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The Desert Is Made of Water

Mono Lake
Silver Lake, north of Baker, in January 2005 after a wet winter | Photo: Chris Clarke

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

The California Desert includes some of the driest, hottest places on the planet. There are parts of the California desert where entire years have been recorded with no rainfall. Those places are notable mainly because someone was keeping records. Across the tens of thousands of square miles of diverse ecosystems that make up the California desert, there are entire valleys, entire mountain ranges that get just a trace of rain in a typical year.

And yet there are few places in the desert that are not almost entirely shaped by water.

Look at a bajada: the broad apron of debris that encircles the base of any typical mountain range in the desert. Bajadas are made of deep, stony alluvium. They are often sun-baked, dessicated. The plants that grow on them often must send their roots deep below the surface to get the bare minimum of water they need to survive.

Almost every single bajada rock larger than a grain of sand was put there by water.

Look at the walls of a roadcut through a bajada and you’ll see for yourself. There are bands of finer particles, silt and sand, much of which may have been laid down one layer after another by the wind. But interspersed among those layers of sand and silt you’ll find cobbles, some the size of golf balls, others the size of VW Golfs. They are at least partly rounded. They are deposited in thick layers. They were put there, layer by layer, pulse by pulse, in an uncountable series of flash floods over millions of years.

Water flows through the desert as sudden summer rains, or lingering winter ones, that drop a bit of moisture and then move on. The briefly moistened soil feeds the roots of plants. Animals drink the water as it makes pools in hollow spots in the rock. Sometimes a strong storm will send a flash flood down a canyon, upturning trees and incautiously parked cars, tearing down one section of a bajada and rebuilding it somewhere else.  

Water flows through the desert in rivers, the Mojave and the Owens and the Colorado, that rise in well-watered highlands somewhere else and tumble across the arid land due to flukes of gravity and geography.

Water flows through the desert in deep time. Rains that fell a hundred thousand years ago, stored in subterranean reservoirs in the gravel alluvium that fills the desert’s deepest valleys, trickles out a little at a time to quench the thirst of bighorn sheep and desert woodrats, and people.

Water flows through the desert through the minds of people, their cultures. Look at a map of the desert. Water is all over it in place names in the languages of the conquerors: Palm Springs. Las Vegas, from the Spanish for wet meadows. Indian Wells. Newberry Springs. Greenwater. Furnace Creek.

Seep at Red Rock Canyon State Park
An improbable seep at Red Rock Canyon State Park | Photo: Chris Clarke

Speakers of Native languages were even more cognizant of the desert’s water when naming places. The word “pah,” for instance, which means “water” in Paiute, Shoshone, and a few other Native languages with some variations in pronunciation, populates place names across the southwest deserts in California and elsewhere. Ivanpah: clear water. Pahrump: rock spring. Tonopah: creosote spring. Hanaupah: Bear water. A few places outside the desert, like Pala and Pacoima, also owe their names to this native word.

Even the name Mojave, which signifies in the modern mind the hottest, driest place imaginable, springs from a body of water. The Mojave Desert was named after the Mojave River, which the desert contains almost entirely. The river was named by John C. Frémont for the Mojave people, though it was the Vanyume who occupied its banks. The Mojave people, who lived (and still do) along the Colorado, called themselves Pipa Aha Macav, which untrained Western ears heard as “Mojave.”  Pipa Aha Macav means “people by the river.”

The Pipa Aha Macav may not have lived along the Mojave back then, but they certainly knew it well along its full length. Native people who live in intimate familiarity with their landscapes come to know which necessary resources might be in short supply. Water in the desert is no exception. There are perennial water sources in the desert, but there are far more ephemeral ones: snowmelt-fed springs that dry in summer; rock “tanks” that fill with water during summer monsoons and then evaporate their stores over weeks; wetlands replenished when the undammed Colorado would jump its banks during spring floods.

Knowing where these water sources were, and when they were likely to hold usable water, was crucial to survival for anyone venturing more than a day’s walk from a river or permanent spring in the days before aqueducts and water trucks. Maps were a matter of life and death.

And the best maps for life and death situations are those you cannot possibly lose. Native people in the desert sang songs as maps; long, memorized cycles of dozens of songs that described paths through the landscape that — among other things— led from one source of water to another. That wasn’t the only purpose for these songs. They also recounted history and creation stories. Singing them constituted important ritual practice for important life milestones, including passage into the next world. They conveyed moral instruction.

The Salt Songs of the Southern Paiute, the Bird Songs of the Mojave and Kumeyaay and Cahuilla, the Lightning Songs of the Quechan are diverse in their content and practices. But they share a common foundation in the landscape; they describe routes from one place to another, and those routes follow the water.

Native people in the desert have followed the water over millennia. Their ancestors 12,000 years ago lived along the shores of the desert’s archipelago of freshwater lakes, building sizable settlements and thriving societies. Around 8,000 years ago the climate changed. Freshwater lakes became dry lakes. Ponds shrunk to springs, which shrunk to seeps. The people adapted. To western eyes, the present-day desert may look as if it has been desiccated since time immemorial. Native culture still holds memories of that landscape when it was full of living ancestors.

Lake Manly 2005
Lake Manly, a.k.a. the floor of Death Valley at Badwater, January 2005 | Photo: Chris Clarke

Until recently, Western culture has largely passed the deserts by, seeing them as inimical to life. We have sped through the deserts on foot, on muleback, in air-conditioned cars, desperate to make the crossing as quickly as possible to get to the green lands on the far side. As a result, the deserts are largely unimpaired in an ecological sense. The North American deserts contain the continent’s largest intact ecological region outside the Arctic. Though we’ve used them for dangerous pursuits from nuclear testing to tank training to methamphetamine lab operations, we had barely scratched the surface of the deserts by the 1980s.

Through that whole time, Native people knew a different desert; one that could actively support a flourishing human life, and long as the humans knew how to live there. In part due to Westerners’ disdain for the deserts, the desert Native peoples’ cultural landscapes, as represented in song and memory, are relatively intact compared to other, more irrevocably altered places.

But that’s changing. Westerners have swallowed the rest of the continent, and we turn our hungry eyes to those last bits we once spurned for not being green enough. We have long mined the desert’s rock. We began to mine the desert’s water in the 20th Century, Owens Valley settlers appropriating Paiute irrigation ditches only to have that water appropriated in turn by the City of Los Angeles. In 2008 we began in earnest to mine the desert’s sunshine, with many square miles of the Native cultural landscape condemned to hold huge solar facilities.

Whether your mining concern goes after gold or sunlight, you will need water to make it run. Pumping enough water from the ground to support industry means drawing down 15,000-year-old aquifers. It means drying up local springs and seeps. It means further eating the landscape.  Only a people divorced from the landscape could decide to eat that landscape and call it a “sustainable” act.

When your view of the landscape extends back to include your ancestors of 12,000 years ago, it is a little harder to shrug off such shortsightedness. A people can live forever in the desert, but they have to do it right.


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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