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Know the West

A tricky tale of the past and the future


Salt Dreams, text by William deBuys and photographs by Joan Myers, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1999. Hardcover: $35. 307 pages.

There is only one Western story. It is the story of a mad rush to "settle" and exploit. This single story consisted always of the destruction and displacement of native people, followed by the destruction or vast reduction of the natural resources that had attracted the newcomers.

That newcomers suffered, that they did prodigious work, that they had imagination and an extraordinary ability to organize men and capital, does not change the story.

This story applies to the bison and the grass they once lived off, to the placer gold that was dredged out of the streams, to the forests and salmon of the Pacific Northwest, and to the rivers themselves.

Nowhere is that story clearer and more dramatic than in the vast Colorado Desert in Southern California and northern New Mexico. And nowhere has that story been told and illustrated better than in Salt Dreams, by writer William deBuys and photographer Joan Myers.

Because it is a vast desert that gets only five inches of rain a year, settlement got a late start in "low-down" California. The area was part of the California gold rush of 1849, and salt was mined out of the dry Salton Sink in the 19th century. But it was not until the 1890s, deBuys writes, that serious efforts were made to divert the Colorado River onto several hundred-thousand acres of desert.

As luck almost always had it in the settling of the West, scoundrels, incompetents and fast-buck artists grabbed control.

Thanks to the closeness to the border, thanks to the energy and ingenuity of the promoters, and thanks to the unpredictable Colorado River, the worst happened. Promoters were able to evade U.S. regulations by diverting the water to Mexico and then bringing it back, laundered, into the United States. But developers and settlers could not evade the river itself, which overwhelmed their shoddy physical works and cut itself a new channel, away from the one that led to the Gulf of Cortez, into an ancient one that led north into the Salton Sink.

Quickly, the sink became an inland sea, which it remains today. Much more seriously, the flooding river began to backcut its way up the new channel, creating waterfalls, leaving the 7,000 Imperial Valley settlers without irrigation water, inundating the salt works, destroying towns and inundating people, and threatening upstream irrigation districts and the Southern Pacific Railroad line to the coast.

It's a dramatic tale, and it is told dramatically. I've read many accounts of the runaway Colorado River, and this is the most vivid description I've seen.

But the importance of the book lies not in its history. It lies in how deBuys shows the remorseless evolution of the region as a result of the initial, reckless diversion of the Colorado River. After this tragedy, the nation was on the hook.

Too much attention had been paid and too much wealth had been squandered to let go of the dream. But to achieve the dream? The Colorado River Compact of 1922 had to be be negotiated between the seven Colorado River basin states. Hoover Dam and then Glen Canyon Dam went up to harness the river. The All-American Canal was built so that the Imperial Valley's 3 million acre-feet a year - 20 percent of the river's flow - no longer passed through Mexico.

With those political and engineering chores done, you would think we could live happily ever after. After all, the Imperial Valley had gained 500,000 acres of land - 780 square miles - under year-round cultivation. It produces a huge proportion of the nation's vegetables, fruits, nuts and cotton. It is a vast outdoor greenhouse, totally in our control. What more could we want?

Much more, deBuys tells us. We wanted the Salton Sea, California's largest lake, created by the flood and maintained by agricultural wastewater and sewage, to be a resort. So it becomes, for a brief few years starting in 1958, a down-home Palm Springs, until stench and dying fish and rising selenium levels kill Salton City.

With that, the book moves us into the present. We come to realize that the dream carries vast collateral damage. Closest at hand is the dying Salton Sea, on the edge of being overwhelmed by rising salinity and nutrients running off from the fields. Not much farther south is the starved, all-but-dead Colorado River Delta, the once immensely productive wetland where the river met the Sea of Cortez.

But even more important than the local damage, the dream of the Imperial Valley continues to influence the basin-wide politics of water. California is taking about 1 million acre-feet of water that doesn't belong to it to sustain Los Angeles and San Diego. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico want some guarantee that California will eventually give up that water. It is hard to see how it can do so without taking a large share of the Imperial Valley's 3 million acre-feet.

This book, then, written by a New Mexico resident, is a masterful trick. It is not only about the Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley and the mad scheme, now a reality, to harness the Colorado River. The text and photos are also ways to draw us into one of the major challenges of this century: How to undo what the early settlers did; how to restore what they killed or nearly killed; and how to do so in a way that does not collapse the house of cards that we call, with great pride, the American Way of Life.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.