Sometimes among the extraneous postings emerging on my laptop, one provokes my curiosity enough to send me searching for further information. Decades ago, I'd viewed the Hoover Dam and its creation Lake Mead and further upstream Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam, when the water in them was abundant. But times have changed in the 21st Century. Among several on the subject, an online article for Grist by Jake Bittle reported that recently at Lake Powell "water levels fell to their lowest threshold ever, since the lake was created by the damming of the Colorado in 1963 . . . forcing unprecedented water cuts in states like Arizona" and affecting the production of hydroelectric power. Bittle writes, "When Lake Powell is full, its surface sits some 3,700 feet above sea level," but at a low level of 3,525 feet this March, it is "now only a quarter full, and water levels are just 35 feet about the dead pool threshold for power generation." Power production there has dropped "consistently," as well as at nearby Hoover Dam, and "there's a 1 in 4 chance [the Glen Canyon Dam] won't produce power by 2024." If I lived in the Southwest, I'd be concerned, perhaps alarmed.
Exposure to current events often provokes memories of earlier reporting on the same or similar subjects. This news reminded me of a 20-year-old book review of mine published in the Spring 2001 issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. That book, Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California by author William deBuys and illustrator Joan Myers, explored the consequences of human efforts at irrigation and climate change in the arid southwest. I claimed that the authors "are, in Robert Coles' memorable phrase, 'doing documentary work' in the tradition of such exemplary verbal and visual texts as American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor (1939) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941). Combining thorough research with on-site observation and sharp, vivid images, they produce a haunting and compelling portrait of place." Salt Dreams concentrates on the Salton Sea, in the corner of California "abutting Mexico on the south and Arizona on the east." DeBuys writes that "here is the lowest of the low: Salton Sea, growing saltier by the day and stewing with the waste of the upstream world."
In an effort to make the Imperial Valley in that part of California more fertile and productive, dams and canals were built to divert the flow of the Colorado River. For the most part it succeeded, but it also created the Salton Sea, "what deBuys calls 'the most spectacularly bungled development scheme of the century, perhaps of all time.' Floodwaters overran inept diversion schemes and, guided by irrigation channels, emptied the Colorado River into the Salton Sink." The man-made lake—the world's largest—had no outlet, but entrepreneurs hoped to create a lucrative planned community, with marinas and country clubs, expecting that "determination and high finance [could] transform any terrain into a promised land of opportunity and profit." It didn't work out. "In the end, the Salton Sea became a receptacle for raw sewage flowing north from Mexico and agricultural run-off from the Imperial Valley, its size reduced by evaporation, its salinity ever increasing [. . .] a way station and refuge for birds which feed on contaminated fish and suffer recurring cycles of avian disease [. . .] an ecological disaster both nightmarish and irremediable."
Salt Dreams is a complicated book, one that "tells the story of this region, the lives of those who still live here, the environmental and social consequences of actions by governments and investors and exploiters and entrepreneurs." Joan Myers' "pictures of barren landscapes, encrusted shorelines, flooded ruins, and desert faces reward close viewing with multiple levels of detail." Reading my review again, much of the experience of the book comes back to me. It's still on a bookshelf in our guest room, beside several other books by deBuys.
I confess to having a rather Thoreauvian outlook on life and it affects what I choose to read. I discovered deBuys at a Santa Fe writer's workshop I attended and read him and many other southwestern nature writers when I lived in Colorado Those writers gave me a vivid sense of where they were, a present hindsight panorama. But the essayists and outdoor memoirists I've read recently have increasingly uneased me about the future of life on our planet: extinctions in Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction and Barbara Hurd's The Episodes, flooding in Elizabeth Rush's Rising, and others. It's likely those earlier authors provided awareness of where we've been heading, but the discouraging thing at the moment is that foresight currently offers little to be optimistic about in the coming age.
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.
Bittle, Jake. "Lake Powell water crisis is about to be an energy crisis," Grist, March 21, 2022
Coles, Robert. Doing Documentary Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
deBuys, William, and Joan Myers. Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
Lange, Dorothea, and Paul Taylor. American Exodus. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939.
Root, Robert. "Interview with William deBuys," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 10:2 (Fall 2008): 133-145.
Root, Robert L., Jr. Book Review: "Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California by William deBuys and Joan Myers," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 3:1 (Spring 2001): 203-205.