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Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation gives $100,000 toward monitoring pollution at Salton Sea

September 20, 2017 | Ian James | The Desert Sun

Luis Olmedo, head of the nonprofit Comité Cívico Del Valle, and community members discuss air quality and the air monitor network they have set up with PHI's California Environmental Health Tracking Program ( Zoë Meyers/The Desert Sun)

 

A nonprofit organization in the Imperial Valley has installed air monitors to help keep residents informed about hazardous air quality 

A nonprofit group’s efforts to monitor windblown dust around the Salton Sea is getting a boost from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is providing a $100,000 grant to support the group’s expanding network of air pollution monitors.

The nonprofit Comité Cívico Del Valle has already set up about 40 air monitoring devices between the U.S.-Mexico border and the Salton Sea, aiming to fill in gaps in data collected by government agencies while bringing communities real-time reports assessing air quality at a neighborhood level.

Dusty air is a worsening problem along the shores of the Salton Sea, which is about to start shrinking rapidly next year, exposing vast stretches of lakebed and more lung-harming dust. Imperial County already has the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children in California, and the problem is expected to get worse as tens of thousands of acres of lakebed are left high and dry around the lake over the next decade.

“The fact that we’re getting funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation sheds a positive light on what we are doing here,” said Luis Olmedo, who leads Comité Cívico Del Valle. “Hopefully it’ll bring attention to the issues that are happening at the Salton Sea.”

The network of air monitors was launched last year by the Brawley-based nonprofit and the Public Health Institute’s California Environmental Health Tracking Program, which received a grant of nearly $2 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 

The new funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation will help keep the network operating and will pay for 20 more monitors in the Imperial Valley, Olmedo said. Some of the monitors will be used to replace existing devices, he said, while others will be set up in new locations.

The monitors measure the levels of particulate matter in the air – the hazardous inhalable particles known as PM10 and PM2.5 – and transmit data that people can access through a website and email alerts. The information is available on the website IVAN Air Monitoring, which stands for Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhoods and also uses crowdsourcing to gather environmental complaints. 

The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation this week announced $20 million in environmental grants to more than 100 organizations.

Comité Cívico was one of the recipients of $1.4 million in grants through the foundation’s California program, which also is supporting projects focusing on scaling up farming methods that capture carbon, designing green spaces in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods, rehabilitating marine mammal facilities and “transforming the L.A. region into a model of water security and climate-resiliency.” 

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake and for more than a century has been sustained by water from the Colorado River running off farmland in the Imperial Valley. But the lake has been shrinking as the amounts of water flowing into it have decreased. Climate change is increasing the strains on the Colorado River, contributing to the factors pushing the Salton Sea toward a drier future.

The lake is about to start shrinking more rapidly next year under the nation’s biggest farmland-to-city water transfer deal, which is sending increasing amounts of Colorado River water to urban areas in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.

The lake, which has no outlet and is already saltier than the ocean, has also been getting progressively saltier. Fish have been disappearing and bird populations have been crashing.

Morgan Moore, director of the foundation’s California program, said in a statement on the organization’s website that the organization is partnering with Comité Cívico to help local communities as worsening dust intensifies a public health crisis around the lake.

Moore said the air monitoring network is “an environmental justice project that fills in gaps in the data collected by government agencies.”

“The intention is to institutionalize this type of monitoring as the most feasible approach to getting real time information to communities on the changing climate, fill data gaps by more affordably deploying greater monitoring density, and collect data that can be used for performance measures” for environmental programs, Moore said. 

DiCaprio’s foundation focuses on protecting wild places and pursuing solutions to climate change and other pressing environmental problems. 

The actor announced the grants during a climate change conference at Yale University hosted by former Secretary of State John Kerry. DiCaprio said the grant recipients “are active on the ground, protecting our oceans, forests and endangered species for future generations – and tackling the urgent, existential challenges of climate change.”

Olmedo’s group has installed air monitors in schools, neighborhoods and sites in the surrounding desert. His organization is working with researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of California, Davis, who are studying airborne dust. 

Comité Cívico also has plans to install five more air monitors soon in the Coachella area. Olmedo said having more data on dust blowing from around the lake will provide an important baseline for comparison as the lake shrinks. 

“Leonardo DiCaprio is a big name when it comes to climate change, and right now we are experiencing a climate change disaster right here. This is ground zero for us,” Olmedo said. “The Salton Sea will be the single largest source of particulate matter in Southern California if not mitigated, and is indicative of climate change.”

Continue reading the full article in The Desert Sun.