"Playa Politics: Technology, Nature, and Conflict at Southern California's Salton Sea."
When Anglo Americans first encountered Southern California’s Colorado Desert in the mid-nineteenth century, they were appalled by what they saw there. For the rest of the century, they dreamed of conquering this landscape by diverting the Colorado River in into the Salton Basin, a massive below-sea level rift valley. Scarcely fifty years later, white settlers, land developers, and engineers had successfully, if not chaotically, managed to divert the river into the basin. In the process, they created California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea. Policy decisions and economics coupled with the unique geography of the basin have made the fate of the Salton Sea one of the most pressing environmental challenges in the southwest.
Historians have long argued that that the “accidental” creation of the lake at the turn of the twentieth century was an engineering blunder rooted in the space between ambition and the brute environmental realities of the desert. Though they are not wrong, I argue something different here. By examining this basin and the lake at the bottom of it across the long twentieth century, I have found that it is not so much an unforeseen consequence of desert conquest, but an unremitting and visible expression of it. Americans saw in this austere desert a land that should be sacrificed in the effort to make it productive, and they made it so. Imbued with a faith in their
technological and civilization supremacy, Anglo Americans felt justified in their ongoing and violent “otherization” of people and nature alike in the oftentimes violent effort to extract wealth from soil and water. Long before any actions were taken to reclaim the desert, they had already imagined that the bottom of this sink would become a large-scale waste repository.
A lack of political will and inability to unite regional stakeholders have been cited as the primary reasons that the efforts to mitigate environmental challenges at the lake have not been successful. While these are, indeed, important factors, they do not consider the long running cultural and socio-political trends that have shaped and reordered this landscape. Long before any water was diverted, Americans viewed this landscape and the people and animals who lived there as expendable. Though few politicians, engineers, or technocrats would dare utter such a sentiment aloud today, their policy decisions nonetheless skew towards this long-held belief.
In the murky bed of the Salton Sea, a lake without an outlet that is in the second lowest place in the United States, the detritus of over a century of industry has accumulated. Thousands of tons of silt, pesticides, salt, heavy metals, sewage, and military weaponry have accumulated in bottom of the American West’s second largest lake. Those most effected by the lake’s ongoing degradation are predominantly the poor, people of color, who labor on behalf of a small elite that, for the most part, live outside the region and will not have to suffer same environmental impacts. In a place where things collect, this is not just an accident of circumstance or a function of geography, it is the manifestation of long-term colonial violence laid bare for all see.