Have you ever wondered what happens to the Colorado river? If you look at a map it’s pretty clear where it begins, but not so obvious where it ends. There is a good reason for that: Colorado is pumped out dry and disappears long before it has a chance to reach its delta in the Sea of Cortez.
If US did not have any other moniker it could be the country that kills its rivers. In an amazing display of newspeak, building dams and reservoirs is called water conservation. It’s as if water goes to waste if the river is allowed to continue to the ocean.
In the case of murder of the Colorado river it does not hurt that the delta in question is almost entirely on the Mexican side of the border. The Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), a thousand miles long body of water separated from Pacific by the sliver of the California Baja peninsula is the original destination of the river.
Rivers do not die silently. They put up a fight. Colorado managed to surprise everyone in 1904 when it broke away from the Alamo Canal and started filling in an ancient empty basin submerging the town of Salton. It was nudged back successfully but not before creating a lake, the so called Salton Sea.
When faced with an environmental disaster Americans, ever resourceful, turn it into real estate opportunity. Once the flow of water was stopped by damming the Colorado river for good, recreation areas were planned around the newly created sea. It’s hard to believe today but in the 1950s a full fledged tourism industry was booming there.
The artificial sea turned out to be spectacularly undependable. When more irrigation channels were constructed more water started seeping into the valley resulting in swelling the lake and consuming marinas, piers and even houses. This was a fixable problem: channels were equipped with waterproof lining to reduce the leakage. The lake dutifully shrank back leaving wide swaths of no-mans land littered with dried carcasses of fish unable to live in saltier water. To say that the end result does not evoke a feel of a vacation destination will be an unjustifiably generous understatement.
The cities did not go anyway. A planned resort community of Salton City, established in 1958, is still there. Area-wise, it’s probably the biggest ghost city in the country. Numerous streets were planned, parcels were divided but very few structures were actually build. If you look at google maps you’d be excused to think you are visiting a desert metropolis. The fact that it sports a single motel that wasn’t even open for several years is a dead giveaway that something is amiss here. Turns out that in reality Salton City is just empty space regularly punctuated by electric poles.
That of course does not stop speculators and real estate agents from promising great returns on land parcels next to the basin projected to dry out completely within a generation. Nonetheless the allure of the sea in the middle of the desert is strong enough to fuel yet another model development: Travertine Point to be build for 35 thousand people attracted by green energy jobs to be created in the region. Good luck with that.
Locals are lobbying to preserve the lake which was created by water management mistakes in the first place. And by now saving the lake might be actually the lesser evil. If we let it to evaporate the desert sun will turn the valley floor into a spectacular dust bowl.
It’s not like Americans have monopoly on water mismanagement. The cautionary story of the Aral Sea that disappeared over the last 20 years is often repeated in discussions on the Salton Sea future. In my wildest dream I did not see Americans measuring themselves by the yardstick of Soviet Russia and Kazachstan: but that’s exactly what people saying at least we are not in Aral Sea type of situation yet are doing. Does Borat know?