This March, California’s State Water Resources Control Board called for a public workshop to re-evaluate the state of the Salton Sea, a complex and notoriously disastrous salt lake in the southeastern California desert. Nearly 200 people responded to the call, crowding in to a hearing room in downtown Sacramento to give testimony on mitigation and restoration projects, consider drought impacts, argue for the Sea’s environmental and economic value, and discuss the enormous water transfer agreements that threaten to damage it even more. Attempts to define the problem and its stakes have gone on for decades, but it is still far from clear whose fault is it that the Sea is still shrinking, still dying, or still dangerous, or, for that matter, if anyone can (or should) keep trying to fix it. As a semi-permanent disaster landscape, the Salton Sea is best defined not by the fall-out from a singular event nor by the slow accumulation of risk, but by a decades-long dynamic tension between mitigation of danger and restoration of health. “SOS! Save Our Sea!”, a popular slogan of local activists, is both a call to account for an irreversibly toxic present, and a reminder that the Sea was and still is a vibrant place worth saving.
John, an environmental justice activist seated to my right, helps me interpret the history of disaster politics playing out in the room. The crowd has even separated itself according to profession and position, he says: water agency directors and businessmen to the right; community organizers and environmentalists to the left. The technical arguments about legal obligations, water transfers, and public health statistics provide a bird’s eye view of the incredible work required to maintain large-scale, long-term mitigation. But John reminds me they also reveal the uneasy scientific and cultural politics of a hydraulic society trying to combine that mitigation with renewal and restoration.
The Salton Sea’s history of boom, bust, failure, and rescue is a century long. During the desert agricultural boom of the early 1900s, engineers for the California Development Company built a series of canals to irrigate the Imperial Valley with water from the Colorado River. When outflow from the river overwhelmed the canal system, water filled the dry lake bed at the Salton Basin, (re)creating a modern-day lake. As water levels stabilized, the Sea enjoyed a brief mid-century heyday as a popular resort area, drawing tourists to boat, swim, and fish in the middle of the desert. Over the following decades, however, continued evaporation and water flows saturated with sewage, agricultural chemicals, and salt made the Sea poisonous for most wildlife and potentially dangerous for humans. Tourists left, property values collapsed, jobs evaporated, and plans to “save” the dying Sea began circulating in earnest.
The Salton Sea today is an ecological oddity, both productive and precarious, hostile and hospitable. Its waters are maintained by a delicate network of rivers, agricultural runoff from surrounding farmlands, and drainage systems, all combining to mitigate the impacts of natural evaporation and keep the harmful materials in the lake bed buried under water. It is a tremendous habitat for over 400 species of birds, but is known more for its macabre beaches of fish and barnacle bones, photogenic suburban “ruins,” and the sharp briny smell that rises from the water.
Debates over what kind of problem the Salton Sea represents have taken on heightened urgency today. In 2003, before California’s current “exceptional drought” began, the Imperial Irrigation District (which serves the Salton Sea area) signed an agreement to transfer some of the Colorado River water currently flowing to farms in the Imperial Valley (and, via agricultural runoff, to the Salton Sea) to other water agencies, and specifically to thirsty urban centers like San Diego. The Imperial Irrigation District agreed to provide fifteen years of “mitigation flows” to slow the impact on the Sea, while the State would use those same fifteen years to support a simultaneous restoration effort bringing the Sea to a state of sustainability. The public workshop in Sacramento was called in response to the imminent end of the mitigation flows in 2017; the tipping point at which many Salton Sea activists say “we fall off the cliff.”
Fifteen years of holding open that space of mitigation/restoration in a place already known as a semi-permanent disaster zone results in a mix of hope and frustration. Speakers slip between practiced technical and affective language to describe the hazards of exposed lake beds, airborne agricultural chemicals, and disappearing industries, ending with calls for the State to intervene so that one of the many plans already on the table can finally move forward. Of course, it’s not that simple, and again John offers commentary. If the stakes involve competing interests from farmers, farm workers, renewable energy developers, water companies, school children, seniors, asthma sufferers, birds, fish, and even global climate, then what (and whose) Sea are we trying to save? Will we ever finish saving it?
Emily Brooks is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and a Graduate Research Associate with the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center. Her dissertation project investigates the science and cultural politics of slow ecological disasters through a focus on water scarcity, climate change, and applied environmental science in the Southern California desert.