Dear Cinephiles,

“I’m always struck by the bent figures in the valley.”

The 36th Santa Barbara International Film Festival is here. The idea of cancelling never crossed my mind. Delaying until today (our dates are usually late January) gave us a chance to succeed with some form of in person interaction. Tonight we’re starting showing our film program at two free oceanfront drive-ins while also showcasing the same group of films online (via our website). Originally, we had hoped to use the indoor movie theatres we normally use — with limited capacity — while building out a few outdoor venues at local parks. Back in November, we started to understand that this plan wouldn’t be feasible, and the drive-ins became the best option. The fact that they are situated at Santa Barbara City College overlooking the ocean feels perfectly Santa Barbara. I jokingly call it Operation “Brigadoon” after the 1954 Vincente Minelli film of the same name starring Gene Kelly, about the village that magically appears every 100 years. Here’s hoping that, as in that tale, we won’t have to resort to such plans for another century.

There’s a line that Kelly’s character says in the film that has always stayed with me: “Why do you have to lose something, to find out what it really means?” The one aspect that I will miss the most at this year’s festival is the interaction with people about the films they dislike and the ones they loved. I will miss the four thousand screaming school kids that get bused in from as far north as Santa Maria to see a screening of an animated film. In a usual year, we fly in 30 college students from across the country to use our festival as an educational experience that includes a private class from an Oscar winning director. I will miss the smiling faces of the hundreds of volunteers who wake up early to make sure our eight venues are humming along smoothly. There’s a group of cinephiles who fly in from Princeton, New Jersey to see movies (they’re the ones at the 8am screenings who laugh when they hear us locals complaining about the weather). I will mostly miss the communal laughter, the excitement, the tears and gasps when something exciting happens on the screen, and the sound of approval as the credits roll. We will have all of that back next year. On that you can rely. We will sit next to each other in a crowded movie theatre, and share those moments as a community.

In the meantime, we’ve put together a slate of cinematic fare to hold you over, starting it all with the world premiere of the documentary “Invisible Valley” directed by Aaron Maurer.

It covers life as it unfolds in the Coachella Valley for an entire year. The Programming staff felt very passionate about this choice. It is a film that explores the incongruity of the wealthy community in Palm Springs living side by side with and employing migrant workers who must endure poor housing conditions and low wages. The film allows us to observe these two worlds that, while sharing a geographic vicinity, feel like they may as well be two different countries. The visual focus on the land with wide shots of landscape speckled with small human figures either harvesting the fields or setting up the golf course creates the effect of the Coachella Valley itself being a character in the film. “Within 9 cities and a couple hundred square miles, we have zip codes that enjoy or don’t enjoy the highest income per capita in the state and the lowest,” says Megan, a civil rights attorney.

Maurer divides the film into the four seasons and follows a vast, clearly delineated, and at times quirky cast of characters as if it were a Robert Altman narrative, the seasons affecting them all differently. There’s Maricela, who crossed perilously over the border, and wakes up every morning for a long day’s work to provide for her family. They live in a mobile community and all the sacrifices she endures are for her children. We’re also introduced to Maria, a “snowbird” — a term used to describe a wealthy seasonal home owner who is only in town for six months of the year. She’s been coming in for years and is an avid painter; the field workers are her subjects. She is sensitive to their cause and volunteers her time and financial support at the Galilee Center, a non-profit that provides food, clothing and basic needs for local disadvantaged families. Its location is in Mecca, an incorporated community where most of the migrant force resides. Maria becomes involved in the plan to add a shelter to its services, and we see its progression. We also meet its founder, Gloria Gomez.

We get a history of the area as well as encounter the arrival of the Coachella Festival and its influx of international visitors. Maricela points out she’s never attended it — only on its fringes to help with clean up. There’s a contrast of colors: the muted, dusty palette of the desert juxtaposed with the vibrant green of the lush golf courses and palm trees; the battered pickup trucks and shiny Lamborghinis parked in fancy driveways.

Two aspects of the narrative make it very prescient. Maurer introduces the impact of environmental issues on the region — in particular the Salton Sea and its contamination from the farm runoff that promotes the outbreak and spread of diseases. Additionally, we see how the refugee crisis on the border directly affects the Galilee Center and Maria’s relationship with it.

Maricela: “We are on this side. It feels like we’re in Mexico”


Invisible Valley
Invisible Valley is the Opening Night Film of the 36th SBIFF and can be viewed online and at the drive-in theatres.
Directed by Aaron Maurer

About the Salton Sea
In the 1950s, Bombay Beach was a celebrity destination. Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and Bing Crosby frequented its luxury resorts perched at the edge of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. Lauded for its fishing, boating and water skiing, the Salton Sea attracted more visitors than Yosemite National Park. Birds, too, loved the lake, with thousands spending winters there every year. The lake was formed in 1905, after the Colorado River breached an irrigation canal and flooded the Salton Sink, a basin in the desert that has periodically held lakes throughout history. Once the canal was repaired, two years later, the Salton Sea had no source of water other than the runoff that flowed in from the nearby farms of the Imperial Valley, one of the state’s agricultural hubs. This runoff water, full of chemicals and nitrates, was saltier than the lake water. As it drained through the soil, it combined with ancient salt deposits, raising the salinity even further, and in the 1970s scientists started warning that change was coming to the Salton Sea. The salt would transform the lake, causing it to shrink and making it inhospitable to wildlife. Sure enough, before the decade was up, fish started dying off and bird populations declined. The lake began to stink, spurring the state to issue periodic odor advisories that sometimes extended as far away as Los Angeles. Today, the lake is about twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean. “It’s a drastic change,” said Jane Southworth, the only local at the bar, who came seasonally to Bombay Beach before settling here for good in 1990. “It went from fun to no fun. From water to sand, or I should say mud.” Now the Salton Sea has another problem: Climate change is making this dry region even drier. And a growing demand for water in the booming cities and suburbs of Southern California has reduced the amount of Colorado River water diverted to nearby farms. In the coming years these two factors are expected to dramatically increase the pace at which the lake shrinks, exposing more lake bed and the agricultural toxins trapped in the mud. The desert winds lift dust from the lakebed, and scientists fear that eventually the toxic residue of more than a century of agricultural runoff will be blown into the air — and into the lungs of residents.

The area surrounding the Salton Sea already has some of the worst air quality in the country, caused by particulate matter swept up from farms and the desert. Local residents have some of the highest rates of asthma and other respiratory problems in the state, and public health officials say the heavy metals and chemicals in the lake bed pose an even greater threat. Many of the people and businesses that once relied on the lake have left, driven away by the smell of dying fish or the fear of health problems. Those who remain — farmworkers, families, the elderly — are generally too poor to afford the rising cost of property elsewhere in the valley. Others, like Southworth, who’s retired, have too many fond memories of the lake to give up on its future. “I just wish they would do something, put some water out there,” she said…the Imperial Valley, home to some of the world’s most fertile soil, enriched with minerals from the Colorado River floodplain…produces as much as two-thirds of the country’s winter fruits and vegetables, but sustaining that level of production in a desert has a cost. The Imperial Irrigation District, which manages the canal and the sprawling network of pipes and irrigation ditches it feeds, diverts 2.6 million acre-feet of water from Colorado, about half of California’s entire allotment from the river. For perspective, it takes about 2 acre-feet to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The valley’s agricultural boom is what created the Salton Sea. In 1905, flows on the Colorado River were unusually high and the river breached an irrigation canal that carried water to the valley. Unimpeded, the river shifted course toward the dry sink that once held Lake Cahuilla. The canal was fixed in 1907, but by then water covered 515 square miles. The lake would have eventually evaporated were it not for the wastewater that drained into it, mostly from the surrounding farms. This runoff included enough fresh water to sustain the Salton Sea for decades, but it also brought pesticides and herbicides, including now-banned chemicals like DDT and other cancer-causing compounds, all of which settled in the mud at the bottom of the lake. The inflows varied widely, but sometimes reached as much as 1 million acre-feet a year. Then, in 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to conserve water and transfer the savings to San Diego County. Farmers were forced to abandon flood irrigation, a wildly inefficient strategy that involved flooding the fields and letting the excess run off. Farmers in the valley began using drip irrigation, diverting less river water and allowing San Diego and the Coachella Valley to take the excess. This change meant there was enough water for everyone — but not for the Salton Sea. “There is this tension because we want to use water more efficiently instead of building more dams,” said Michael Cohen, a senior researcher with the Pacific Institute, an environmental group focused on water policy. “But the unintended consequence of that is that less water goes to the Salton Sea because it is entirely dependent on inefficiency.”

To stave off the lake’s evaporation, the irrigation district continued to put 800,000 acre-feet of water directly into the lake as it implemented efficiency measures. Those water deliveries ended in 2018 and in the coming years the pace of the Salton Sea’s evaporation is expected to triple. In return for improved water-use efficiency, the state of California was supposed to implement a plan to control dust and reduce habitat loss for migrating birds on the Salton Sea by 2018. But that plan stalled, the lake continues to shrink, and a public-health crisis looms. In 2017, researchers from the University of Southern California partnered with the Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice group based in Brawley, an agricultural town just south of the Salton Sea for the first comprehensive study of child respiratory health in the region. The study’s researchers are using data from air quality monitors at schools surrounding the Salton Sea, analyzing the composition of dust coming from the Salton Sea and collecting health data from 500 children in the area to determine how the Salton Sea may change air quality in the region and impact health. Preliminary results confirm the community’s concerns about respiratory problems in children. The valley’s air frequently falls below federal air-quality standards. One in five children in the area surrounding the Salton Sea have asthma, a rate three times higher than the rest of the state. The reasons for the elevated rates of pollution aren’t fully understood, but it is likely a combination of both natural and chemical dust from farms, the desert and the lake. “We don’t have any evidence at this point that the existence of the Salton Sea is bad for respiratory health on its own,” said Jill Johnston, one of the researchers on the study, noting that there are a number of factors.

“The community is cumulatively burdened, and we know that there are other sources of air pollution going on, but we think that adding in the [Salton Sea] dust without any mitigation can make things worse for children.” Ryan Kelley, chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, grew up in Brawley. He was a firefighter and a paramedic before he decided to get into politics. He applauds to efforts of local activists, like Comite Civico del Valle, but says Imperial County has been forgotten by the state and federal governments. Imperial County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and in 2016 one in four people there lived in poverty. It has some of the worst air quality, too, and the active asthma rate is 12.1 percent, higher than both the state and national averages. But according to Kelley, the county isn’t a priority in the region which includes some of wealthiest communities in the state in nearby San Diego County, the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs. “When you think of Southern California how often do you think of Imperial County?” Kelley asks. “We don’t have that much in common with San Diego anymore, and our problems get swallowed by these larger, wealthier places.” What’s happened to the Salton Sea is a case in point. It has been in decline for Kelley’s entire adult life, affecting the health of both residents and the local economy. Tourists are afraid of the potential health issues from the lakebed’s dust and are put off by the frequent odor issues brought on by dying fish. Businesses don’t want to come to Imperial for the same reasons. Solutions to these problems have been on California’s drawing board for more than a decade and still have not been finalized. The California Natural Resource Agency released the official Salton Sea Restoration Plan in 2007. The basic premise was to redirect the remaining inflows to the Salton Sea to small, man-made wetlands that would both suppress dust and create bird habitat. From the outset, the plan lacked funding, and over the years promises of money and action from state lawmakers would arise and evaporate as priorities shifted and water politics changed. The lack of official action has led to a cascade of alternative plans from environmental groups, advocacy organizations and local governments. Some have proposed piping saltwater in from the Sea of Cortez, desalinating it and returning the lake to its original size. Another plan calls for distributing the water along the lake’s outside to reduce dust, letting the middle dry out. Another group has proposed a complicated strategy that involves releasing foam block islands onto the lake to support new vegetation that would filter salt from the lake.

All these plans, including the state plan, lack funding and official rights to any water beyond wastewater. While there are very real hurdles for moving forward on the plan, Kelley says a lack of political will in Sacramento, the state capital, underlies the failure to act. That may be starting to change. In recent years, the Imperial Irrigation District, the most powerful entity in the valley, has expressed frustration at the lack of action, suggesting it may abandon the 2003 water-transfer agreement with San Diego County if something isn’t done to fix the Salton Sea. “The premise in which the [water transfer agreement] was finally agreed upon was having the state of California address the issues of the sea,” said Henry Martinez, the general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. “There is a question of at what point that agreement is breached.” Under a new governor, Gavin Newsom, who took office last year, and new leadership at California’s Natural Resources Agency, the state has made some progress on the land-access issues and secured easements to begin some of the dust suppression and habitat restoration projects. Even with this progress, the state is still behind on the planned 10-year project. The government rhetoric has shifted, too, with officials making public statements about the importance of addressing the problems caused by the Salton Sea’s evaporation. “I can’t really go back and fix the things that happened in the past,” Arturo Delgado, the new Salton Sea Secretary for the Natural Resources Agency told me in November, “but we made a commitment.” Last Spring, though, the seven states that use Colorado River water agreed to a plan that would reduce the amount of water each would take from the river in certain conditions. Water politics are notoriously fraught in the West, but declining water levels on the Colorado, following a 20-year drought, forced the states and other major users of the river’s water to reach a deal. Despite pressure from Imperial Irrigation District, the deal did not include money to clean up the Salton Sea. In October, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors declared a local air pollution emergency at the Salton Sea. In November, the board declared another emergency, this one at the heavily polluted New River, which empties into the Salton Sea. Ryan Kelley hopes to use the local emergencies to cut through some of the red tape holding back the restoration projects. If the state were to declare an emergency, it could secure federal funding and expedite the permitting process. Delgado says the state is reviewing the board’s declaration but has not yet decided whether to move forward with it. Meanwhile, the lake continues to dry up at a faster rate than ever before. “There was always a concern that when water stopped flowing to the Salton Sea that it would have an effect,” says Henry Martinez. “Fast forward to what is happening today. It appears we are at least getting close to the tipping point.” (