– The 1999 Western States Book Award for Creative Non-Fiction
– The 1999 Clements Prize for the Best Non-Fiction Book on Southwestern America
– The 2000 Norris and Carol Hundley Award from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association
In low places consequences collect, and in all North America you cannot get much lower than the Imperial Valley of southern California, where one town, 186 feet below sea level, calls itself the Lowest Down City in the Western Hemisphere, and where the waters of the Colorado River sustain a billion-dollar agricultural industry. The consequences of that industry drain from the valley into the accidentally man-made Salton Sea, California’s largest lake and a vital stopping place for migratory waterfowl. Today the Salton Sea is in desperate environmental trouble.
Historian and author deBuys (Enchantment and Exploitation; River of Traps) offers an absorbing record of the ideas and people that tamed the Colorado River and transformed southeastern California from a desert into one of the continent's great agricultural regions. Expertly interweaving extensive historical research, interviews and personal observation, deBuys creates a biography of sorts of California's Imperial Valley, one that begins with the valley's first inhabitants, the Yuman-speaking natives, and extends to the present. Recognizing that an "infinity of human lives and relations" make up "the main cargo of history," deBuys wisely opts to make people the focus of his narrative, introducing readers to a gallery of rogues, dreamers and unsung heroes. Well-chosen quotations and document excerpts bring to life figures such as Penn Phillips, "Mr. Big" of California in the '50s, who deBuys contends made millions by selling worthless land along the polluted Salton Sink; William Smythe, who, half a century earlier, brought evangelical zeal to the cause of "reclaiming" the Colorado Desert for agriculture; and Godfrey Sykes, a 19th-century drifter, "delta rat" and "sympathetic witness to troubles and transformation." DeBuys describes the devastating flood of 1905-06, which was caused partially by inept tinkering with the Colorado River and which led to the creation of the Salton Sea, the deepest point on the continent. Years of agricultural runoff and pollution have left the sea highly contaminated, and deBuys devotes the last section of his book to a concise examination of its ecology and current condition, and to possible solutions for saving it. Through his study of the Imperial Valley, deBuys offers a notable exploration of how the American dream has played out in one representative locale. 3 maps, 30 halftones; 100 duotone photos by Joan Myers not seen by PW.