Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California / Edition 1

Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California / Edition 1

by William deBuys, Joan Myers William deBuys
Pub. Date:
University of New Mexico Press
Pub. Date:
University of New Mexico Press
Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California / Edition 1

Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California / Edition 1

by William deBuys, Joan Myers William deBuys


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In low places consequences collect, and in all North America you cannot get much lower than the Imperial Valley of southern California, where one town, 186 feet below sea level, calls itself the Lowest Down City in the Western Hemisphere, and where the waters of the Colorado River sustain a billion-dollar agricultural industry. The consequences of that industry drain from the valley into the accidentally man-made Salton Sea, California's largest lake and a vital stopping place for migratory waterfowl. Today the Salton Sea is in desperate environmental trouble.

A second river also ends in the Salton Sea. It is a river of dreams, the remains of which may be seen in the failed real estate developments that sprawl beside the sea. As the ending point of both the real Colorado and this river of dreams, the Salton Sea has become emblematic of much of the history of the American West. Its troubling story is masterfully told here in William deBuys's narrative and Joan Myers's austerely beautiful photographs.

The story of Southern California is fundamentally a story about the control of nature. Beginning with the Yuman-speaking tribes encountered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, deBuys traces the subsequent exploration and development of the region through the Gold Rush of 1849, the government-sponsored surveys that followed, and the inept tinkering with the river by an assortment of irrigation and development interests that resulted in the floods that formed the Salton Sea nearly a century ago. He introduces us to a gallery of rogues and dreamers who saw a great future for this arid wilderness but could never refrain from interference with the forces of nature.

The floods that produced the Salton Sea created a vast desert oasis, but the agricultural exploitation of the region, combined with evaporation, poisoned that paradise. The stark beauty of the desert, the engineering feats that have transformed the landscape, and the eerie spectacle of Salton City and its ruined beaches and abandoned yacht club are the subject of Myers's photographs, made over a period of more than ten years. In the last section of Salt Dreams, deBuys acquaints us with the human and avian denizens of the region, all struggling for survival as the twentieth century draws to a close. The history of chicanery and greed recounted in deBuys's narrative and his empathy with the desert dwellers he and Myers have come to know—hardworking laborers and entrepreneurs who live on both sides of the Mexicali border, eccentrics hiding out in the Salton Desert, pelicans dying of avian botulism—are crucial to an understanding of the border issues of today and the impassioned environmental debate on whether—and how—to save the Salton Sea.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826324283
Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
Publication date: 03/01/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 407
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

William deBuys is professor of documentary studies, College of Santa Fe, and the author of numerous books on the West.

Joan Myers's photographs have been published in The Santa Fe Trail, in Santiago: Saint of Two Worlds, and, most recently, Whispered Silences. Myers lives in Santa Fe.

Read an Excerpt

Salt Dreams

Land and Water in Low-Down California
By William debuys

University of New Mexico Press

Copyright © 2001 William debuys
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0826324282

Chapter One


We Americans may be the only people on earth who speak of a national dream. There is no French Reve Nationale nor a Sueno Mexicano, so far as I know, nor a Senegalese or Iranian or Laotian Dream. And there may never be. It took the extraordinary conjunction of a perception of new lands, free for the taking, with crescent economic and political individualism to launch the idea of an American Dream. World events have not seen the like again. One wonders whether the planet could bear it if they did.

From the day Europeans first landed on Atlantic shores, down through the centuries to the golf resorts and gated communities of the present, the theme of American experience north of Mexico has never been to lower one's conceit of attainable felicity, as Herman Melville once advised, but continually to raise and revise it, year by year and generation by generation. In the United States, the hope has been not just to do better but to be better--to be happier, richer, wittier, bustier, more powerful, less balding. Americans expect life's options to be profuse, if not prodigal, and in each generation we reinvent ourselves in terms of the desiderata, economic, personal, and spiritual, of our era.

Perhaps no force has shaped our society more than this collective yearning. It fueled the nation's territorial expansion and shaped its economic culture; it has inspired natives and immigrants alike; it has infused our arts and letters with a brashness and sometimes a hopefulness that is distinctly American. Its history is our autobiography as a people.

But its history is local as well as national. The details of its influence on places and communities are always site-specific. On occasion, Americans have adapted their dreams to the realities of the places where they dwelled--or what they perceived those realities to be. More often, they altered their places to conform to their dreams. In either case, the process of alteration and accommodation never ended, for both dreams and places are restless things and change continually. This interplay of dreams with land, of reciprocal change and adaptation, becomes a kind of biography of the continent.

This book is about that interplay. It traces the interaction through time of American dreams with an extraordinary American place--one of the most naturally austere and barren deserts in the world. In the nineteenth century, westering North Americans called it the Colorado Desert, a term they applied loosely to lands along the lower Colorado River, especially on the California side. This book deals not with the totality of the Colorado Desert but with its busiest and most history-afflicted portion: the long, low strip of territory stretching southward from Palm Springs, California, through the desert basin of the Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley, then through the border city of Mexicali and the farmlands of the Mexicali Valley, and down to saltwater at the head of the Gulf of California. The rugged jumble of California's Coastal Range walls off the desert on the west, and more mountains, dunes, and the Colorado River limit the area on the east.

These lands acquired their unity through the agency of two powerful forces. One was geological: the famed San Andreas fault combined with other faults to shape a long topographical depression, much of it lying below sea level. We call this the Salton Trough. In essence, it is a northward extension of the same geologic trench that shapes the Gulf of California. Nearly all of our story is contained within the trough, with the exception of a few excursions to the transportation and trading center of Yuma, from which so much activity affecting the region was launched. The second great force was the Colorado River, which, for as long as it has existed, has poured into the trough both its water and the sediments it collected from the nearly quarter million square miles of its watershed. The subset of the Colorado Desert on which we focus was--and is--the land where the Colorado River comes to an end.

The unity of the region is no longer obvious. An international border stretches across its belly, and the waters of the river have been made to transform this hottest and driest of deserts into one of the great agricultural regions of the continent. The purpose of this book is to examine such transformations, their place within the national dramas of the United States and, to a lesser degree, Mexico, and the considerable challenges they bequeath to the present.

The book takes a narrative and thematic approach that might be called an "archaeology of place." The idea is to seek in each successive stratum of the region's occupation a narrative that conveys the story of that time. A number of recurrent themes emerge. One concerns the way in which the vast and empty desert served as a geographic tabula rasa, an empty stage on which successive actors strove to impose their dreams and desires. A second theme holds that in low places consequences collect--that the hydraulic and geophysical realities of the region produce effects that flow inexorably downward to the trough, where they intrude upon the imaginings of its dreamers.

By intention, this book fails to observe the dictum of one of southern California's most memorable fictional citizens. Sergeant Joe Friday of the television series Dragnet demanded, "Just the facts, ma'am." But the facts, for our purposes, are not enough. We have tried to capture the flavor as well as the facts of events and places, and so the reader may find that the following pages depart in style and content from conventional history writing. Moreover, if anything offered here can capture the dreamlike quality of the places this book explores, it is the photographs. They are illuminations, not illustrations. One might expect a work like this to include photographs drawn from history, but we have instead sought to illuminate past events with contemporary images, not to erase the gulf of time but to feel its distance and depth while glimpsing its far shore.

A WORD OF ADVICE. If you have occasion to travel by airplane above the deserts of the Southwest, do not fail to note the color of the region's greatest river. Looking down from thirty thousand feet, you will see that the formerly great Colorado is a blue ribbon, the same baby blue beloved by cartographers for rivers and creeks of all kinds. That cheery color is no less than an epitaph for the natural West. The river you gaze upon is no longer brown, as would befit a stream formerly as silt laden as any on earth, nor still less red, which is what Juan de Onate and his lieutenants had in mind in 1604 when they called a side stem colorado.

Today, assuredly, the river is blue, and so are the tepid lakes behind the colossal dams that block its canyons. Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, which retain lakes Mead and Powell, respectively, are among the largest man-made structures on earth. Beneath the houseboaters who putt-putt up the side canyons and the jetskiers who roar across the lakes' domesticated surfaces, the earthen harvest of the immense, eroding intermountain West settles invisibly. The red of the river falls out, whole deltas sifting down to the lake bottoms, forming a series of geologic Ellis Islands where immigrant grains of soil arrive and arrive and arrive, never departing.

If you fly above the Colorado where it exits its final canyon, you can look down and see a pool of blue water backed up behind the concrete geometry of Imperial Dam. Beside it, the "resort" of Imperial Oasis glares upward, hurling daggers of reflection from acre upon acre of trailer and RV sheet metal. Here at Imperial Dam is the end of a river and the beginning of a story.

WHEN I FIRST visited Imperial Dam, I drove up from the south across the Gila River and Yuma Proving Grounds. It did not surprise me, crossing a low bridge, that the Gila, a lesser river, had no water. In the Southwest a river, in order to be a river, need not carry water but only provide it for irrigation, which the Gila does to the ultimate drop. What surprised me was that the dry bed of the Gila had been plowed, a phenomenon that approached Homeric strangeness--like the great sailor Odysseus carrying an oar into the deserts of Africa or Arabia until he should come to a place where no one knew the oar's purpose. Here, the plowed river, as puzzling to me as an oar to an inland Bedouin, may have had more to do with floodway maintenance than with placating gods, but the sight of it still did not prepare me for misplacing the Colorado.

I knew I was close to the big river, after crossing the bestirred desert of the proving grounds, when I came to a series of green-water ditches in a marsh where blackbirds trilled. I drove across a causeway and up a low ridge of sand, expecting any second to see the great river of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, of the Grand Canyon itself, diminished but vibrant, threading through its plain. But at the top of the sand ridge the road turned south, and I marveled that even here, downstream of so much monumental plumbing, the Colorado still forced highways and human plans to bend. On I drove several miles, ever southward, and saw no river nor any chance to turn west, where the river ought to be. Only slowly did I begin to suspect that the river had not forced the road from its logical path so much as it had somehow evaded me. I was traveling alone, a condition in which one entertains thoughts that do not occur in company. Had I crossed the river and missed it? Had I blacked out? Was I even now in a twilight of consciousness? Worse had happened in other times and places, and I had been on the road without rest since Show Low, nearly four hundred miles back.

Anxious to get my bearings, I pulled over where a dirt road met the highway, and there encountered a barrier and a sign proclaiming, "All-American Canal, Property of Imperial Irrigation District." I got out of the car and heard the whispering suck of great waters moving fast. A hundred steps forward and I stood at the canal's concrete bank. At my feet ran the brawny, unimpeded flush of the mighty, canyon-carving River of the West.

Now I realized that the stagnant marsh where blackbirds trembled with desire was the old main channel of the Colorado--and a mapmaker's lie. Atlases innumerable notwithstanding, the blue line of the Colorado reaches no saltwater outlet in the Gulf of California. Except when El Nino is up to mischief and runoff is greater than the reservoirs can handle, the Colorado fails even to visit its former delta, which once was a wildlife area deserving comparison to the undisturbed Everglades. Today the delta is for the most part a desiccated mudflat, a desert of salt cedar, iodine bush, and pickleweed.

The tamed Colorado flows by way of one aqueduct to Los Angeles and San Diego, by way of another to Phoenix and Tucson. It flows to the farms of greater Yuma by various siphons and canals. A modest portion detours through hydroelectric generators before returning to the natural riverbed in time to cross the international border and fetch up against a final dam that diverts it to the fields and cities of northern Baja. But miles upstream, the last strong pulse of the Colorado had already departed the old path of the river. This last pulse, a stream of water consisting of more than a fifth of the river's native flow, pours westward across the driest, hottest desert in the United States to the Imperial Valley and Salton Sink of southeastern California. It accomplishes this unlikely journey by way of what is today the lower river's de facto main channel, the All-American Canal, the name of which provides full answer to anyone south of the border who wonders where the river went.

FROM THE AIR there is no mystery. The green-water ditch, crowded on either side by a gauze of tamarisk, trickles down toward Yuma and the Mexican line. Terraces of cotton fields and mesquite woodlands separate it from the dun vastness of the desert. What draws the eye is the perfect and unnatural geometry of the blue All-American Canal branching gracefully from its lesser parent and arcing sinuously through gravel hills toward unseen destinations.

If you are airborne, flying westward to San Diego, your jet will follow. The canal snakes into a wilderness of sand--the Algodones dunes, once a menace to travelers but today a noisy and ravaged playground for the off-road-vehicle and dirtbike tribe. The canal contours around the shifting slopes, twisting in long parabolic curves, blue on buff. Amid the dunes the canal divides. The smaller portion, the Coachella Canal, angles northward toward purple mountains. The larger part, still the All-American, veers to the border and then runs laser-straight along it as far as the eye can see.

Your jet drones westward, the canal and border under its wing. Now a haze lies on the land, a thickening murk of moisture, smoke, and dust, and through it emerges an apparition of monumental cultivation. You see checkerboard lines and quilted greens on a scale to match the cotton fields of Texas, or Iowa buried in corn. What lies below is an agricultural sea: field after field, square and rectangle, fallow and full, Nile green and bile green, emerald and jade. The twill of crop rows runs here with the sun, there athwart, everywhere at different angles, and each presents a new weave of shadow, dirt, and leaf.

This is the Imperial Valley, where the last waters of the Colorado River feed nearly half a million acres of cropland and, by extension, the people of the United States. In its fields grow dozens of varieties of head and leaf lettuce, carrots and artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, and broccoli. There are bok choy and celery, cilantro and cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and okra. There are cabbages and kale, collards and cauliflower. But the list is just beginning. One must not omit the onions, garlic, parsnips, and squashes, or the potatoes and tomatoes, the watermelons, muskmelons, honeydews, cantaloupes, and casabas. Nor should one overlook the wheat, barley, and sugar beets, sorghum and oil seeds, sweet corn and feed corn, the square miles of alfalfa. There are also pistachios, cashews, and nuts you never heard of, and fruits including dates, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, nectarines, and hybrid-ines of varying description. The valley grows fifty thousand acres of grasses for pasture and seed and plants another eighty thousand in Sudan grass, much of which goes to Japan to fatten Kobe beef. It grows cotton and other fibers, waterlilies and turnips, fennel and kohlrabi--all told, nearly the entire complex of cultigens supporting North American civilization. But plants provide only part of the feast that graces our national table, as the people of the valley well know. Animals grace that table too, and they are here represented by roughly a million sheep and feedlot cattle, plus dairy cows, swine, farmed catfish, and enough commercially tended bees to keep the organs of the plants and the air humming.

Here, beyond the reach of frost and chill, the growing season attains a state of nearly perpetual motion: discing, planting, irrigating, harvesting, discing, planting, and on again, restlessly and efficiently, thanks to armies of work-hungry, brown-skinned pickers and packers, thanks to boxcars, tankercars, and truck caravans of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide, the pesticide alone totaling eight million pounds a year. And water, gracias a dios, without which nothing can live, a great continental river delivering the equivalent of an inland sea, all of it originating in distant lands with different climates, all making possible in this place the environmental semblance--from a seedling's point of view--of forty inches of annual rainfall, where less than five actually come from the sky. (And the farmer hardly welcomes those few natural inches, for they make the fields hard to work and mar the perfection of absolute control.) The result is the apotheosis of industrial agriculture: here food is not grown so much as manufactured. From a pragmatic perspective, one can argue that it must be so: if we are to have cities like New York and Los Angeles, if our markets are to offer year-round selection and unending abundance, we must have farms like these.

Farther to the north, beyond the limit of the fields, shines a mirror to the sky. It is thirty-six miles long and over fifteen wide, a mirror large enough to reflect the vanity of a powerful and prosperous nation. This watery mirror is the Salton Sea, California's largest lake, which receives the leachate and dross of the Imperial Valley, just as the valley receives in the Colorado's water the leachate of countless fields upstream in the river's watershed. Selenates washed from Wyoming rangelands end their travels here, as do the progressively sharper-tasting effluents of fields and towns in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, to say nothing of the raw sewage that flows north across the international boundary from Mexicali along the New River, which for decades has borne the unhappy distinction of being the nation's filthiest waterway.

This desert basin, half food factory, half sump, is what the intermountain West boils down to--or leaches or evaporates or otherwise reduces to. The verb is variable, but the process is as immutable as the laws of gravity and evaporation, which are perhaps the only laws that the hydraulic West has not amended to its purposes.

Gravity decrees that in low places consequences collect, and here is the lowest of the low: Salton Sea, growing saltier by the day and stewing with the waste of the upstream world. The sea's fluctuating surface lies roughly 227 feet below sea level, and the deepest hollow of its unseen, nacreous bottom lies still 51 feet deeper than that. In the days before floods formed the sea, when the Salton Sink was a dry bowl, geographers and explorers speculated whether it or Death Valley was the lowest location on the continent. Probably the sink held that distinction, by a foot or two, but before the question might be settled, floods came to the desert and rendered it moot.

The floods were the result of the most spectacularly bungled development scheme of the century, perhaps of all time. The developers of the Imperial Valley brought water to the valley by means of a jury-rigged irrigation heading on the main stem of the Colorado, a dozen or so miles below Yuma. The Colorado flooded, blew out the heading, and poured its waters into the developers' canal system, which effectively became the main channel of the river for the next two years. The river water collected in the sink--and collected and collected, filling and rising, until the lake that had formed was too big to be called a lake. It was the Salton Sea.

MY INTRODUCTION to the sea--and to the surrounding lands that are its hydraulic co-dependents--came by way of a photograph. The image, black and white, shows an empty swimming pool yawning like a gutted melon beneath a useless diving board. A solitary, drought-murdered palm stands guard in the minimal distance, and the entire tableau is reflected in the liquid filth at the bottom of the pool. This ruin, I learned, was part of the once-vaunted Salton Bay Yacht Club, chief jewel of a giant real-estate promotion staged in vacant desert beside the Salton Sea. Brochures, film clips, and other come-ons, replete with leggy, sun-bronzed models lounging beside this very pool, promised a Palm Springs life-style for people of ordinary means. It was to be the land of summum bonum--life without work, and golf forever.

The chant of hyperbole was not hard to imagine: Year-round sunshine! Fishing, sailing, no urban congestion! The lowest greens fees you ever heard of, plus bingo, drinks, and dancing after dark.

Problems? Forget 'em. Imagine yourself in a chair by the pool, sipping a frozen margarita under the shade of the palm. Never mind the goosefart stench at the water's edge or the river of Mexican sewage flowing up from the south. Never mind that house lots were sold from airplanes and tents in a rush to grab the dollars of the guileless. Never mind that the developers would one day turn off the irrigation of their make-believe and pull out, leaving yacht clubs, golf courses, and palm trees to wither in the solar wind.

The photograph completes the tale. In the putrescence at the bottom of the pool you can see what happened when the ad-man's appeals to greed and indolence turned belly up. Suffice it to say that the image of the pool--the sump within the sump at the end of the West--suggested that more rivers than one ended in the Salton Sink. Clearly, the Colorado subsided into nothingness there, but possibly another river did as well, a river of spirit and dreams. This other river, I thought, might flow from historical instead of geographic headwaters; it might rise from notions, born centuries ago, of free land and westward migration. It might, flowing through time, change character as long rivers do, reflecting not so much the country from which it departed as the country in which it endlessly arrives.

Perhaps the river of dreams might metamorphose into something unforeseen at its headwaters. Perhaps it might become an honest-to-god New River, transformed by gold rush, Hollywood, and postwar defense bonanzas, flowing past the frozen, face-lift smiles of Palm Springs, where kisses taste like pina coladas and golf clubs rattle timelessly, flowing downward past the shacks of migrant crop pickers and unemployed Indians in the Coachella Valley, down to the loneliest of deserts, flowing ever toward the mirage, barely out of reach, of the pool in the sun and the girl by the pool. Her beckoning smile is as bright as the white linen suit of the master of ceremonies, who repeats, over and over, that this deal, played right, is the only jackpot you'll ever need: you can buy one lot to build on and another for investment; the second will pay for the first. His chant sings you onward, palm trees swaying, toward the lounge at the country club, where faces turn in welcome, toward the quiet house on the cul de sac with its wet bar, climate control, and carpets soft as beds, toward the promise--deal again! fifty on black!--of getting something for nothing, and then doubling that.

All this, the photograph seemed to say, lay in the sump within a sump at the end of the West.


Excerpted from Salt Dreams by William debuys Copyright © 2001 by William debuys.
Excerpted by permission.
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