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The Salton Sea in Southern California is the story of an ongoing, gigantic, human-created accident. The Sea is the largest lake in California, residing in a endorheic basin (a basin lower than sea level, without any natural outlet) right above the San Andreas fault. Its creation is linked to the long history of geoengineering in the region, as the burgeoning cities and agriculture struggle to meet their water needs. Wikipedia writes the narrative of the Salton Sea’s origins in such a compelling way, I’ll simply quote it directly:

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In 1900, the California Development Company began construction of irrigation canals to divert water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, a dry lake bed. After construction of these irrigation canals, the Salton Sink became fertile for a time, allowing farmers to plant crops.

Within two years, the Imperial Canal became filled with silt from the Colorado River. Engineers tried to alleviate the blockages to no avail. In 1905, heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell, overrunning a set of headgates for the Alamo Canal. The resulting flood poured down the canal and breached an Imperial Valley dike, eroding two watercourses, the New River in the west, and the Alamo River in the east, each about 60 miles (97 km) long. Over a period of approximately two years these two newly created rivers sporadically carried the entire volume of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink.

The Southern Pacific Railroad attempted to stop the flooding by dumping earth into the canal’s headgates area, but the effort was not fast enough, and as the river eroded deeper and deeper into the dry desert sand of the Imperial Valley, a massive waterfall was created that started to cut rapidly upstream along the path of the Alamo Canal that now was occupied by the Colorado. This waterfall was initially 15 feet (4.6 m) high but grew to a height of 80 feet (24 m) before the flow through the breach was finally stopped. It was originally feared that the waterfall would recede upstream to the true main path of the Colorado, attaining a height of up to 100 to 300 feet (30 to 91 m), from where it would be practically impossible to fix the problem. As the basin filled, the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding, and Torres-Martinez Native American land were submerged. The sudden influx of water and the lack of any drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.


That described image of a 80-foot waterfall cutting back towards the Colorado River like a ravenous, eroding beast will haunt my impression of every agricultural canal I ever see. But today, the Sea is less a catastrophe than an ongoing series of problems. For a time the desert coast line of the Sea was promoted as “the California Riviera”. But first the towns were beset by flooding, and then a receding coastline. Now ongoing problems from agricultural runoff and an increasing salinity (currently saltier than the Pacific Ocean but less than the Great Salt Lake) killed off all the fish stocked in the Sea except for tilapia, and cause occasional epidemics of avian botulism and other diseases among the diverse migratory bird populations. Farms in the area are generally successful while the communities around the Sea languish, becoming postcards of ruin-porn as rusting trailers and dry marina docks slowly fade into the arid desert.

2013-04-22 15.02.22But is “ruin-porn” the extent of how we respond to such artifacts of geography and geology? A photograph is perhaps easily and quickly consumed, only the minimum of thought engaged in processing the image as we simply recognize and accept the content for what it is: ruin. We classify and categorize, and move on. But if this is the case, then why ruin? Why do photos of rusted metal and sun-bleached wood speak more loudly to us than images of the Sea itself, a geoengineering ruin on a massive scale that cannot be cleaned up any more than it can be re-appropriated? Humans flock to the shores of this ruin, attempting to live their own lives on its catastrophic existence, building the structures that inevitably rot and sink into the alluvium. It is this narrative that we connect with–the smaller narratives of human existence amid greater catastrophe. We symbolize and appreciate the larger systemic failures via these smaller human crises. We are drawn towards the signs of human life and death for what they mean to us about the greater systems we interact with, whether our interaction is one of triumph or of pathos.

And it isn’t all ruin, either. The ruin that is so easily symbolized is always held in contrast to the continued life around it. For every dried out pool, there is a still-occupied trailer. Like small flowers in the cracks of a sidewalk, this “pre-ruin”–or non-ruin in and amongst the overwhleming tendency towards ruin–tells its own story of thriving and surviving in the niches, the narrative of rare desert plants that are actually towering blooms of evolutionary fitness, the sudden juxtaposition of presence and diversity to scarcity and sparseness that make the blankness of the desert all the more apparent by its interruption by teeming life. The die-offs of birds and fish are only possible because those animals are resolutely present despite the obstacles, attempting to exploit what few resources and stable plateaus of water and food exist amid the ruin. The post-apocalyptic narrative is one of continued life, amid and despite perpetual crisis.