For the brave reader ready to tackle it, this sprawling text offers a fascinating glimpse of a corner of America at work.
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Imperial is a swath of desert extending from both San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, to the Colorado River and dominated by an irrigated green center, the Imperial-Mexicali Valley. The valley blossomed from the imaginations – and finances – of turn-of-the-century land speculators and farming pioneers. Vollmann presents them as greedy; their contemporaries (and many invested there today) saw them as heroic. For sure, their hubris had to rival that of the Pharaohs of ancient irrigated civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt as they expropriated the lower Colorado River to feed a farming Eden in the desert. Their initial cut into the river not far above the Mexican border in 1905 was a monumental engineering disaster, exploding in a flood that wound its way north into an ancient seabed not far from the future Palm Springs. It created the 35-mile-long, 50-foot-deep Salton Sea before the breach could be stanched. That sea today, a gorgeous blue mirage from afar, is a slough often rimmed with dead fish and fed by the New River, a mire of sewage and agricultural and industrial runoff that flows out of Mexicali.Skip to next paragraph
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Along the way, this Eden has drawn intrepid souls (aka cheap labor) north from Mexico into a vortex of socioeconomic inequity. Their desperate migration patterns have made Imperial a graveyard for countless illegal immigrants lost in the white-hot desert.
Vollmann does a good job of explaining the counterintuitive farming economies of scale, how farmland falls increasingly into the hands of larger corporate interests better able to weather the ups and downs of the markets than the small farmer. Meanwhile, on the Mexican side, starved of the water by the Americans and governed by politics of a different kind, the farmland has largely remained in the ejido system of family farming.
The very thing that attracts cult followers to Vollmann’s many books of immersion in disasters of the human condition is what can repel others. A signature of his research is prostitutes – a lot of them – as well as much self-effacing personal experience. Authentic, but just too much information.
Water history has been covered more succinctly by Joan Didion and Kevin Starr, and Vollmann’s huge statistical information dumps can be tedious.
But he can also be hilarious and touching in his pursuit of detail. He puts a hidden camera in the ample bosom of his hired investigator, Perla, to get an inside look at maquiladoras and ends up finding nothing much but satisfied workers. He wanders through official corridors and back alleys of Mexicali trying – unsuccessfully – to find the source of the New River. He then precariously paddles the crumbling gorge of that foul river by rubber dinghy until his throat is sore from the fumes. He tests the waters of the Salton Sea – unquestionably polluted – and gets little but denial (including from a real estate agent standing on the desolate shore full of subdivided lots). And in one interesting and funny digression, he explores the underground tunnel network built by Mexicali’s Chinese community to beat the heat and the law.
In a perverted twist of the dream, and one that could turn the Imperial cornucopia into a modern dust bowl, many farmers have become “water farmers,” fallowing land and selling the water rights to thirsty urban areas. Why farm when you can sell water for more profit?
That question, alone, does raise some anxiety for the global future; the book will help you understand it, but certainly offers no solutions.
Clara Germani is a Monitor staff editor and a native of the Imperial Valley.