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  • Environmentalism in the IntersticesCalifornia’s Salton Sea and the Borderlands of Nature and Culture
  • Traci Brynne Voyles (bio)

Introduction: A Dying Sea

In the lowlands of Southern California’s Riverside and Imperial Counties, the state’s largest body of water, the Salton Sea, is rapidly evaporating under a hot desert sun. Runoff from the Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley agricultural districts, which has sustained the sea’s water level since the 1920s, has been cut back to an anemic trickle in the wake of a 2003 farm-to-city water-redistribution deal with nearby San Diego.1 Environmentalists and policy makers predict that the sea will reach a critical turning point in 2017, when temporary agreements that have been diverting fresh water into the sea to sustain its levels expire, unless action is taken to find more water—a tall order in an already-parched state.2

Allowing the sea to evaporate is problematic for reasons that involve environmental conditions for humans and nonhumans alike. Exposing the massive expanse of dusty soil, much of it polluted from eight decades of agricultural runoff, would likely create dust storms and compound air pollution in a region that already has exceptionally poor air quality.3 Resulting dust storms would choke the air with microscopic particulate matter, which is linked to a range of respiratory diseases, including asthma, much of it contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals.4 Moreover, the sea is currently a crucial water resource [End Page 211] for migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway, supporting more than four hundred bird species that have precious few remaining wetlands left on which to rely. As many as 3.5 million birds use the sea every day, including eared grebes, white and brown pelicans, terns, cormorants, herons, and egrets.5 It is no exaggeration to say that the loss of the Salton Sea would be devastating to an impressive list of bird species, many of them already imperiled, and to at least one species of fish (the endangered desert pupfish). Despite its importance to wildlife, however, dangerous levels of selenium, ddt, pcbs, toxaphene, and a smattering of other chemicals and heavy metals have contributed to massive fish and bird die-offs since the 1990s, including one that killed 150,000 eared grebes from January to April 1992 and one that killed 7.6 million fish in a single day in August 1999.6

Despite these alarming environmental conditions (what one writer called the sea’s “penchant for poisoning its inhabitants” and another called its “reputation for bad smells and . . . fish skeletons”), advocates for saving the Salton Sea—on behalf of birds and fish, the respiratory health of nearby human communities, or both—have had a difficult time mustering resources for action.7 Given the stakes of the case for environmentalists committed to wildlife conservation and environmental health concerns for Southern Californians, it would seem that the crisis at the Salton Sea would rise to the fore. It does, after all, bring together a range of issues crucial to environmental and public health stakeholders, from those concerned with bird conservation to pollution-triggered asthma rates. Inertia in the face of these daunting environmental problems has long been apparent, prompting observers to wonder, as one local news station put it, “Why Don’t Californians Care about Saving the Salton Sea?”8 The sea’s reputation seems to be shaped more by ambivalence about its environmental role than any sense of urgency for its environmental conditions. Newspapers frequently run stories about the sea alongside photographs of its frequent fish and bird die-offs, featuring images of its shores choked with fish carcasses or government employees piling pelican bodies in the backs of trucks, which invoke ideas of the sea as an environmental threat—a “fetid swamp not worth saving”—rather than a resource in need of conservation.9 State hearings on the future of the Salton Sea are sparsely attended. Funding for restoration projects is notoriously hard to come by. If other California [End Page 212]

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Fig. 1.

The Salton Sea is a crucial habitat for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway. Photograph by Douglas Barnum, US...


Additional Information

pp. 211-241
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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