You know you have been working somewhere for a long time when your colleagues start coming to you for "institutional knowledge." On the one hand, it's kind of flattering to be the person who knows why the toilet sometimes clogs up (our connection to the sewer line has always been susceptible to debris dams), and who also knows the name of a plumber who can snake the system out on short notice (happy to give it to you if you move to Paonia).
But institutional knowledge can also be an impediment. When a young editor pitches a story about, say, salmon runs on the Snake River, I find myself reflexively shooting it down - "Oh, we don't want to do that. I already wrote a cover story about it." Only later, after searching the archives, do I discover why my colleagues fixed me with such vacant stares: I wrote that story back in 1996. Even our most loyal readers, the ones who keep piles of old HCNs in their garages and bathrooms alongside boxes of National Geographics, have likely forgotten my majestic prose and would appreciate a fresh take on the subject.
I went through a similar process when Terry Greene Sterling first pitched this issue's cover story on the Salton Sea. Contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis did a fine piece on Southern California's accidental inland sea back in 2000. What more was there to say? Plenty, it turns out. Seven years ago, Salton Sea boosters were cautiously optimistic that federal and state money would pump new life into the drying, irrigation-fed body of water and the struggling tourism and retirement economy it supports. Today, that optimism is largely gone, buried under the realities of a cash-strapped California government, thirsty cities that are siphoning off the Sea's water source, and a busted real estate market. No one seems able to conjure the monetary or political capital needed to revive a multibillion-dollar restoration plan.
Amid the signs of decay, though, Terry found a plucky group of survivors, every bit as colorful and quirky as the Salton Sea itself. Their stories strike a melancholic chord not often heard in this noisy West of ours. They remind us that nothing lasts forever, and that the West of the future may look in places more like the West of the past, when massive changes turned prosperous boomtowns into forsaken ghost towns.
If the Salton Sea dies, most of its people will disappear as well. And this could be the final chapter in the life of the Salton Sea. But I have a hunch - based on extensive institutional knowledge - that I could be wrong. Look for another Salton Sea story here in seven years.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.