Imperial Valley

The reason I’ve been tinkering with the Salton Sea story is its (potential?) centrality to the story of climate variability and the allocation of the Colorado River’s water. (I say I’m writing a book about “drought,” but I’m really trying to deal with questions of how people here in the West have responded over the years to decadal-scale climate variability. “Drought” people get. “Decadal-scale climate variability” gets me that glazed eye look.)

In the first two decades of the 20th century, folks were trying to turn the desert of the Imperial Valley of southeast California into farmland. Great soil, great sunshine, no rain, but the relatively frequent rampaging of the Colorado River flooding them out. So while much of the impetus for damming the Colorado involved storage of water for droughts, the Imperial folks needed it dammed a) to give them a reliable flow of irrigation water rather than the Colorado’s huge fluctuations, and b) to keep them from getting flooded out by the Colorado’s huge fluctuations.

I was talking about all this over breakfast with Mom and Dad this morning at the Frontier, and Mom told me a story I’d not heard: when my grandparents were first married (John S. and Gertrude Berry, Mom’s parents), granddad’s first job was driving a produce truck in the Imperial Valley – in 1915, smack in the middle of the period I’m reading about.

I still don’t understand the extent to which what happened in the Imperial Valley is a result of climate variability (drought?), but it’s cool that granddad was there while all this was happening


  1. There is a Heinlein story (pretty simple one) about an Imperial Valley flood. Worth reading, since you are so intrigued with the subject. He was too…

  2. Having driven I-8 several dozen times it’s an interesting story. From what I understand, the diversion was sloppily built in 1901, and they actually stopped the breach with railroad cars. I lent out my copy of Cadillac Desert a few years ago and it hasn’t found its way back, but I think there’s some info about it in there. A fascinating book at any rate. The Gulf of California is cut off by the alluvial fan of the Colorado river, otherwise it would extend another 150 or so miles north, to about Indio.

    Back to Cadillac Desert – an exceptional book if you’re at all interested in the water wars of the west. Some colloquialisms (?) from the book, as I recall:

    “Whiskey’s fer drinkin’, water’s for fighten’ over.”

    “Take my wife, but leave my water alone.”

    “The good water goes up, the bad water goes down”

    The last applies when talking about reservoirs – several feet of evaporation occurs every year from surface reservoirs. That’s why lining canals is not a good idea in the long run, because ground water is safe from that loss. Storing water underground is the most judicious answer. Also why I wonder how come the City of Albuquerque didn’t just recharge the aquifer with its water instead of spending billions on their new water system. The USGS identified a great recharge location north of Tramway – you can see it because they’ve been mining gravel out of it for decades.

  3. Pingback: Live From Silver City » Water woes continue in the Land of Enchantment

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