Interview with the Salton Sea, Part II:
How did you become the Voice of the Salton Sea?
How did you become Woodward and Bernstein? What kind of question is that?
I don’t think people care how I got my job; what’s important is that when you’re talking to me, it’s just as if you’re talking to the Salton Sea.
Is it fair to say that the Salton Sea has an image problem?
Image problems don’t happen in a vacuum. They either burst onto the scene or build up over time, but they are always preceded by an actual problem. It is the actual problem that creates the image problem, not the other way around.
The Salton Sea has many actual problems, but they all stem from the same troubled history, in my view, which is also the source of its image problem.
It isn’t the chain reaction of reduced inflows and higher salinity levels, or the rippling effect of a receding shoreline and the lakebed it will expose to the prevailing winds. It isn’t the desiccated fish carcasses, or the bird die-offs, or the foul smells or any of the other physical manifestations of an embattled ecosystem with no outlet and too little circulation.
It is, instead, that in all those years of waiting and hoping for its ship to come in, the Salton Sea only managed to cement its reputation as a safe harbor for failure, becoming, in effect, the lake that time could afford to forget about, indefinitely. Until it couldn’t anymore, and the loneliest and most lamentable lake in the whole USA found a way to become sympathetic, too.
What happened to make it sympathetic?
A lot happened, including an evolution in the way society thinks about, and the value it places on, the environment. The passage of time happened, Southern California’s exponential growth and development happened, the Era of Limits on the Colorado River happened to begin the 21st Century and, in 2003, the Quantification Settlement Agreement and the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer in the nation happened in the Imperial Valley.
Progress happened, in other words, or it was on the verge of happening, and that was when an aberration known as the Salton Sea suddenly became an aligned interest, and it is not a stretch to say that the QSA and the sea have been attached at the playa ever since.
Is that when it stopped being a sump and started being a lake?
I think it was always a lake and never stopped being an agricultural sump. It is, after all, return flows from the farms and fields of the Imperial Valley that sustain the Salton Sea. But it clearly merits the dignity of being referred to as a lake, since that’s what it is.
Having said that, and this goes back to your earlier question about image, there were at least a couple of reasons why President Obama and Gov. Brown decided to announce their Salton Sea memorandum of understanding on August 31, 2016, at a water summit in Lake Tahoe.
One was that the event in Lake Tahoe was hosted by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and both men planned to be there, anyway.
The other was that they wouldn’t have to go to the Salton Sea in August.
You can call that an image problem, but I see it as more of a potential heat exposure/national security problem.
What is at stake at the Salton Sea, and why does it matter?
Water resiliency, environmental sustainability, social justice; basically, the future.
Not to cut to the chase, but that is what we are talking about, at this point, when we talk about the Salton Sea – a chase: It is the shrinking sea chasing after the ratcheted-up water transfers of the QSA and falling further behind. It is a chase for equilibrium and equity, and for respect and respectability. But more than anything else, it is a chase for money.
The Salton Sea doesn’t need a water right to have a right to exist, nor does it need to be Lake Tahoe to matter. It just needs to be acknowledged for what it is, which is the proving grounds for the QSA.
Is the Salton Sea still the loneliest lake in the whole USA?
No, and it isn’t the most lamentable anymore, either. Now the Salton Sea has its own Facebook friends and has become a cause in its own right. I used to think that if Merle Haggard were alive today, he’d write a song about the plight of the Salton Sea, the way he did about the Kern River. Then I remember that I used to cry whenever I heard that song, “I’ll never swim the Kern River again,” and I wonder what the hell I was thinking!
And that’s when it comes to me: People cannot change what they are able to tolerate. They can gently tinker around the margins, but they know they can’t do anything more than decorate the fenced-in future they have already settled for, so they do the safest and most predictable thing, which is nothing.
The safest and most predictable thing isn’t going to work at the Salton Sea because it has never worked. It is a variation on the theme of waiting and hoping, and an endorsement of the status quo. It’s what you do to preserve a victory you think you’ve already got, not to secure the one you could be chasing for the next 50 years.
What does victory look like at the Salton Sea?
It’s a lake that can take care of itself – a lake with a lunch bucket and a livelihood.
Maybe it’s smaller, maybe not, but it’s a hard-working lake that has found its sea legs and can stand on its own. It’s also a leading-edge lake with an energy nexus and a new business portfolio. A purposeful lake with an authentic future, not just a notorious past.
That’s what victory looks like to me.
It will be a fight, because it’s always a fight, and it will probably take longer than anyone wants it to or thinks it should, but, in the end, I like the Salton Sea’s chances.