Romancing the Sand
Earth-Capital and Desire in the Imperial Valley
The artificial control of moisture supplies the basis of absolutely scientific agriculture. The element of chance is wholly eliminated. Man asserts his control over the forces of nature.
- William Elsworth Smythe ( 1909: 20)
Hard upon the heels of a philosophy which glorifies success must follow a philosophy which rationalizes failure.
- Lucy L. Hazzard ( 1927: xix)
Before the current era of water management in the American West reduced water flow at the mouth of the Colorado River to a trickle, there were two options for the river as it neared the end of its run: either proceed toward the Gulf of California or at the last minute reverse direction, swing north across its own delta, and plunge into a below-sea-level, exitless trough called the Salton Sink ( Waters 1946; Kniffen 1931-32). Most often the river ran Gulf-ward, but periodically, under high- water conditions, it disgorged into the Sink, turning it into the inland Salton Sea. The last time of note that this happened was in 1905. This would not have been so much of a problem had not the American West's largest private irrigation and land development venture to date been busy reclaiming the Salton Sink with Colorado River water in order to turn it into a vast inland, agricultural oasis, which the developers took to calling the Imperial Valley. Because of the flood, which required many months of Herculean effort to control and a sizable amount of capital from the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Imperial Valley became a lightning rod for debates over the ideals, practices, and intersections of capitalism and agrarianism as they were taking shape in the rural and West.