The Salton Sea is California's largest lake, stretching 35 miles along the San Andreas fault about 150 miles east of Los Angeles and 200 feet below sea level. It is surrounded by harsh desert as well as productive agricultural land irrigated by water from the Colorado River and draining back into the Sea. The Salton basin was once home to the much larger Lake Cahuilla, which would fill up and dry out in 300 year cycles as the path of the Colorado River periodically shifted, flooding the region then slowly returning to desert as it turned back. In 1905, irrigation canals that had been built to divert water from the river overflowed and collapsed, creating the Salton Sea over the course of a raging two year flood.
Created and fed by the accidental and intentional flows of water through the desert, the Salton Sea is a fascinating artifact of the infrastructures and ecologies of Southern California's water resources. Enormous aqueducts transfer water across huge distances to feed the growth of Los Angeles and the growth of crops in the inland valleys. Agricultural runoff maintains the water level of the Sea but has gradually increased the salinity of the water to levels where most fish can no longer survive. The fish die-offs, in addition to flash flooding and overzealous real estate speculation on coastal vacation homes led to the eventual collapse of California's desert "Riviera" that had sprang up by the Salton Sea in the 1950's. As Salton City was being abandoned, coastal wetlands to the West were being rapidly destroyed by Souther California's urban sprawl, leaving the Salton Sea to become California's "crown jewel of avian biodiversity," a crucial stopover in the Pacific migration of thousands of birds.
This strange and thriving ecosystem of birds that should be elsewhere eating fish species introduced to lure tourists to a desert lake that shouldn't exist is a powerful symbol of the complexities of the "post-natural" world. The Salton Sea tells a much bigger story than simply the resilience of "natural" ecology despite human interference and shows that there are no clear answers for what nature "should" be. Images of the ruins at the shores of the Sea tend to titillate and alienate us from the ways that we are embedded in the ecologies, networks, and infrastructures that create, maintain, and threaten the Sea. In the words of Bruno Latour's "Compositionist Manifesto": "Once again, our age has become the age of wonder at the disorders of nature ... micro- and macrocosm are now literally and not simply symbolically connected, and the result is a kakosmos, that is, in polite Greek, a horrible and disgusting mess!" (PDF)
I became interested in the connections between the living microcosms and infrastructural macrocosms of the Salton Sea after a brief visit to the area during the Southern California STS retreat. Back at the lab, I isolated microbes from some water we collected at the site of what was once the Salton Bay Yacht Club. I tested the tolerance of these strains to high salt concentrations and identified them by sequencing pieces of their DNA. This was in some ways a pretty straightforward experiment in environmental microbiology, but I was interested in the ways that these kinds of experimental abstractions could reflect the complexities of the ecology of the Salton Sea. In a recent exhibition at the UCLA Art|Science gallery, I paired artifacts from the collection, isolation, analysis, and potential biotechnological future of the Salton Sea's microbes with satellite images of the region, exploring the symbolic and literal connections of microcosm and macrocosm.
What can microbes from marginal, polluted places tell us? What can we learn about the intersections of biology and society from the adaptation of microbial ecologies to increasing salinity, high levels of arsenic, oil spills, or novel toxins? These are microscopic results of a global-scale experiment in artificial evolution, the prokaryotes of the Anthropocene. They are symbols and warnings of environmental degradation, they are the raw genetic material for new biotechnologies, they are at the forefront of evolutionary creativity and adaptive change. When we encounter bacteria in our daily lives the response is often to grab disinfectant wipes, but encountering microbes from places like the Salton Sea makes visible not just potential for disease, but the many interconnected ecologies of our world.