activists working toward environmental justice, and they’re doing it through crowdsourcing and other technology.
Desert Mobile Home Park, near Thermal, CA, in the heart of eastern Coachella Valley.
Sinclair explains to the guys: If a cesspool or septic system overflows, it can contaminate soil with bacteria and pathogens. That’s dangerous, he tells them, especially for little kids playing outside.
“You want to be separated from your human waste. We've been trying to do that for the past 6,000 years or more,” Sinclair says. “If you see it out here -- wet dirt from a septic tank that's not working -- it's just a bad case of environmental management and it needs to be fixed.”
Sinclair is the expert in water and sanitation, but the young men – all seniors at Desert Mirage High School -- have the most knowledge about this community. In the mobile home parks that make up much of the valley’s housing, many are unpaved, miles from a main sewer line, and have overworked septic systems. The group stops at a mobile home park that manages its wastewater with an aerated lagoon, where Mario Beltran shows his comfort with the smartphone app they’re using for documentation.
While Ryan Sinclair looks on, Mario Beltran photographs a problematic lagoon used for sewage, then uploads the photo to an app where more crowdsourced evidence of water sanitation problems are documented.
“I'm trying to take a picture of this waste lagoon water that we found right now, and I’m gonna update it on the app,” Beltran says.
The lagoon is too close to where people live, so he takes a picture that will locate this spot on a map using its GPS coordinates. Sinclair is training these high school students in crowdsourcing the data -- having a large group of people collect needed information.
The group empties out of the truck at the edge of a mobile home park where Gutierrez sees a puddle, photographs it and declares:
“It looks gooey. It looks corroded on the side. You know how metal gets rusted? The middle looks like nasty cheese and beans put together. Not edible, though.”
To which Sinclair says: “He’s starting to talk like a microbiologist.”
Sinclair and a group of public health graduate students held five weeks of training on crowdsourcing and sanitation for students, their parents and advocacy organizations. These teenagers say they came at first just to have something to do after school. But Gutierrez was intrigued by the technology.
“It was the whole app thing that brought me in,” he explains. “But now that I kinda know how to use it, I’m more interested in the topic now.”
This spring, the guys went to Los Angeles to present their findings with the region’s municipal water board. They aren’t the only teens getting involved. High school senior Belen Ramirez says she’s also passionate about the environment.
“We’re living here. We should take some interest in it,” she says.
Belen Ramirez, a member of Desert Mirage High School's media club FIRME, records participants at a community meeting on water sanitation for a podcast.
Ramirez belongs to a club where students make videos and podcasts about issues important to them. For many, it’s the environment that is personal here, she says, in part because so many parents work in the fields and are worried about pesticides. Ramirez is working on a podcast with a message to public agency officials who have been coming here recently, talking about the region’s environmental hazards.
“You don't need to tell someone that their leg is broken when the bone is jetting out,” she says. “We know that. We live here. What I want to ask is that why don't they come and show us how to work with those agencies, so that together we can come up with solutions to these problems?”
Ramirez will upload the podcast on the club’s site and share it. Fellow club member Diana Castellanos produced a video about air quality, toxic dumping and water access, which she presented at an environmental justice conference in February.
“Some people from Palm Springs were there and they like gasped,” Castellanos recalls. “It was kind of interesting how they didn't know and they live right here, it’s kind of like their backyard. There was just a bunch of gasps and ‘We want to help’ and all these people that were amazed by the video I had made.
Diana Castellanos, a member of Desert Mirage High School's media club FIRME, works on a video about local environmental issues.
UC Davis Professor Jonathan London was at the conference. He’s leading a group of academics and local activists in a study of environmental justice in the region, and he was scheduled to present right after Castellanos and her peers shared their video.
“I joked in my little intro that I really didn’t have to provide my study because the young people really nailed it. They really talked about both the environmental hazards and the social factors that make those hazards worse.”
London says his group’s study provided the hard data that essentially backed up the students’ video, “using the academic legitimacy that speaks to public agencies, but really they were by far the most legitimate spokespeople there, because they have the most to lose.”
Diana Castellanos already has her next video planned, and Belen Ramirez hopes to major in wildlife conservation when she heads to college in the fall.