The Settler Sea: California’s Salton Sea and the Consequences of Colonialism by Traci Brynne Voyles

Review by Brian Tanguay

I have never seen the Salton Sea with my own eyes. My experience of the Colorado Desert is limited to one or two road trips to Palm Springs and another to Las Vegas many years ago, but you can’t learn much about a place from inside a moving vehicle. How the Salton Sea came to be, what it was called before Americans arrived, or why this body of water bears any significance at all are not questions I ever pondered, and if you had asked me to identify even one indigenous group from the area I couldn’t have done so. I’m a native Californian and yet what I know about my home state is dwarfed by my ignorance.

The Salton Sea sits in the lowlands of the Colorado River basin, some two hundred feet below sea level, in the footprint of an ancient body of water known as Lake Cahuilla, home to Native peoples such as the Kumeyaay, Cahuilla, Cocopah, and Quechan, who over millennia learned how to survive periods of flooding and desiccation. As scholar Traci Brynne Voyles notes in The Settler Sea, the naming of the Salton Sea was itself an arbitrary act of hubris by an American settler. As Voyles explains, the Salton Sea is an ecological conundrum and a study in paradoxes, “a wetland in a desert; one of California’s last remaining water resources for migrating birds, as well as a polluted hazardscape; both natural and human-made; a rich ecosystem and an environmental catastrophe.” If one is looking for a microcosm of the settling of the American West, there may be no better example than the Salton Sea. 

As an act of intersectional scholarship, The Settler Sea is a remarkable achievement. Voyles is a competent writer with an enviable ability to build a narrative from reams of data, oral histories, census rolls, newspaper accounts and other sources. She gathers many spools of thread and artfully weaves them so the reader sees the links between past and present, the many unintended consequences of colonialism, including the colonization of the Colorado River which sits at the heart of this story, as well as the social and ecological impacts of military bases, corporate agriculture, tourism, and prisons. The picture that emerges by the end of the book is full and complex, but also disturbing when one reflects on the reasons behind all the damage wrought to the region.

Consider what happened in one twenty-four year period, from 1846 to 1870, when the population of Native Californians went from around 150,000 people to roughly 30,000, a staggering 80 percent decline. As happened elsewhere on the continent, Native people were dispossessed of their traditional lands, water, language and culture, pushed to the margins on undesirable tracts of land, out of sight and mind, except when needed as cheap labor or recruits for America’s wars. The many dams that were built on the Colorado River — from massive Hoover Dam in Nevada to the Imperial Diversion Dam on the Arizona-California border — for the purpose of generating hydro-electric power or irrigation for farmland, dispossessed Native people by inundation. While it’s true that these dams were engineering marvels, their unintended consequences manifest today in drought, pollution, agricultural and industrial run-off, and staggering fish and fowl die offs. 

The Salton Sea and the land and mountains that border it defy easy representation. Photographs can’t capture the immensity or reconcile the plant and bird life that exist alongside the settler detritus that litters the shoreline or is revealed as the water evaporates. It’s a vivid example of the difference between exploitation and stewardship; of taking what’s needed while leaving something for the future, as the Native peoples did, and taking everything as white settlers believed was their right. The Settler Sea is a cautionary tale about the consequences of unbridled capitalism, militarism, dryland irrigation, and white supremacy.