May 10, 2019

On March 28, 2019, during a subcommittee hearing in the House on the Drought Contingency Plan, Rep. Tom McClintock, the Republican congressman known for his tendency to lash out indiscriminately at people, places and things, took dead aim at the Salton Sea.

What the Salton Sea ever did to Mr. McClintock in the past, other than to exist, is unclear, but in a pre-scripted – and cringe-worthy – moment, he made it plain where he stands on its future. With representatives of the seven Colorado River basin states testifying in support of the DCP, and its passage virtually assured, the Northern California firebrand decided that he needed to make a record – and a spectacle – by flatly declaring that he views the sea not as an impending public health crisis, but as a longstanding public nuisance.

And he doesn’t have much use for the Imperial “Immigration” District, either.

The Salton Sea, as an issue, had already been addressed (and superficially handled) by two of the panelists, and the hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife was nearly over when McClintock decided, as ranking member, that he simply had to go down to the sea again.

And then he went off.

He prefaced his series of questions/statements to Peter Nelson, president of the Colorado River Board of California and a Coachella Valley Water District board member, with the unsurprising disclaimer that he was about to become politically incorrect, as if that weren’t a fixed position for him. He went on to bemoan what he sees as a needless “obsession” with the Salton Sea, which he regards as “a terrible accident.”

“In millennial-ese,” he asked, pausing for effect and to amp up the cultural relevance, “#WTF?”

It wasn’t so much a question as an outburst, and Peter Nelson, a genuinely nice man, did what most nice people would do in a similar situation, which was to change the subject by offering a thoughtful but labored examination of the sea going back over geologic eras and epochs to its Lake Cahuilla days. Nelson eventually got around to checking all the requisite boxes, save one, in his sprawling response to McClintock, but his initial answer started out with these words:

“Mr. McClintock, you are absolutely correct …”

After that, it didn’t matter what Nelson said in defense of the sea, because he had accepted the triple-predicate that it was terrible, accidental and has lately become an obsession. In doing so, he and his fellow panelists basically agreed with their questioner’s #WTF assessment of the sea, which is that, while it might have been important in ancient times, today it is, in millennial-ese, a #POS.

That isn’t true, of course, but no one on the panel challenged McClintock, even though they all knew better, because he was carrying water for the DCP. That he was also doing violence to the Salton Sea could be justified in the same way that writing it and the IID out of the DCP was; that is, action had to be taken, as another panelist asserted, “out of necessity, not out of animosity.”

But what somebody should have thought to point out to the congressman is that whatever else the Salton Sea may be, it is on track to be the fulcrum of the Colorado River system, and on that basis alone it is going to need a future that the people who live around it can believe in.

While it is true that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has been referred to as the fulcrum of Southern California’s water conveyance system, and not without justification, it is possible to look out into the distance and see a new fulcrum emerging to exert its influence (and its will) on the movement of water in the region and throughout the West.

That’s why WTF ought to stand for “Where’s the fulcrum?” whenever the DCP comes up before Congress or anywhere else after this, because that is what it’s most likely to mean from now on at the Salton Sea.

As it was, the Salton Sea fared better in absentia that day than Mr. McClintock did. But if it had been present and could speak for itself, it is easy to imagine what its response would be in the Congressional Record for March 28, 2019:

In millennial-ese, “#LOL!”

The Editors