The Accidental Sea, Part 3: Water and Optimism

Salton City’s streets are laid out in an even and smooth grid. A few houses sit along the streets, some pristine and most either abandoned or dilapidated. Most of the streets are waiting for people to come live there who want to live in the desert next to a toxic body of water that serves as the city’s namesake. It seems foolish or avaricious to have drawn the plan and paved some of the streets and installed power and water lines so that almost no one could live there. But it was 1958 and the M. Penn Phillips Company, a subsidiary of the Holly Corporation saw nothing but a thriving tourist destination, more popular at the time than Yosemite National Park. It was a place that needed permanence and stability. It needed a city.

* * *

The Imperial Valley in the mid-19th century, a hundred years before Salton City’s streets were crafted was inhabited by adventurous and hardy ranchers, farmers, and speculators. Space they had in plenty, it was water they had to dig for, pray for, and capture in the infrequent winter rainy season. The idea of forcing the territory to yield a living is an integral part of the settling of the American west, and settlers were never content to let rivers run their own way without paying a little something for the privilege. The Colorado River flowed almost past their front doors. All that was needed was for someone to dig an eighty-mile-long ditch so a piece of the Colorado could flow down to the Imperial Valley.

In 1901 the California Development Company did just that. It built the Alamo Canal to bring gravity-flow water from the Colorado to the southern end of the Imperial Valley. Because the Alamo Canal flowed primarily through northern Mexico, someone came up with the notion that having your only regular supply of fresh water flowing through an unfriendly country was imprudent, risky even. The State of California in a fit of altruism formed the Imperial Irrigation District and used taxpayer money to purchase rights to build a new canal. Plans were made to build a canal whose path avoided Mexico, an “All American Canal.” It is a time-honored American tradition that if something big needs to be done, you gather together with your neighbors, share the effort, and try to get your neighbors to pay for it, or at least loan you the money. Representatives from California traveled to Washington, DC and in 1928 the Boulder Canyon Project Act authorized the construction of the All-American Canal, Hoover Dam, and Imperial Dam. Construction began in 1934 and by 1942, only fourteen years after the signing of the Act, water flowed down the Canal to the Valley. Farmers and ranchers cheered. Speculators made plans.

* * *

Farming and ranching in the desert takes a degree of optimism about things not under your control that is beyond what most of us understand or will tolerate. Heat will come in the summer and the rains in winter and fires happen by God or by accident. Water can be had by effort and ingenuity. Birds fly, fish swim, a rainbow covers the sky after the rain and the sight of it over the dark gold of the hills steals your breath. Optimism puts down wood floors over the dirt, flowers in the whiskey bottle set in the middle of the kitchen table, and curtains over the windows. The Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge was established in 1930 for the protection of ducks, geese, and other shore birds which had taken the opportunity to set up housekeeping on its shores.

* * *

Optimism may persist but facts have a way of building up a head of steam. A body of water formed by accident in an alkaline basin, with neither inflow nor outflow of water will, in time, build up a quantity of saline that kills everything in it. Though fish, birds, and tourists were plentiful and plans had been drawn for the yacht club, in 1961 the California Department of Fish and Game predicted the Sea’s death as early as 1980, because of increasing salinity levels. In 1968 author Tracey Henderson in Imperial Valley gave the Sea until 1972 to be saved; after that it would be too late.

* * *

Today, fifty years after the Department of Fish and Game first predicted its death, it is by all measures of saline, rotting fish, and dying communities unreasonable to even consider “Saving the Sea.” The question now is do we want to restore the Sea, and if so, to what condition will we restore it?

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