Presenting an old problem with nuance and personal narrative

Published on
September 22, 2017

Much has been reported already about the lack of access to clean water in the unincorporated areas of the Eastern Coachella Valley. It has been an issue for over a decade due to the naturally occurring arsenic found in privately run wells in the area. The goal with my fellowship story Valley of Contrasts was to both add nuance and to tell the story in a humanistic way.

A speaker at the Center for Health Journalism workshop during my fellowship who influenced my reporting was Eli Saslow. He is a Pulitzer-prize-winning feature writer for the Washington Post. During the week of the workshop, we learned a lot of information about the rise in the white death rate throughout the country, but his writing about Anna Marrie Jones and her family is really what brought the issue into full focus. I was drawn to his character-driven approach and hoped to emulate that but for the radio.

The person who ended up being my guide to the Coachella Valley and the lack of access to water there was Castulo Estrada, the first Mexican-American and youngest person elected to the Coachella Valley Water District. I had heard of the work he was doing – mainly the creation of the Disadvantaged Communities Task Force – and after speaking with him on the phone felt that he would bring the right perspective and had a relatable story.

Once I started looking into why there was a lack of access to clean water I knew I faced a challenge. The answer is very complicated because there are so many local agencies and non-profits, plus private interests involved that it would be hard to pinpoint and explain the problem. This ended up being the crux of the story: how can Castulo, who grew up in the eastern Coachella Valley, navigate all of the bureaucracy and interests to make a difference in his community?

Latino USA agreed to make the Coachella story a full hour. In order to gather enough audio for the story to be sustainable, I knew that I would have to spend hours with Castulo. Because I am based out of New York and could not establish a relationship with Castulo over time in person, I began calling him on a weekly/biweekly basis to check in and learn more about the work he was doing and the politics of the area.

I ended up spending a week in Coachella. During that time, I visited with Castulo and his family, observed a Disadvantaged Communities Task Force Meeting, met and interviewed multiple people who work at the Coachella Valley Water District, and also spent time in the unincorporated areas seeing the conditions in the East valley. I had over ten hours of tape and was overwhelmed when it came to structuring the hour.

One of the problems I faced was that nothing “happened” in my reporting. There was no turning point like a policy change or event onwhich to hinge a plot. That’s why I stuck close to Castulo’s story: his background, his historic election, and then a discussion and exploration of the challenges he faced.

In addition I wanted the story to paint a picture of what the Valley is like. Because Latino USA is a national show I figured most people knew of Coachella from the very popular music festival. And so I started the hour that way – comparing the festival to the reality that only minutes away east of the festival grounds there are people without access to safe water. In one of the early conversations I had with Castulo, he described how the Valley was essentially split in two. On the west side, there are beautiful homes with large front and backyards. Fifteen percent of all golf courses in California are there, and it tends to be predominantly white. On the east side sit the mobile homes of the mostly immigrant Mexican and Mexican-American communities who go to the west side to do landscaping and house cleaning, or they work in agriculture.

Bob Keeran, who works in the communication department the Coachella Valley Water District and has been working for the District for over 20 years, described Coachella to me as a “Valley of Contrasts” and that is where the title for the episode came from.

When the episode came out, I was surprised by the number of people from the Valley who identified with the story. One commenter wrote, “Thank you NPR for validating my observations of the valley.”

Another wrote, “My husband ran a UFW hiring haul in the Coachella Valley. We lived in one of those aluminum trailers with no air conditioning. The average summer day was around 125 degrees. I was pregnant. I was lucky because I carried my baby to term. Many, many women working in the orchards lost theirs from exertion in the extreme heat. That baby I was carrying is now an employment attorney representing agricultural workers.”

This comment received over 150 reactions. The story of poverty and lack of access in the eastern Valley is by no means a new story. But I hoped that by producing a full hour with historical context and a personal narrative, it would present the problem in a nuanced and intimate way to a national audience.