A History of Disregarding California's Desert

There's nothing out there in the desert. Joshua trees near Castle Peaks | Photo: Chris Clarke

In a development that surprised exactly no one, the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) Board of Directors voted unanimously last night to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Cadiz Water Project, as well as the Project's Groundwater Management, Monitoring, and Mitigation Plan and the terms under which the water district will buy water from Cadiz.

Though it was all but inevitable, given Rancho Santa Margarita's urgent need to water its lawns with Mojave Desert groundwater, the vote nonetheless becomes the most recent iteration in California's 162-year history of treating its deserts as worthless -- except as they contribute to the comfort of coastal Californians.

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Similar details with the four other water companies who've signed on to the project remain to be approved, those votes likely a similar slam-dunk. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors must approve a permit for the project. Negotiations with the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) over Cadiz's use of MWD's aquifer probably won't be too easy: MWD has said pointedly in recent weeks that it cannot guarantee space in its aqueduct for Cadiz's water, which turns out to be contaminated with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium.

Despite Cadiz's press release touting the "Nearly 500 support cards" from San Bernardino County residents favoring the project, desert opposition to the project runs deep: last night's vote came a few days later than planned. Originally scheduled for the July 25 meeting of SMWD's Board, the vote was delayed due to attendance of the earlier meeting by carloads of desert residents who came to speak against the project, and did so until 1:00 a.m. Senator Dianne Feinstein is said to be steadfastly opposed to the project, and a Texas chemical company that sells calcium chloride from the same aquifer has already filed suit to stop the project, likely just the first of a string of lawsuits to come.

Regardless of the outcome, the Cadiz Project is really just the latest example in a century and a half of putting the desert to work for the profit and comfort of people outside the desert. The examples have been coming fast and furious in recent years. There's the Eagle Mountain landfill, the project that seemingly will not die, which would tuck Los Angeles trash into a desert canyon just outside Joshua Tree National Park. There's the Mesquite Landfill in eastern Imperial County, set to start taking L.A.'s trash next year. There's the onslaught of proposals for gigantic solar and wind projects, many of which would scrape the old-growth desert clean with federal subsidies and produce less power than you'd get from an equivalent acreage of rooftop solar in the San Fernando Valley. Hinckley, the town that Erin Brockovich made famous (and vice versa) due to utility company contamination with the same hexavalent chromium that Cadiz's water supply comes by naturally, is now the home of a giant dump for Southern California sewage sludge.

The list gets longer the further you go into the past. Desert Native tribes killed a mid-1990s proposal to dump nuclear waste in unlined trenches in Ward Valley west of Needles, but their victory was by no means certain up until it happened. Would-be suburban developers bought up hundreds of square miles in the Antelope Valley and California City in the 1960s and 1970s, cutting through wild Joshua tree forests with a mesh of optimistically named streets. In 1967, a group of L.A. Basin motorcyclists looked at the 170 miles of desert between Barstow and Las Vegas and decided its best and highest use was as a racetrack. At its peak, the Barstow-to-Vegas hare and hounds race featured a starting line a mile wide, with 3,000 motorcycles tearing a swath of broken soil crusts and torn vegetation along the vaguely-defined route.

A Mojave Desert BLM ranger put it to me this way in the mid-1990s: "We have a giant sandbox out here in the desert, and there are three million kitties on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains." Though I'd add the Sierra Nevada to that. Angelenos are a lot more likely to appreciate the desert than Northern Californians, in my experience, and NorCal has its own long legacy of desert exploitation running all the way back to the mining boom of the late Nineteenth Century. If you recognize the names Hearst, Crocker, and Stanford and their importance in the state's history, you do so because men with those last names made their fortune exploiting mineral wealth in the desert, leaving a legacy of environmental destruction that we still contend with more than a century later. And in the city they founded, San Francisco, I have had professional environmental protection activists tell me, with no sense of irony or shame, that they hate the desert. In those exact words. They not only find it intrinsically less valuable than redwood forests, coastal tidepools, or Central Valley organic rice farms: they're willing to trade it away to boost their consumption of energy and raw materials in a way they'd never agree to trade a Sierra Nevada river canyon or a brackish estuary.

I'm painting with very broad strokes here. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Los Angeles and the Bay Area are big cities, and if even one percent of the people in them love the deserts that's still a lot of love. But still, the typical Californian take on the state's arid lands is this: If you have something you don't want, you dump it in the desert. If you have an activity that's too toxic, explosive, or dangerous to conduct in the civilized world, do it in the desert. If you want to sell natural resources at a steep markup, strip-mine them from the desert.

Because, as former Rancho Santa Margarita mayor Garry Thompson said in support of Cadiz in a public comment to SMWD on July 13, "You've all been out there, there's nothing out there in that desert anyway." Or if not nothing, then former Governor Schwarzenegger's "miles and miles of gold mine."

And the more people say that to justify their landfills, their strip mines, their depleted aquifers, the more it comes true. Desert life is old and diverse, but it is fragile. Military vehicles drove the desert during World War Two training exercises, and you can still see their tracks via Google Earth 70 years later.

If the water developers and the off-roaders and the subdividers and the energy speculators were to spend a day in the desert by themselves, no smart phone nor radio nor RV full of Blu-Ray movies to distract them, would this change? Would they start to notice the little pieces of living desert all around them, the yuccas, the lizards, the odd minute mosses? Would they start to wonder what those things were? Might they even -- slowly -- come to appreciate them a little, and think those things had a right to continue to exist? Even if that existence was in the way of the performance of, say, Cadiz's stock portfolio? What do you think? Comment below.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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No, I don't think that spending a day in the desert will convince the "deserts are useless and ugly" crowd; they'd just complain about the heat and discomfort. Though maybe "get to know your desert heritage" hikes and field trips would help.

I do think that environmentalists, at least, are--or ought to be--amenable to explanations about the fragility of the desert ecosystem and the importance of preserving the few remaining places we have, globally speaking, that are still relatively unaltered, though. And I think that your columns here are important pieces of that puzzle.

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I think most of the people Chris describes in the final paragraph are beyond appreciating the desert. Its qualities are too subtle, require too much contemplation, for a society that largely likes its outdoor activities to be convenient, if spectacular, diversions. (Think driving in and out of Yosemite Valley, or the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.) The solitude that the desert offers, and that so attracts most desert lovers, is probably what scares the wits out of the great majority.

Our cultural bias against the desert lands is too entrenched for that to change. Cadiz, BrightSource, the guy with a case of beer and a dirt bike--they aren't much given to appreciating anything that's subtle, less still if it's in the desert.

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Would they start to notice? I don't think so.

Just this weekend (as I often do) I drove 150+ miles early Saturday morning so I could hike (and recharge) in Joshua Tree National Park. A peaceful overnight stay at BlackRock campground was undone by a group who's idea of enjoying the desert included hours of shooting practice (no idea what the targets were) and playing loud music (of course a ranger was never to be seen).

The lizards would be lucky not to be noticed.

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You and Arthur Miller. This reminds me of the description of Nevada as the "leave it" state in the Misfits. "You got money to gamble, leave it here. A wife you wanna get rid of? Get rid of her here. Extra atom bomb you don't need? Blow it up here. Nobody will mind in the slightest. The slogan of Nevada is: "Anything goes, but don't complain if it went."

Seriously, one of the most awful things about this attitude is we are destroying the very systems that tell us the most about living in a hotter, drier world. It's like burning the rescue manual.