Eduardo Garcia ’03
For this Coachella Valley-raised legislator, what happens at the Salton Sea is personal.
By Tess Eyrich
Eduardo Garcia doesn’t sugarcoat his recollections of driving to UC Riverside for his first day as an incoming transfer student in 2001.
“I was so scared,” Garcia, 42, said. “I remember driving my Mitsubishi Eclipse full of clothes and other things my mom had packed and just being super nervous because I had never been away from home, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready.”
Born and raised in the Coachella Valley, Garcia, a Democrat, now serves the region as a member of the California State Assembly representing the 56th District, which includes cities and unincorporated communities in eastern Riverside and Imperial counties.
His parents, who worked in the region’s booming agricultural industry, were originally from Mexicali, Mexico. As a child, Garcia would travel with them to the border city on weekends to spend time with family.
“We’d drive by the Salton Sea every Saturday morning as we drove to Mexicali, and sometimes we’d get out and picnic there,” he said. “I have memories of a very populated Salton Sea with RVs and people fishing, boating, and water skiing.”
The sea would later become an integral part of Garcia’s platform as an elected official, but only after he had earned his bachelor’s degree at UCR.
Garcia took two years off from academics after his graduation from Coachella Valley High School, a period during which he worked in the hospitality industry, in a retirement home, and as an intern in tribal government affairs with the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, among other roles. He transferred to UCR from the College of the Desert, opting to major in political science — an experience that galvanized his interest in returning home to the Coachella Valley to work in public service, he said.
In November 2004, just one year after leaving UCR, Garcia was elected to the Coachella City Council. After a two-year stint as a councilman, he became the city’s first elected mayor. He was 29 years old.
In Coachella, which historically has struggled with high unemployment rates, economic issues factored heavily into Garcia’s mayoral work. Still, it wasn’t until his election to the California State Assembly in 2014 that the connections between economic success and environmental policy became increasingly clear to him.
“My arrival to the state legislature coincided with efforts to expand California’s climate change policies,” Garcia said.
Those statewide efforts inspired a deeper awareness of how environmental issues in his own district — where roughly seven out of every 10 children suffer from asthma — impact public health and community well-being, he said.
“I began to question myself and the establishment — to really ask, ‘How are these existing policies benefiting my community?’” he said. “It became my mission to pay more attention to environmental issues related to clean air, to clean water, to the Salton Sea, because those issues also intersect with economic conditions and investment coming to our region.”
In particular, Garcia noted that long-term damage to the dominant tourism and hospitality industries within his district — which also includes Indio, Desert Hot Springs, and much of Joshua Tree National Park — could be catastrophic if action isn’t taken at the sea.
So far, Garcia, who serves as chair of the Assembly’s Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee, has helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars in the state budget for Salton Sea mitigation and restoration projects.
He’s also brought fellow legislators and policymakers who focus on Salton Sea issues in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., such as Wade Crowfoot, newly appointed California Secretary for Natural Resources, out for visits to its shores. For many, Garcia said, it’s the first time they’ve seen the sea in person or understood the realities of the people who live around it.
His own memories of what the Salton Sea once was — a thriving recreation area — inform his idea of what the Salton Sea of the future could be.
“The Salton Sea is a functional sea and has significant meaning to the communities of the Imperial and Coachella valleys,” Garcia said. “It also has a long history of opportunity, and that’s what we’re trying to put in place once again for the communities of tomorrow.”