Desert Odyssey, a review of Imperial by William T. Vollman—from the New York Times

Migrare | Migrate | Change


Published: July 29, 2009

In 1904, engineers trying to bypass the Colorado River’s silt-clogged irrigation canals dug one ditch too many. When the river next surged, it burst its perforated banks and spilled waywardly for two years into a dry California lake bed.

IMPERIAL

By William T. Vollmann

Illustrated. 1,306 pp. Viking. $55

That mistake is now the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake. For a while it was a fortunate disaster — a waterskiers’ and fishermen’s mecca, a vacation spot more popular than Yosemite, and the pride of Imperial County.

But decay set in. At 220 feet below sea level, the lake is now a sump with no drain. Agricultural pesticides and industrial waste flow in, but nothing flows out. It grows sicker and saltier each year, ringed by abandoned marinas, rotting motels, dead birds and poor people who live with a pervasive stink and the stubborn hope that…

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