My focus was for this series was on sites located outside of the metropolitan landscape, where water is the central player on the stage of urban expansion and deterioration. This led me first to the city of Palm Springs, located in the middle of Coachella Valley in the Southern California desert.
Palm Springs comprises over a 100 golf courses. These golf courses have attracted over 3 million visitors each year and generate an income of $1 billion dollars. A small section of the profits from this main attraction is invested back into building and maintaining infrastructure, such as wells that siphon water from an aquifer located deep beneath the golf courses. The 400,000 residents who own homes, swimming pools, farms, golf courses and other resorts depend heavily on the aquifer.
Along with San Diego and Los Angeles, Palm Springs has become dependent on receiving water from the Colorado River by way of the Colorado Aqueduct, and ice from the surrounding mountains. According to the California Department of Water Resources, Palms Springs uses 736 gallons of fresh water per capita per day to sustain its golf courses, and other necessities to keep the town from drying out in the harsh desert climate.
In contrast to Palms Springs, sixty miles Southeast along the briny shores of the Salton Sea, like its neighbor, the Salton City. Another dependent of the Colarado Aqueduct, it is a former resort city that enjoyed its prosperity when the Salton Sea was used as a destination for tourists and wildlife, until sixty years of agricultural runoff and industrial waste polluted the large body of water. With no main attraction like its Northern neighbor other than being a candidate for landfill, the Salton City remains a question of whether it is too small to ignore or too big to pursue. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the 3500 residents of Salton City use “531 gallons of fresh water per capita per day.” If this figure encompasses their daily needs for survival, then it is too big of an amount to ignore.
Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian photographic artist, stated in an interview that, “I’m a firm believer that what we do with our environment is ultimately our habitat, and this is what provides us the conditions for life. When things go wrong with the water, when things go wrong with the air, it doesn’t select the left or the right, you know? When consequence comes home to roost, it doesn’t respect religion or politics. It hits us all equally, for the rich and the poor.”
California has been growing at a rate of 200,000 people a year. Newcomers looking to live or visit Palm Springs, Salton City and their progenitor, Los Angeles, may not be aware of the dwindling freshwater supply around the state; they may not be aware of the decade long and often extreme droughts, that have been part of California’s natural history. As long as the aqueducts keep siphoning from their respective freshwater sources a false sense of security is at risk.
My observations of the cities which I have profiled in the Mulholland’s Gold project leads me back to Los Angeles wondering if it will continue to provide the illusion of Eden in a semi-arid desert, or if it will end up a desert city? With all the abundance of freshwater that residents in that part of the country assume they will always have, what if the freshwater runs out? Could desalination plants, super treated wastewater and contaminated groundwater become the new “freshwater” for all these people?
I worry that even if these sources became the force-choice, they may serve only as wishful alternatives to a lasting water supply.