Reclaiming the low country

  • USGENWEB ARCHIVES, FROM Natural Elementary Geography, Redway and Hinman, American Book Company, c. 1897

Look at a map of the original "New West" -- the transcontinental West of the post-Civil War period. It's easy to fixate on what we don't see. Big dams, open-pit mines, metropolises, freeways -- none yet exist. National forests and parks and bombing ranges -- not there.

On closer inspection, the outdated maps show something more: presences in the past that we seldom acknowledge as absences in the present. A phantom topography.

I'm talking about big blue blobs  -- the lost lakes of the lowland West. We are familiar with the reservoirs we built during the age of reclamation. We know the places we flooded. What about the places we drained?

How many of the drivers who take I-5 or CA-99 through the seemingly undifferentiated "Central Valley" realize that they traverse a self-contained drainage between Bakersfield and Fresno  -- the Tulare Basin? A basin that not long ago contained a lake that rivaled Lake Tahoe in surface area? Tulare Lake was a marshy refuge for migratory birds, endemic elk, even grizzlies. It vanished from maps after being drained of life and meaning. The lakebed became a cotton plantation.

On the opposite side of the Sierra Nevada, around the same time, flourishing Owens Lake became a ghostly salt flat after Los Angeles diverted its inflow into a pipeline. In Utah's West Desert, seasonal Sevier Lake became a permanent dry lake due to upstream diversions. In the lava-land of northeastern California, dike-builders and irrigators transformed Tule Lake from something large and round into something small and rectangular.

Due to the desiccation of these and other oases on the Pacific Flyway, the Salton Sea  -- the most spectacularly unnatural lake in the West  -- became prime habitat in the 20th century. Today, birds can't live with  -- or without  --  this toxic sump. The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge operates an incinerator for the periodic mass die-offs of waterfowl.

The wetland West also disappeared from Westerners'  hearts and minds. Consider the Great Salt Lake: once a world-famous resort, a national curiosity, the American Dead Sea. Railroads built splendid bathing houses, none of which survive today. The "Greatest Snow on Earth" has replaced the Great Salt Lake as Utah's most celebrated feature. During the 2002 Olympics, the standard blimp's-eye-view of Salt Lake City showed downtown buildings backed by snowy peaks. For their part, city boosters did nothing to turn the world's gaze from the east to the west, from the mountains to the lake, from the high country to the low.

It may seem odd to call 4,200 feet  -- the historic average elevation of the Great Salt Lake  -- "low country." But in the Great Basin, that subregion of the West with no communication with the ocean, the low point of any local drainage is effectively sea level.

In relative terms, too, Utah's briny inland sea seems low next to the Wasatch Range. Six to seven thousand feet separate these contiguous yet disparate topographical features. In the minds of most modern Utahns, the supremacy of the high country seems obvious and natural. In 2006, the Utah Office of Tourism retired its long-running "Ski Utah" slogan, and inaugurated a new official tagline: "Life Elevated." When urban Utahns appeal to a bioregional identity, they speak of the "Wasatch Front," the "Intermountain West," or the "Rocky Mountain Region," never the Bonneville Basin, the eastern Great Basin, the Wasatch Oasis.Here's the lowdown: Westerners have a high-country bias. We care more about vanishing glaciers than vanishing vernal pools. The endangered shortgrass prairie of Colorado's less-than-a-mile-high East Side gets no love compared to the 54 Fourteeners. There are highpointer clubs and peakbagging guides; what about the low points? Who has visited  -- or even counted  -- all of Nevada's playas?

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