The Accidental Sea

Traci Voyles, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies, is interested in problems that seem to have no solutions.

Lately, it’s the Salton Sea that’s caught her attention.

For the uninitiated, the Salton Sea is California’s largest body of water, situated in the lowlands of Riverside and Imperial counties. From there, it’s a three-hour drive to West L.A., or a 90-minute drive to the Mexican border. It’s tough to give the history of the Salton Sea the nutshell treatment — in part because, as Voyles says, the environmental conditions that made the sea possible date back millions of years — but she provides an abridged version:

The Salton Sea was born in 1905, when the Colorado River overpowered levees intended to divert runoff to farming settlements in California’s Imperial Valley. But rather than merely irrigating those crops, the river flooded and spilled over into the Salton sink, a desert bowl that dips 200 feet below sea level. When workers managed to stop the flooding more than a year later, the Salton Sea had formed.

Now, more than a century later, Voyles says the sea’s water level is down to “an anemic trickle,” thanks to a 2003 water redistribution deal. That’s a big problem for at least two reasons: first, an evaporating sea means exposing a massive amount of dusty soil, which would exacerbate air pollution in a region where communities, particularly those of color, already suffer from poor air quality. And second, the Salton Sea is a crucial resource for up to 3.5 million birds a day — many of which are at risk of becoming endangered — as well as at least one species of fish.

All of this is why Voyles calls the Salton Sea an “unsolvable problem.” The author of "Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country," Voyles is working on an environmental and cultural history of the Salton Sea, examining the sea's relationship to the human and non-human world around it.

“The shortcoming is that people’s general impression of the Salton Sea is that it’s a weird place, an environmental disaster, and a manmade lake,” she says. “All of those things combine to make it difficult for a traditional environmentalist framework to get motivated by the problems we see there.”

In particular, Voyles says the notion of the sea as “manmade” is challenging — partly because that notion is questionable at best, and partly because environmentalists have “traditionally rallied behind what are seen as ‘pure’ natural landscapes.”

“When I run into people in California who know about the Salton Sea, their first instinct is that it’s either a site of very weird things happening, or a dirty place — an environmental disaster or catastrophe,” she says. “Both things may be true, but the environmental stakes of saving it are kind of put on hold by that general disgust with which it’s regarded.”

To illustrate, recent headlines from VICE, National Geographic, and ThinkProgress referred to a “post-apocalyptic beach town,” “the dying Salton Sea,” and “the looming disaster of the Salton Sea” respectively. Voyles attributes this general attitude to the non-binary nature of the sea’s origins — not fully manmade, not entirely natural.

“The history of environmental thinking, especially in the United States, has created this notion that the environment around which environmentalism rallies is pure, separate from human activity except recreation, and protectable,” she says. “It sets up these very clear distinctions between the human world and the natural world.”

But Voyles — whose research has highlighted how indigenous and Mexican communities central to the origins of the Salton Sea have been “left to the side” in favor of a white settler narrative — wants to break down those distinctions.

“Part of what’s important to me and my work in general is that we take environmental injustice and community health concerns into very close account when we think and talk about these environmental issues,” she says. “That means thinking critically about the health of indigenous and migrant worker communities in these areas — communities of color — in ways that are on par with the life of birds or the economic viability of farms.

In the case of the Salton Sea, Voyles says the solution is both simple and not feasible, as it would involve diverting freshwater resources to the sea in California’s moment of “epic, historic drought.” But outlining actionable solutions for the Salton Sea is not the primary purpose of her research. Instead, Voyles sees her work as a call to think about profound environmental challenges in more complex terms.

“The best kind of environmental work that we can and should be doing, and that we have to do in the face of issues like climate change, sees the links between environmental degradation and social injustice,” she says.

José L. Martinez ’11, former editor of the Los Angeles Loyolan, is a third-year law student at Stanford Law School. A frequent writer for LMU Magazine, he majored in theological studies in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.