The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2000, Volume 46, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor

Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California.

By William deBuys. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999. Photos, maps, notes, index, xvii + 307 pp. $35.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Philip R. Pryde, Professor of Geography, San Diego State University, editor and part author of San Diego: An Introduction to the Region 3rd ed. 1992).

Salt Dreams is one of those splendid books that simply will not let you skim through it quickly, no matter how busy you may think you are. The subject matter captivates you, the author’s polished writing style rivets your attention, and the many revelations in each succeeding chapter cause you to linger over every paragraph so as not to miss any of the fascinating tidbits it may contain.

Geographically, the book is about the Colorado River, the development of the Imperial and Coachella valleys, and the Salton Sea. Topically, it focuses on the history, politics, and greed of those who have sought to transform nature in this driest and hottest of North American deserts. One of its many satisfying features is that it includes topics that other works on the Colorado River might overlook, such as the river’s delta, daily life in Mexicali, and the Native Americans of the region.

The author has an admirable ability to alter his writing style to suit the nature and spirit of the particular topic before us. In one chapter you feel you’re reading Steinbeck, in the next Mark Twain, and in another Woodward and Bernstein. In each case, the intended atmosphere of the chapter is skillfully created.


Salt Dreams is a history of the region’s layers of human occupancy, what the author terms “the archeology of place”. It begins with prehistoric Lake Cahuilla and ends with Sonny Bono and the 1998 Congressional effort to “restore” the Salton Sea. In between is an impressively documented history of the region that spotlights a wealth of fascinating topics, such as the byzantine (and legally dubious) methods used by the early developers of the Imperial valley to create the first canal and irrigation system. As another example: how many know that the Imperial Valley was as important a migration route for California’s “49ers” headed for the gold fields as was Donner Pass, and no less treacherous? Or that both the New and Alamo Rivers were at various times the natural overflow route for floodwaters from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley, and indeed during the great flood of 1891 were apparently connected by a vast sea of water?

Although most of the book centers on the Imperial Valley and the anthropogenic creation and despoliation of the Salton Sea, the real hero is the Colorado River. By turns explored, misunderstood, feared, coveted, abused, apportioned, and diverted, the Colorado awaits a new wave of settlers in its basin who will appreciate it for the remarkable resource that it is, and at long last treat it with due respect.

In this regard, the authors are apparently proponents of the school of thought that restoring the wetlands of the lower Colorado River is at least as important a goal as the current emphasis on restoring the Salton Sea. They especially note the great potential importance of the wetlands along Mexico’s Rio Hardy and Santa Clara cienega .

On the other hand, they may overstate the “illness” of the Salton Sea. While the increasing salinity is a serious problem, recent scientific studies conclude that other chemicals and compounds are generally within recommended limits, and are unlikely causes of avian mortality. Indeed, part of its problem is that it is too healthy; the high biotic productivity produces so many millions of fish that periodic surface reductions in dissolved oxygen is probably a major cause of the frequent tilapia die-offs.

Two sets of maps are included, the first a most informative pair showing the greater Salton Sink — lower Colorado River watershed as it existed in 1906, and the second pair showing the same region in 1999. One other set of well-researched maps details the efforts to confine the river again following the disastrous breaching of the confinement dikes in 1905. The mislabeling of the East Highline Canal on the 1999 map is a minor glitch, but one does wish that they had made some in-text references to the maps to aid the reader. This would have been particularly helpful in chapters three through five, where some referrals to the 1906 map would have helped with the location of early place names.

Neither the author nor the photographer are Californians (they live in Santa Fe); this is perhaps an advantage as it permits them to write objectively about this complex story (we have stolen relatively little water from New Mexico, after all). The photographs, like the text, are excellent. Some seem at first glance to give little (or no) indication of where they were taken or what they’re portraying, but the reader soon learns that the authors are testing whether you’re paying attention – several of the unlabeled pictures are amply identified when the reader gets to the chapter to which they pertain.

For anyone (such as this reviewer) interested in southern California avifauna, the book also notes some interesting bird “sightings”. Although it is conceivable (but highly unlikely) that such Pacific Ocean species as pigeon guillemot and tufted puffin could have been blown to the Salton Sea by storms in 1908 (p. 135), it is fairly safe to say that scissor-tailed flycatchers have never been resident in Calipatria (as is implied on page 192). On a different theme, on page 169 the term “flood irrigation” is used in a context where the author apparently means “furrow irrigation”.

Perhaps more in need of re-wording, should a second edition be contemplated, are a couple of paragraphs involving water quantities. First, footnote ten to chapter eleven should note the several hundred thousand acre-feet of water that evaporate annually off the Colorado River reservoirs; this is a significant loss. Second, the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) is discussed on p. 166, but the corresponding footnote nineteen states that “In 1995 San Diego consumed about 200,000 acre-feet/year”; this is either a misprint, or perhaps the footnote meant to refer only to the city of San Diego, as the SDCWA annually imports over twice that amount.

The foregoing pickiness, however, in no way detracts from the overall excellence of this volume. No one, regardless of their degree of familiarity with this region, could fail to gain a wealth of new insights from Salt Dreams, nor regret the hours curled up while engrossed in the reading of it.

In summary, this is one of the most fascinating and informative books that I’ve encountered in a long time. You don’t simply read it, you become immersed in it, captivated by it. DeBuys and Myers are to be congratulated for compiling such a wealth of historical and contemporary information, and presenting it to us in such a lively manner. Everyone who would be a professional writer should read this work. So should everyone who would understand our deserts, and the nature of the waters that sustain them. It reveals much, as well, about how the American dream works (and doesn’t work), at least on our marginally habitable frontiers. I will be surprised if Salt Dreams doesn’t win a deserved share of literary awards.