For the past several years, I’ve been slowly researching the history of my hometown of Fullerton, California. Most of this research has taken place in local libraries and museums. But lately, I’ve been reading a book called Imperial by William T. Vollmann, which is a sort of history/sociology/geography of Imperial County, California. Unlike traditional (“professional”) historians, Vollmann does a lot of “hands-on” research, like crossing the U.S./Mexico border several times, hanging out with both undocumented immigrants and U.S. Border Patrol, and physically exploring (by car, foot, inflatable raft, etc.) the landscape.
One of the most impressive/crazy things Vollmann does is to buy a raft and explore the New River, a rancid, polluted waterway that begins in Mexico and ends in the Salton Sea. To give you an idea of how crazy this is, here are a few excerpts from his journey:
“The New River…claims the distinction of being the filthiest stream in the nation. Picking up untreated sewage, landfill leachate, and industrial wastes from the Mexican boomtown of Mexicali, the New River swings north to receive the salt, selenium, and pesticides running off the fields of Imperial Vallery…It dead-ends in the Salton Sea…A Border Patrolman told me that the Rio Nuevo (New River) will strip paint off metal…We dragged the boat down a steep path I’d found between the briars, and then the stench of the foaming green water was in our nostrils as we stood for one last glum instant on the bank, whose muck seemed to be at least halfway composed of rotting excrement…Already we were sopping wet and patchily black-stained. The first few drops on my skin burned a little bit…The grayish-black mud clung more stickily than ever to the paddle. I vaguely considered vomiting…Another inlet, another pipe (this one gushing coffee-colored liquid)…suddenly the sewage smell got sweeter and more horrid once again…At hot and smelly midmorning the river split into three channels, all of them impassable due to tires and garbage, and here again the water became…rich lime…Even after a shower, my hands kept burning, and the next day Jose (his fellow sailor) and I couldn’t get the taste out of our mouths…A week later, my arms were inflamed up to the elbow and my abdomen was red and burning.”
Vollmann does this to find things out that one cannot find in books. He is after a kind of truth of both knowledge and experience.
Inspired by Vollmann, I decided to do a little local exploring myself today. One of the main themes of Imperial is how humans have appropriated water to profoundly alter landscapes. In his 1921 book History of Orange County, Samuel Armor describes the Santa Ana River, which at the height of Orange County’s orange industry was the main source of irrigation water for all those thousands of acres of groves. Armor writes: “The Santa Ana River takes its rise in the San Bernadino Mountains, from seventy-five to one hundred miles distant, and is one of the most important streams for irrigating purposes in Southern California.” Local ranchers like Fullerton’s own Charles C. Chapman relied on the Santa Ana River to water their vast orange empire.
So, why does this matter? Well, if you’ve ever taken a drive down the 91 freeway through Orange County, you undoubtedly have observed that big waterless concrete gulch as you pass Angel Stadium and the Honda Center. That’s the Santa Ana River. Accounts from early Spanish explorers of this region describe a rather lush natural river. So what happened? How did a real river get transformed into a desolate concrete gulch? And how does this affect our lives today? I’ve actually written a brief history of water in Orange County, based mainly on Barbara Milkovich’s book A History of Orange County Water District. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. That doesn’t answer questions like: “How does it feel to walk along the Santa Ana River today, and how is this feeling different from, say, what a member of the local Native American tribe (the Kizh) might feel when she walks beside this “river”. I hope to explore these questions in my history of Fullerton.
Today, I decided to explore some of the Santa Ana River by hiking along it and (like Vollmann) documenting my experience with words and pictures. Here goes (sorry for that long introduction):
Because I am one of those rare Southern Californians who doesn't own a car, I have to get around by train, bus, bike, and foot. To get to the Santa Ana River, I took the Metrolink train from Fulleton to Anaheim, which drops you off at the fancy new ARTIC station right next to Angel Stadium. From there, you can enter the Santa Ana River Bikeway, which takes you right alongside the river, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. I didn't go that far today.
So, of course, the first thing you notice about the Santa Ana River is that it's completely unnatural-looking and has no water.
There are signs warning people not to enter the riverbed because, if you do, you might drown in all that water.
To be fair, the Santa Ana River does sometimes have water when its really rainy, which is increasingly less. Usually the river looks like this:
Despite the warnings of flood waters, the Santa Ana River is actually populated with life. Beneath the shade of nearly every freeway overpass, there are homeless tent encampments.
These tent camps also line certain edges of the River.
These camps are, of course, illegal, but because Orange County lacks a permanent year-round homeless shelter, this is the best that one of the wealthiest regions in the world can do.
Billboards along the freeway mock the homeless with signs of affluence and financial security.
Other signs offer different messages.
Ominous-looking black office buildings can also be seen from the river trail.
Interestingly, homeless people are almost the only life that can be seen in this once lush river. Here and there, a plant will struggle to emerge from the sand.
A few birds cool themselves in a tiny pool of stagnant water.
Blackbirds search for food in this wasteland.
Despite the general feeling of desolation, there is a kind of utilitarian, geometric beauty to the concrete overpasses.
Meanwhile, cars and trucks pass overhead, paying little notice.
And then, and then, in the distance, there is this green oasis. What is it? Is there water? As it turns out, the green oasis is the River View Golf Course, smack dab in the middle of the Santa Ana River.
And that's where I turned around, and headed back, because I was hot, and sunburned, and tired of this fake river. I walked back to the relatively new ARTIC public transit station in Anaheim, where I took a train back to Fullerton. The ARTIC looks like something out of Star Trek, if I'm being optimistic.
Or, if I'm being less than optimistic, given the state of the Santa Ana River, the ARTIC station is like something out of Frank Herbert's Dune, like the planet Giedi Prime, a totally industrialized planet with no natural resources. A dead world, full of sick and dying people.