8. I Stick my Toe in the Sea
My stepson, Matt Sills, sends me an opinion piece from the San Francisco Chronicle about how action must be taken to save the Salton Sea, a large – but shrinking – salty lake near the border with Mexico. It’s drying up, it’s becoming more and more saline (already 1/3 more saline than the ocean), it’s getting less water than it used to – if something isn’t done, it will pass a tipping point and then the process will speed up drastically. This body of water will disappear, depriving over 400 species of birds of a valuable habitat and exposing dried lakebed off which clouds of toxic dust will blow, polluting the air that already causes three times more childhood asthma in Imperial County than in any other county in California. That’s exactly what happened to the Aral Sea in Central Asia, formerly the fourth-largest freshwater lake in the world, which has now died and become an environmental disaster, thanks to incredibly ill-advised irrigation projects.
So act now! Save the Salton Sea! There’s a proposed plan for how to do this, with an estimated cost of $8.9 billion.
I’ve read just enough to think twice about this. A little learning is a dangerous thing, dude! But I can’t help applying the little bit I’ve got. This article doesn’t mention where the Salton Sea came from in the first place, which is . . . we put it there. By accident. In 1905, during the frantic overnight land-grab development of the Imperial Valley as irrigated farmland, some genius engineer named Rockwood decided to divert the flow of the Colorado River so they could dig out silted-up irrigation canals. They dug an opening in the riverbank (actually inside Mexico), but before they could finish constructing the works that were going to control the outflow, there was a series of floods and the river, which still owned itself no matter what people thought, went through the newly cut opening and found a new channel. It flowed into what was then called the Salton Sink, a dried-up below-sea-level lake bed which had been intermittently filled by the Colorado, and then had dried up again in the baking sun, for millennia. The river kept on pouring in there for a year and a half, forming guess what, the Salton Sea, before they could get it under control.
So when I read people talking about “restoring” the Salton Sea, I’m not sold on that verb. Basically, I think, we’re now trying to solve a problem that we inadvertently created 100 years ago, and that problem came about because people decided to live and farm in a place where there wasn’t any water. And where they think they’re going to get the water to solve it with, I really don’t know, because way more people live in Southern California now than did in 1907. Not to mention Arizona. The Colorado is getting used beyond its capacity already.
More Googling. Eventually I find the 53-page official document about the $8.9 billion dollar plan. (Given that construction is supposed to start in 2014 and be mostly completed by 2025 – not totally finished until 2035 – this estimate could turn out to be just a leetle bit low, couldn’t it?) It appears that the broad outline is, they’ll divide the Salton Sea with a huge rock barrier, maintain part of it at about the salinity of the ocean and other areas as a “saline habitat complex” whose salinity would be, in some parts, something like six times that of the ocean. All this would happen around the perimeter, leaving most of the Salton Sea, the middle that people wouldn’t see from the shore, as dried salt flats and “brine sinks.” This would require various measures to try to control air pollution from blowing dust, et cetera ad infinitum. So what it comes down to is, they’re going to just live with the lack of sufficient inflow and make the best of a bad situation. *
It’s good old Assumption 2: Every problem can be fixed by technical expertise. Except you could say this problem was caused by human technical expertise – what passed for it in 1907 – and have we become infallible a hundred years later?
On top of this, what if I try to think ecologically about this, using my tiny smidgen of scratch-the-surface knowledge? The Salton Sea, or Sink, has gone back and forth between filling and drying up for longer than we can imagine. So you could say, along came people, inserted themselves into the ecosystem, and helped it flip from one side of the cycle to the other. In a way, when Rockwood cut into the riverbank in 1905, he just did what the river would have done itself sooner or later. Every time the river went over its banks and changed its course it was a sudden event. Given the river has been building its delta for about three million years, changing course constantly in the process, the fact that Rockwood hastened this particular event a little is insignificant. From that point of view, this problem isn’t even a problem. The ecosystem has been through all this before, uncounted times. There was a lake in the same basin far bigger than the Salton Sea, known as Lake Cahuilla, as of about the year 1200, but when the Spaniards came in 1600, there was no lake there, just Indian legends that said one had existed. It’s a little different this time because of the extra-high salinity of irrigation runoff and the addition of agricultural chemicals, but the fact that the Salton Sea is drying up is business as usual. The 400 species of birds who are using it as their habitat or a stopover on their flyway were surviving somehow before 1905, when there was no water in the Sink, and they’ve been through this cyclic change, as a species, for so long it probably means that evolution long ago took into account the constant change in their habitat.
No, the problem is this: humans seem to want to make things stay the same. This thing called “restoring the Salton Sea” would be an attempt to arrest the cycle in its present state, as if that were the “correct” state, and keep it from switching yet again to its alternate. To stop the clock. But in this game there are no time outs. “Both construction and destruction are systems properties. The systematic tearing down allows rebuilding, replication and evolution. The details we know, but the strategy was masked by the details.” (Mikulecky, emphasis added)
Okay, but what about the kids who are getting asthma from the dust blowing off the dried lake bed? That sounds like a problem genuinely needing to be solved. I dig around in the official proposal to find out what’s going to be done about air quality – there will be a huge area of exposed dried lake bed, called playa, if the project is carried out, and it’s this that creates the dust. What I’m able to find is that the air quality question will be studied in the first five years of the project. How it will be dealt with is another issue.
AIR QUALITY MANAGEMENT
For the purpose of the analyses, the Preferred
Alternative assumes a conservative approach to
air quality management, and includes evaluation
and monitoring of the exposed playa (dry sea
bed). If dust emissions occur from the playa, a
combination of methods will be considered for
control, including chemical controls, sand
fences, and irrigated water efficient vegetation
such as salt bush). Use of irrigated water
efficient vegetation requires water conveyance
facilities (Air Quality Management Canals),
filtration equipment, and distribution of water in
buried drip irrigation pipelines.
Either I’m missing something, or what this really says is, we hope dust won’t blow off the playa, but if it does we’ll think about what to do. We have a couple of ideas. Of course, one of these ideas involves a whole irrigation project just to support it, in other words, the thing that’s supposed to fix the problem also requires its own technical fix. Apparently one shouldn’t hope for too much from this plan on the air quality front, which, by the way, is budgeted at $891 million in capital costs and $99 million a year in operations and maintenance thereafter. Below the estimated project budget, the small print reads: Note: Costs do not include cost of Demonstration Project, permits, land or easement acquisition, or interest on borrowing funds.
The more I dig, the less I think of this whole idea. Is there a cost-benefit analysis anywhere in this document?
Maybe what’s driving this is that people are a lot less willing to find alternative habitats than birds are. But there aren’t any large settlements on the shores of the Salton Sea. “Until recently, the Salton Sea supported a robust marine sport fishery.” Does the sport fishing lobby really have that much clout in Sacramento?
So maybe it truly is all about the environment – resident birds, migratory birds, some of them threatened or endangered species. The desert pupfish, also endangered. But again: what went on before 1905? The ancestors of all these creatures were somewhere just over a hundred years ago, and it wasn’t the Salton Sea. It really does seem to be all about our relationship with time. Our horizon is too nearby. The details we know, but the strategy was masked by the details. We’ve got too much stake in how things are now. We’re living in a world of process and flux, there is no end point, we’re in the midst of a ceaseless evolution, and this, I’m thinking more and more, is exactly what we don’t accept. We seem to believe deep down that history ends with us, though it’s hard to imagine why we would even want to think this.
One of the attributes of a not very well simulated world is that it doesn’t have fluctuations. The ideal is that the water supply will never vary, will always be the same, like electricity. But the ecosystem is always changing, and we’re part of it, we grew from it. Maybe we need to experience that change in order to be spiritually whole, or to have enough time. Maybe this is why sudden natural events, even threatening ones, can cause a kind of exhilaration (perhaps accompanied by terror): because the sudden change, the sudden eruption of the Other in an undeniable way, causes an upwelling of energy within us. It would explain why seeing alligators makes people happy: just by existing, they are an eruption of the Other, right there in our presence. Or the phenomenon of storm chasing. Or on a mundane level, the slight high caused by having the power go out. We aren’t made for eternal sameness. The best controller of water lets it flow away.
August 29 is the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Articles appear in the papers, op-eds, network TV crews visit the Ninth Ward, President Bush makes reassuring noises and then flies off to Mississippi. Vaughn and I are very attached to southern Louisiana, we’ve been there at least half a dozen times, she lived in Baton Rouge as a teenager. We’ve gone out in a motorboat on the Atchafalaya Basin a couple of times, mile upon mile of cypress clumps, Spanish moss, floating plants, an endless, trackless waterscape that only a Cajun who was born there could navigate with confidence. We have hung out at Lake Martin, outside Lafayette, where astounding numbers of herons come to nest, along with anhingas and even roseate spoonbills, squawking as they jostle for position on a cypress branch. We’ve watched the nutria munch their way through the floating vegetation and seen alligators sun themselves amidst it, no doubt planning to eat one of those nutria for lunch whenever they get hungry. Vaughn and I have driven all over bayou country so she can search out and photograph a certain kind of traditional African-American gardens in the South. I am the driver and equipment lugger, and the guy who sits in the car waiting for an hour or two, sweating and trying to read a book, while she takes pictures. On these trips we poke our noses into places where tourists never go. Most of the gardeners who work in the traditional way are poor, or at least not middle class. When we drive through poor black neighborhoods at five miles an hour in search of gardens to photograph, we refer to ourselves as the Lost White Folks, and boy, does our presence not go unnoticed. But when Vaughn stops and asks someone if she can photograph their garden, 99 out of 100 say yes. Which makes sense. If someone came up to me at home and asked to photograph our garden, I’d be flattered. Anyway, while creating alarm and suspicion in poor black neighborhoods, we have seen some parts of Louisiana that non-natives mostly don’t. We’ve done a good deal more than just hear a band in the French Quarter play “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.” The disaster in New Orleans really pissed me off; I haven’t been back there since, and I’m afraid it would be too depressing. NOLA (as the locals sometimes call it) was always somewhat the dark side of the Louisiana experience; the inequality was always glaring there, and now it’s worse.
In my travels around the internet I run across a video made by a ten-year-old girl who lives in New Orleans, about the aftermath of the storm. It makes me want to cry. I’m as susceptible as anyone to the feeling that New Orleans is an irreplaceable cultural treasure and must not be lost.
An op-ed piece appears in the Boston Globe titled “Disaster is only one marsh away.” The point of this piece is one I’ve seen made before: people have cut canals into the marshes along the coast, for commercial purposes (mainly getting to oil platforms), and this has had the effect of both draining the marshes and allowing salt water to get up into them, which of course destroys the plant life that holds them tenuously together. Vaughn and I have been down to Isle Jean Charles (is it still there? I wonder), a Houma Indian settlement at the end of a road that is barely above water, out in the vastness of the coastal shallows. I know what it feels like in that infinite watery flat. I remember a map I saw, possibly in an old plantation house, showing the Louisiana coast about 150 years ago. It was amazing how much more of it there was then than there is now. Between 1956 and 1990, Louisiana lost 35 to 39 square miles of vegetated marsh, along the edge of the Gulf, every year, which comes up to about 1300 square miles over that period of time. Those marshes would have helped to protect New Orleans. “A mile of marsh will reduce a coastal-storm-surge wave by about one inch. Where fifty miles of marsh are gone, fifty inches of additional water will inevitably surge.” (John McPhee, “Atchafalaya”) And the coastal wetlands are still eroding; the Gulf is creeping north toward the city.
On top of this, the Mississippi is a deepwater shipping channel. Baton Rouge, 140 river miles north of New Orleans, is a deepwater port. Massive ocean-going ships load and unload raw materials and the products of heavy industries, notably oil refineries, along the banks of the river all the way up. There are billions of dollars riding on the maintenance of the Mississippi in its current state. La Place, Louisiana, is the largest port in the world in terms of tonnage passing through. The only problem is, that shipping requires keeping a 45-foot-deep channel dredged, and basically conducting the Mississippi down it so that its true outlet is out in the Gulf, past the coastal flats, at the edge of the continental shelf. The silt that comes down the river (that which isn’t trapped by upstream dams) now comes out there too, and drops forever into the deep waters of the Gulf without doing any good at all to the coastline. We’re transferring the middle of North America to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 356,000 tons a day. (“Atchafalaya,” p. 58) The Mississippi no longer spreads out and constantly rebuilds its delta as it has done forever. For this reason, too, the coast is more vulnerable to erosion and in particular the barrier islands along it have been eaten away. Those barrier islands are Louisiana’s first line of defense, before the coastal wetlands. There were many more of them 150 years ago. The answer, in a way, is obvious: let the river do what it used to and this situation would gradually improve. Our other restoration efforts (supposing we were smart enough to undertake any) would be built on a foundation of natural accumulation instead of erosion. But who’s going to let the shipping channel, and everything that depends on it – which is a large percentage of the seagoing trade in and out of the US – slowly deteriorate? Who’s going to stop cutting canals through the wetlands to get to the oil platforms?
Given all this, what can I say about the rebuilding of New Orleans except that it might not work? I understand why people love it, but if people come back, and rebuild, and then get wiped out again, wouldn’t it be even worse?