The Salton Sea: A Beautiful Disaster

Located roughly 160 miles from Los Angeles, the Salton Sea is California’s largest inland body of water. Accidentally “created,” as part of a disastrous large-scale irrigation scheme to divert the waters of the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley at the turn of the twentieth-century (1905-1907), the Salton Sea is a cultural, legal, and environmental space that defies easy categorization. It has shaped, and been shaped by, what historian Linda Nash, writing in a different regional context, has called “a tangle of discourses.” [1] Accordingly, it is, at once, oasis and sump, refuge and refuse, mishap and miracle; it is a sea of contradictions where the intersection of human aspirations and natural forces have created a “hybrid landscape” that underscores the latent consequences of “progress.” [2]

For the disaster tourists who skulk among the salt-crusted lots and rusted out carcasses of abandoned trailer homes in Ozymandian seaside settlements like Bombay Beach or Salton City, the sea represents a surreal post-apocalyptic landscape where the American dream has expired alongside countless eared grebes, brown pelicans, and tilapia. Some of the residents who have scraped out an existence in these seaside towns believe that the boom years of the 1950s and 60s would return triumphant if only the cadre of environmentalists, politicians, lawyers, and developers whose decisions directly affect the sea’s future would talk less, and act. Other area residents, such as members of the Torres-Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians, the bulk of whose reservation land has been underwater for over a century, have waited patiently for the sea to evaporate, so that they might reclaim their land.

That the sea clings to life has generated a sort of white noise where everyone knows that the sea’s present and future problems are blowback for the sins of the region’s founding fathers, but no one can agree on the future road best traveled. Some constituencies believe that the sea is an accidental abomination of nature; a monstrous birth prolonged by the inadvertent life support system of salty alkaline runoff of Imperial Valley farms and the waters of the Alamo and New Rivers that race to the geographic bottom of the Salton Sink. [3] These “surplus” flows, say supporters, could be reclaimed and used for urban development, especially in the bathrooms, lawns, and swimming pools of greater San Diego, while mercifully allowing the Salton Sea to die a natural death. Others acknowledge that the polluted waters that enter the sea are a problem, not because they are wasteful, but because they endanger the federally protected wetlands at the southern portion, which may well be the last best hope for the hundreds of bird species that travel along the shrinking Pacific Flyway.

Most stakeholders, regardless of which stance(s) they take on the sea, recognize that allowing it to simply dry up—which might happen when the moratorium on the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement expires in 2017, will have devastating effects, not only on the ecology of the region, but on humans, many of whom are unfamiliar with the sea. [4] Just as the waters that once found their way into the Salton Sink will flow into unfamiliar landscapes, so the newly exposed toxic dust of the basin, will undergo a transfer of its own, borne by the wind into the lungs of residents from Indio to El Centro, and beyond. We have already seen this disturbing pattern with the desiccated Owen’s River watershed and the Aral Sea. [5] Reaching a consensus about the meaning of the sea is not likely to happen, but most agree that regardless of which solutions (if any) we adopt, the costs of both action and inaction, alike, will run into the billions of dollars.

Untangling this web of discourses where both overlapping and competing visions of the sea as a beautiful accident or a disastrous quagmire, in short, embracing its complexity, is the first step to understanding the sea as part of a dynamic and continuous process whose fate impacts us all.

Written by Todd Luce

[1] Linda Nash, “The Changing Experience of Nature: Historical Encounters with a Northwest River,” Journal of American History 86.4 (2000), 1600-29.

[2] On “hybrid landscapes” and the Salton Sea, see: Richard White, “From Wilderness to Hybrid Landscapes: The Cultural Turn in Environmental History,” History, Vol. 66, Issue 3, 557-564. For an extended meditation on the Salton Sea as a complex hybrid landscape, see: William DeBuys and Joan Meyers, Salt Dreams: Land & Water in Low-Down California (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999).

[3] The New River remains one of the most polluted waterways in North America.

[4] In the 2003, several regional water organizations, especially the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA). Reached as part of an initiative to bring the state of California’s use of the Colorado River back within the 4.4 million acre feet of water allotted to it under the 1922 Colorado River Compact (subsequently reconfirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 and 1980). Under the QSA, the tail waters and run-off from Imperial Valley farms will cease to flow into the sea, and will instead flow through treatment centers for urban use. Part of the money generated by the QSA is slated for Salton Sea restoration, but the ultimate shape that this restoration will take, or even if it will be implemented, remains to be seen.

[5] On the effects of dust on the residents of the Owen’s Valley since the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power constructed the Los Angeles aqueduct, see: Karen Piper, Left in the Dust: How Race and Politics Created a Human and Environmental Tragedy in L.A. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). On health problems in Central Asia since the drying up of the Aral Sea, see: Wiggs, G.F.S., O’Hara, S. L., Wegerdt, J., Van Der Meer, J., Small, I., & Hubbard, R., “The Dynamics and Characteristics of Aeolian Dust in Dryland Central Asia: Possible Impacts on Human Exposure and Respiratory Health in the Aral Sea Basin.” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 169(No.2), 2003.

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