[We welcome Traci Brynne Voyles to the blog, to kick off a series this spring on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health. The video of her talk in the associated speaker series is available here.]
For the past decade and a half, I’ve been immersed in studying environmental disasters. I’ve focused on the ways they are shaped by various intersecting power structures: racism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy in particular, though also ableism. In a way, the most apparent through-line in my research projects has been to understand the ways in which these systems of oppression, based on social constructs (race, class, gender, and so on), have enormous material consequences for people and for the non-human world around them. This approach draws in equal measure from environmental justice studies, which examines the ways that communities’ environmental conditions are shaped by their share in power and privilege, and environmental history, which has increasingly explored how environmental conditions have exacerbated existing social inequalities.
In recent years, this research has brought me to a place of stunning paradox: southern California’s Salton Sea—the state’s largest lake, located in the northern crook of the Sonoran Desert. The Salton Sea was created by massive floods in the early years of the twentieth century and maintained ever since by runoff from the agricultural empires on its northern and southern edges: Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley, which together produce a cornucopia of crops and herds of livestock bound for grocery stores across a wide swath of the US.
The Salton Sea is the contemporary iteration of what settlers have called Lake Cahuilla, named for one of the Indigenous nations whose homelands it currently inundates. Over and over again since time immemorial, water flowed into this desert world from the Colorado River, documented in the oral histories of Cahuillas as well as other desert nations, including the Kumeyaays, Cocopas, Chemehuevis, and Quechans. After the floods, the water did what water does in under a hot desert sun – it evaporated, slowly but surely.
The flooding began again in 1905, just a few years after non-Native settlers arrived here to farm. They were promised that the dry land they settled would be irrigated by a Colorado River that could – and would – be kept under control. Unfortunately for those settlers, controlling a river once described by a historian as a “forty-pound wolverine that can drive a bear off its dinner” would not be so easy. The river ran unharnessed into the desert for nearly two years. The settlers, having refused to believe the oral histories of this region’s Native peoples, paid dearly in loss of acreage, property, and not a small amount of dignity.
In the subsequent decades, the newly christened Salton Sea would be used to collect runoff from the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, which grew in power and importance by leaps and bounds. Hundreds of miles to the northeast, the Hoover Dam plugged up the Colorado River so that the floods would never be repeated, and the All-American Canal kept the great river’s water flowing to the settler farmers on both ends of the Salton Sea. After World War II, the water draining to the Salton Sea increasingly carried not just salt and irrigation water, but a deluge of chemical pesticides too.
Most of the area’s Indigenous peoples lived on reservations without enough water. One reservation, however, had far too much: forty percent of the Torres Martinez Cahuillas’ land sat underneath the Salton Sea, its shoreline lapping higher when irrigation increased decade after decade.
As the Salton Sea evaporates – much more quickly now, as climate change pushes desert temperatures higher and as drought-stricken farmers find irrigation water harder to come by – miles of dusty shoreline are exposed to desert winds. This creates perilous respiratory health conditions for nearby communities, the majority of which are nonwhite, non-English speaking, and economically vulnerable. These communities include Natives, farmworkers, and people incarcerated in the five state prisons located within a few miles of the sea.
All of this is to say nothing of the birds. In a century that saw the wholesale devastation of California’s coastal wetlands, birds came to rely heavily on the Salton Sea and the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge (yes, that Sonny Bono). As many as 3.5 million birds use the sea every day, including eared grebes, white and brown pelicans, terns, cormorants, herons, and egrets. 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. During one die off the birds were, according to one wildlife biologist, “dying faster than we can pick ‘em up.” During another, the incinerator being used to dispose of bird bodies at the wildlife refuge could not keep up, even when running twenty-four hours a day.
A lake in a desert. A sacred part of Indigenous peoples’ past and a manifestation of settler incursions on their homelands. A toxic hazardscape and a crucial wildlife refuge. How can a scholarly framework hold together these paradoxes? What does it tell us about environmentalism in the context of settler colonialism? How might one go about “saving” the Salton Sea?
By the time I began this research in 2013, the Salton Sea had become what environmental planners call a “wicked problem:” a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of its own internal complexity and/or contradiction, disagreement among experts, and impossibility of evaluating a “good” versus “better” (or, most often, “less bad”) outcome. The Salton Sea provided a clear example of such a problem. As evidenced by the consternation of generations of policymakers, academics, and activists, the Salton Sea seemed to have no good or clear solution that was in any iron-clad way environmentalist. Maintaining its level against evaporation required diversions of freshwater resources in an already parched state. In fact, the more water farmers conserved, the less of it flowed to the sea to support bird populations. Cahuilla and Kumeyaay community members have been understandably ambivalent about various state-sponsored mitigation schemes. Fluctuations of water in the desert constitute a necessary part of the Indigenous and ecological world of these Native nations; however, that natural fluctuation did not historically entail noxious chemical compounds released into the air as the water receded.
My forthcoming book, The Settler Sea: California’s Salton Sea and the Consequences of Colonialism, out in the fall of 2021 with University of Nebraska Press as part of their Many Wests series, makes an attempt to cull some sense out of the Salton Sea, asking what it tells us about the role of the environment in settler colonialism, and vice versa. The book examines the ways in which settler colonial relationships to nature reconfigure landscapes in ways that are themselves dispossessive. In a sense, the history of the Salton Sea can most clearly be understood as a physical manifestation of settler colonial power; settler colonialism, in turn, can be tracked in terms of its physical consequences on landscapes as well as on people. The book moves through a series of lenses that reveal crucial, though sometimes surprising, forces in the sea’s history: desert, rivers, birds, bodies, bombs, chains, toxins, and concrete.
Together, these chapters argue that if settler natures are designed to produce economic value in excess, in ways that are at bottom unsustainable, organizing settler environmentalism around those material environments and ideologies about environments is an inherently limited political project. This has important implications for how we go about working toward environmentalism, environmental justice, and climate justice. Environmental justice and climate justice have brought to the mainstream environmental movement a critique that reflects the reality that, as environmental historian Paul Sutter has observed, “environmental protest in the United States has been a movement dominated by the colonizers, not the colonized.” Environmentalism, as Sutter points out, has historically been a settler politics in the US, and it is this historical legacy that the environmental justice and climate justice movements have had to work against even as they grapple with the life-and-death struggles of their movements for change.
The Salton Sea is its own kind of distress call, a perplexing and paradoxical microcosm of the consequences of settler colonialism and its impacts on nature. In my analysis, the Salton Sea offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of settler management of ecosystems and settler solutions to environmental catastrophes. But, luckily, the story is more complex than that; if you look closely, it also offers insights into where we can go from here.
Traci Brynne Voyles is an associate professor and chair of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oklahoma.