When I was in school, I picked off the shelf a copy of Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power by Karl Wittfogel and learned of his thesis, not widely shared today, that this sort of government has its foundation in something he called hydraualic civilization. These are societies that depend for their existence on huge, government directed irrigation works. My imagination was set on fire by the notion of what I later termed “Hydrologic Radicalism.”
Today, this sort of radical engineering is not in favor, not after the disasters of the Aswan Dam, the killing and disappearing of the Aral Sea, and the use, re-use, and use-again of the Colorado River until the unfortunate Mexicans are left with only a salty, meagre trickle into the Gulf of Baja California where once a life-giving torrent flowed. Treaty be damned!
My interest in Big Water, most familiar to the general public via Roman Polanski’s film “Chinatown,” led me to the Salton Sea.
This enormous inland lake lies east of San Diego on the other side of some mountains the make that entire region a desert. The Salton Sea submerged the Salton Sink, which was the lowest point in North America before that, a place of honor now held by Death Valley. When I was a boy, the Sea was still a resort destination in the winter, a place for the Rat Pack glitterati to boat and fish and drink when they tired of nearby Palm Springs. My interest in it was piqued recently when I read about Albert Frey, an architect who designed in the Desert Modern Style, and built the Salton Sea Yacht Club.
This modernist paradise has seen better days. You can see a very nice assortment of ghost town photos of the area on flickr, here. The decay of the area, precipitous since the 1970s, made it a good setting for the neo-noir film, “Salton Sea,” with Val Kilmer in the lead. Vincent D’Onfronio plays a meth lab monster who lost his nose to drug snorting and earned the nickname, Pooh Bear. He’s pretty creepy.
So how did this dead sea come to be? The satellite image at the top tells the story. The dense patchwork of rectangles at the north and south end of the Sea are irrigated agricultural fields. The southern area is known as the Imperial Valley, one of the most productive industrial agricultural sites in the world. Desert soil is often very rich growing material – to make it bloom, just add water. Some real estate types had been eyeing the locale for decades when a successful canal building venture was finally launched, and settlers were drawn from across the world to settle and farm the valley. In the course of building this Garden of Eden, there was a slight miscalculation regarding the construction of the hydraulic gates and barriers.
There was unusually high water in one of the tributaries, and the works failed. Water will seek a low point, and the entire flow of the mighty Colorado River rushed in with a torrential vengeance. The cascade created some low waterfalls which were washing away the soil “like powdered sugar,” and they began backcutting the stream bed at nearly a 4000 feet each day, i.e. , the falls were moving upstream at that rate. Crowds turned out to watch this “cosmical plunge of a great river.” Parallels to the Biblical Flood and the results of man’s hubris were on everyone’s lips. The Sink was filling up at a rate of a half-foot a day. More than four times the volume of soil removed for the Panama Canal was washed away. Radical, man! You can read all about it in this paper I wrote for a master’s level class in geography.
When it was filled, everyone thought the Salton Sea would just evaporate away on its own, but it didn’t. The drainage from the vast irrigated fields surrounding it, and from some springs to the north of it, kept it filled. Someone had the bright idea in the 40s to turn it into a desert resort after WWII, and it flourished for a while. Like the Dead Sea in Israel, however, it has no outlet, and stuff just accumulates in it over time. This includes salt, fertilizer, pesticide, and other chemcials that feed algae and make life for fish unpleasant. The large population of fish that grew from some initial stocks began to die off, and the Sea became the stinking stagnant mess it is today. Plans are floated now and then to clean it up, but prospects are dim as it would be a very big and expensive job, with uncertain results.
Stop by sometime when you’re cruising through So. Cal. and you want to see and smell something different!