Stranger In A Strange Land

For inspiration before leaving on my Discovery Ride, I decided to read most of the entries by Jupiter's Travellers in Journey Insights.  As I read about their moving experiences from around the world, and wondered at the photographs of exotic locales, it struck me about how different the purpose of my trip was compared to their travels.  All Jupiter's Travellers fulfill the belief of the Ted Simon Foundation "that individuals of good will, moving among foreign cultures and making themselves vulnerable to the beliefs and customs of strangers, have great importance in promoting world understanding".  I realized that I could never meet that standard since I was traveling as a citizen in my own country!  How could I be part of the Foundation philosophy when I was not a stranger in a strange land?

My concerns were quickly put to rest on the first day of my trip.  Strange?  How about an agricultural Eden in the middle of the desert?  How about avocados, tomatoes, and watermelon, often as far as the eye can see?

I picked up my motorcycle from Jupiter's Motorcycle Rentals in Los Angeles, and took off for Yuma, Arizona, by way of Calexico on the California-Mexico border.  The first leg of my journey took me through one of the most productive agricultural areas in the U.S., the Imperial Valley, sometimes called America's Winter Salad Bowl.  If you've eaten a salad recently, it's likely the lettuce was picked here.  The agriculture industry here produces a billion dollars of crops annually.

The entire area was originally desert, and it is still ringed by the Mojave Desert to the north, the Sonoran Desert to the south and the Algodones Dunes to the east.  The Algodones Dunes are the largest mass of dunes in California, extending forty miles from north to south and over five miles in width.

A century ago engineers diverted water from the Colorado river to irrigation canals in the Imperial Valley, converting the arid desert into fertile agricultural land, and inadvertently creating the Salton Sea, a large saline inland lake, to the north.  Today the Salton Sea is fed by two small rivers, the New and the Alamo, that flow north around Calexico from Mexico, and by agricultural irrigation runoff from nearly a half million acres of farms in the area.  The rivers are polluted with chemical and human waste, and the agricultural runoff rife with chemical fertilizers.  The New River contains a mix of about 100 biological contaminants, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and pesticides including selenium, uranium, arsenic and mercury. The river also holds the biological sources that cause tuberculosis, encephalitis, polio, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid, all flowing untreated through Calexico.

The New River has been named North America's most polluted river, so it's no surprise that the Salton Sea is similarly toxic.  The Salton Sea is becoming more polluted yearly, as the desert heat, with temperatures routinely over 100 degrees F in summer, evaporates water from the lake, leaving more concentrated toxins behind.  Moreover, since 2003, a water deal began transferring Colorado River water from the farms of the Imperial Valley to San Diego, 85 miles away.  This will reduce water inflow to the Salton Sea about twenty percent, increasing the lake's toxins, and hastening the dying process.  It's likely that the Salton Sea will disappear or become reduced to a puddle of pollutants within a generation.

Water of course is a precious and lucrative commodity, especially in an arid region with growing demand.  California water deals have been going on for over a century (consider the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, or the movie Chinatown).  It has been cynically said that in California, water always flows uphill towards money.  The Imperial Irrigation District expects to eventually pocket 50 million dollars a year for selling its water to San Diego. That's good for valley farmers since the money will go to projects like canal lining and pump-back systems that will make farms more water efficient.

But the deal is not so good for area farm workers, many of whom are first or second generation immigrants.  Towns like Brawley or El Centro are populated by migrant agricultural workers.  Remember, this region is the center of the United Farm Workers union, once led by Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and civil rights activist.  Imperial County's population now is almost three-quarters Hispanic and already has the highest unemployment rate and lowest per capita income in the state.  Agriculture provides about half of the jobs in the Imperial Valley.  The water transfer could cost thousands of farm jobs, if cropland is laid fallow to send water to San Diego, making the already hard life of the migrant farm worker even more difficult.  It is a very strange land.

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