Not Everyone Thought Irrigating the Salton Sink was a good idea

Reading the late 19th and early 20th century literature of the Colorado Desert, one could be forgiven for thinking there was a certain inevitability of the massive irrigation works that so changed the Salton Sink (renamed with characteristic enthusiasm as “Imperial Valley”.)

It still seems inevitable. It was the time of manifest destiny, of “reclamation”. But I was pleased last night to stumble across a contrarian voice. It’s John C. Van Dyke, an eccentric art historian who chucked it all in 1898 and went for a horseback ride around the deserts of the southwest. For three years.

Van Dyke’s The Desert is a lyrical bit of nature writing to warm every desert rat’s heart. It’s also the only thing I’ve found written at the time (please, let me know of other examples) that questioned the wisdom of turning water into the Salton Sink:

It might be thought that this forsaken pot-hole in the ground would never come under the dominion of man, that its very worthlessness would be its safeguard against civilization, that none would want it, and that everyone from necessity would let it alone. But not even the spot deserted by reptiles shall escape the industry or avarice (as you please) of man.

Van Dyke’s epic wander and subsequent writing came as Charles Rockwood and the California Development Company were engaged in their first attempts to divert water northward from the Colorado River into the desert. Van Dyke makes an odd argument against it – that the great desert’s true valley came through its role “in the matter of producing dry air”:

To turn this desert into an agricultural tract would be to increase humidity, and that would be practically to nullify the finest air on the continent….

The deserts should never be reclaimed. They are the breathing-spaces of the west and should be preserved forever.


  1. Another plug for one of my favorite books, “Salt Dreams” by Bill deBuys and Myers; it’s a great story and treatment of the Salton, its creation, its context, and its ultimate (?) demise. It is also humane…which is rare.

  2. Eric – Funny you should mention “Salt Dreams”. Just finished reading it while on vacation. Terrific book, a (or some?) blog post(s) coming.

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