Effects of extreme heat on farmworkers in the Coachella Valley expose the 'climate gap'

Climate change. Get the latest.
Climate change. Get the latest.

Nomei Solórzano and her husband are agriculture workers in the Coachella Valley, a rift valley in the Colorado Desert, east of Los Angeles. Solórzano’s husband immigrated to the United States from El Salvador as a teenager, and she decided to leave Mexico to follow her father’s footsteps to work the fields in California. Both work from sunrise to sunset, barely scraping by, while raising three children.

In recent years, Solórzano told Yahoo News, the “American dream” she and her husband have worked hard for was starting to come with a heavy price. As both already work in dangerous conditions such as extreme heat, the record-breaking heat waves the region is experiencing have made the working conditions much more difficult.

For residents in the eastern Coachella Valley, a rural area in Riverside County, Calif., the rapid increase in extreme heat is causing farmworkers to become ill and even costing some their lives.

Aerial view of the Coachella Valley with a canal, agricultural fields, and, in the distance, the Salton Sea.
Agricultural fields in the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea, California's largest inland lake, where severe drought has exacerbated conditions in an area already in decline, in Mecca, Calif., July 4. (Aude Guerrucci/Reuters)

“About a month ago the power went out for three days, we had no electricity during the summer, it was really hot inside the house, there was a lot of humidity. I had a refrigerator that was pretty old, it broke down because of the blackouts, so all of the food I had just bought got spoiled. We couldn’t be in the house during that time, it was really hot. It felt like an oven,” Solórzano said, speaking in Spanish.

“The Coachella Valley is at the forefront of this climate crisis, but at the same time it’s not the only area that’s dealing with these issues,” said Omar Gastelum, a policy advocate with the Coachella Valley’s leadership council, an environmental justice advocacy organization. “The climate crisis is going to affect local communities all over the states, all over the world.”

The disparate impact of climate change on mostly immigrant farmworkers and more affluent residents of the region is an example of what some climate experts are calling the “climate gap” — the fact that low-income communities are the first and worst hit by global warming.

“The Coachella Valley has a lot of inequality issues,” said Cindy Yáñez, a PhD student in earth science at the University of California, Irvine. “And you can see it very clearly from east to west. If you look at satellite images of the Coachella Valley, the western side has lush golf courses and these, like, intricate suburbs and country clubs. While on the east side, a lot of residents live in mobile homes, or they don’t have as much infrastructure and development there.”

Preexisting problems in the valley including unstable energy infrastructure, lack of affordable housing and income inequality are all compounded by rising temperatures. Over the summer, the valley hit an all-time high of 123 degrees Fahrenheit, which is especially hard on the eastern Coachella Valley residents who work the land and those who live in large mobile home parks. The 123-degree reading will go down as the hottest June day ever, surpassing the old record of 122 degrees set on five previous days in the month.

The aging energy infrastructure in the Coachella Valley faces a number of problems, starting with frequent outages caused by downed power lines. In addition, record-breaking heat waves can push the demand for power beyond what’s available and create rolling blackouts.

A desert road lined with power cables, palm trees and shrubs with mountains in the background.
Preexisting problems in the valley including unstable energy infrastructure, lack of affordable housing and income inequality are all compounded by rising temperatures. (Carmen Valencia/Yahoo News)

“Most of the mobile homes in the area are very old. These were built in the pre-’70s era, before the standards changed to increase better and better regulations and better standards for these homes. So many of these homes have inadequate insulation, which means that during the summer months, during the extreme heat, the home is basically an oven,” said Gastelum.

“When you live in an area with 120-degree weather, and then you have a horrible power outage that lasts three-plus days, it’s all of these experiences, amplified,” said Mariela Loera, another policy advocate with the Coachella Valley’s leadership council.

Without reliable power for air conditioning or drinking water, the affordable housing options seem destined to fall further into disrepair.

“These communities are unincorporated,” said Loera. “They don't have a city. Nobody’s reaching out to them. So if they need anything and if anything is going on in their community, it really has to be initiated by them saying, 'Hey, we need this. How are you going to get it to me?' And we’re already dealing with a community who can’t afford to lose a day of work.”

The tap water used in a lot of homes in the Coachella Valley is not drinkable. Solórzano told Yahoo News that tap water can be used only to wash clothes, to clean the bathroom or to wash dishes. “We have to buy water bottles in order to be able to drink or we fill up these gallons with water so it can last us,” said Solórzano. “The tap water doesn’t taste good.”

Volunteers stand at an open doorway with sun streaming through it near boxes and water bottles on red carpeting..
Water bottles, now empty, that were donated by community members at Coachella Valley Horse Rescue during a water shortage, on July 11 in Indio, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“The lack of adequate energy infrastructure gives them inadequate energy in their homes, which also affects their accessibility to water. Given that a lot of these homes rely on septics, which rely on power,” said Loera.

As summer temperatures continue to rise, conditions in the fields become more dangerous. “This year in the summer, three people who work in the fields died here in the Coachella Valley because of the extreme heat. We know some died because they were afraid to speak up and ask for a break due to fear of losing their jobs, but the reality is they died because of the heat.” said Manuela Ramirez, an outreach organizer with Líderes Campesinas, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of farmworker communities.

“So they wake up in the morning to polluted water, which may or may not be there because of the possible lack of power,” said Loera. “And then they’re outside working in a really hot temperature. To go back home to a home because of the way that it’s built, it’s like an oven and it’s extremely hot. There’s all of these issues going on, which are only getting worse with climate change. And all of these things are connected to each other.”

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