‘A profound moral issue’: Faith leaders hope vigil for Salton Sea draws attention to plight

Leaders from a dozen Coachella Valley faith groups are hosting an outdoor prayer vigil along the shores of the sea on Oct. 10.
The Salton Sea is California’s biggest lake, and one of its most urgent environmental issues.

Issues with the Salton Sea are well documented, as are engineering solutions proposed as fixes. Now, a coalition of Coachella Valley faith leaders hopes to offer something else to help heal the troubled waters of California’s largest lake: Prayer.

Driving the news: Leaders from a dozen area faith groups, as well as environmental justice advocates and the city of Coachella, are hosting an outdoor prayer vigil along the shores of the sea on Oct. 10.

  • The Desert Interfaith Council, leading the effort, comprises locals who meet to discuss each other’s faith traditions. It was born out of the Mid Valley Interfaith Council, which expanded to include the whole valley near the beginning of the pandemic.

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Behind the scenes: Dr. Paula Trimble-Familetti, Interfaith Council president, said she and others in the group grew exhausted with the decades of empty promises.

  • “The more we learned, the more we decided we had to do something,” she said recently. “For decades, every election cycle, one politician after another goes down there and claims they’re going to do something.” 
  • To date, however, there is little to show for the millions of state and federal dollars allocated for rehabilitating the sea.

On tap: This is the first event of its kind, and organizers say the hour-long vigil will feature speakers from faith groups, the environmental group EcoMedia Compass, the Audubon Society’s Salton Sea program director, Frank Ruiz, and more.

  • Several other groups will also have informational tables; participants can also register to vote thanks to Courageous Resistance of the Desert.
  • The vigil is held on Indigenous People’s Day, formerly Columbus Day, and it will begin with the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians performing bird songs.

One thing you won’t find at the vigil is politicians. “We were going to ask politicians to speak, but we changed our minds,” Dr. Trimble-Familetti said. “Right now, it’s the end of an election cycle. We just want to keep it apolitical and about the environment.”

Why it matters: The Salton Sea, formed after floods in the early 20th century, is one of the most toxic bodies of water in the West. Locals mostly know it for the sulfur smell that wafts off the lake if the wind is right and images of dead fish and birds that make the rounds every few months. 

  •  The lake is now known nationally for the pollution it leaves behind as it dries up. After years of toxic runoff from farms’ pesticides, the dust from the exposed dry lakebed is causing health problems like high rates of respiratory illnesses for people in Imperial County and the eastern Coachella Valley.
Dr. Paula Trimble-Familetti says faith leaders are frustrated by the lack of action on issues facing the Salton Sea. They’re stepping up to call attention to its plight.

Looking back: Dr. Trimble-Familetti grew up in north Indio and remembers the sea in its glory days. “There was Fourth of July Fireworks, a campground, fishing, picnicking, and waterskiing,” she recalled. “We used to sit in the mud and watch the birds. It was a big part of my life.”

She hopes this is just the first of many events the Interfaith Council puts on for the Salton Sea. “We want to have a run/walk or a hike and raise awareness, especially for people in the west end of the valley who will also be affected if the Salton Sea isn’t cleaned up.”

  • Trimble-Familetti also emphasizes the importance of bringing people from the valley actually to the Salton Sea — to see it in person instead of just talking about it in the abstract. That way, people may be more moved to action after coming face-to-face with something tangible, rather than just reading about it (or smelling it).

Looking ahead: This Friday at 5:30 p.m., the Salton Sea Independent Review Panel will present its analysis on the feasibility of water importation into the Salton Sea, one of many proposed solutions. Click here for a Zoom link.

Bottom line: “People of faith can no longer sit silently as the Salton Sea continues to deteriorate,” said Dr. Trimble-Familetti. “This is a profound moral issue, and we are asking all people to step up as stewards of our earth and accept a personal responsibility to care for God’s creation.”

Details: Everyone is welcome to attend the vigil, regardless of their beliefs. It starts at 10 a.m. on Oct. 10 at 3713 Capri Lane, Desert Shores. Masks are required, and organizers encourage participants to bring water, chairs, and sun protection. Find more information on this website.


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