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The Torres-Martinez Band of Desert Cahuilla Indians has resided in the northern region of the Salton basin since 1876, when President Ulysses S. Grant officially established their tribe through an executive order. Members of the modern day Torres-Martinez Band have a large investment in the Salton Sea, literally. Over 10,000 acres of their Native American Reservation, nearly half of the total checker-boarded 24,800 acres, lie under the surface of the Sea, unreachable by the tribe until the water line recedes (Figure 1). However, the story of this underwater acreage is often reported incorrectly.

Obtained from http://www.epa.gov/air/particles/designations/2006standards/rec/letters/T_Torres_Martinez_Tribal_Council_CMT.pdf
Figure 1. Map of the Torres-Martinez reservation and surrounding area. Click to enlarge. Obtained from http://www.epa.gov/air/particles/designations/2…

When the Salton Sea was formed in 1905, the Torres-Martinez did not own much, if any of the affected land. Rather in 1909, an amendment to the Mission Indian Relief Act granted the Torres-Martinez an additional 12,000 acres of land, 9,000 of which were beneath the newly formed Salton Sea. However, this was not meant to be a practical joke played by the federal government. Based on the evaporation rate of the Sea at the time, most people expected the land to be dry and available to the tribe within 25 years [1].

Then, agriculture in the Salton Sea region began to take off in the years following, and natural runoff and irrigation drainage from the Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali Valleys has kept most of the Torres-Martinez land submerged.

However, this doesn’t mean that the Torres-Martinez Indians are anxiously waiting for the day that the sea dries up and they can move-in and start developing their land. In fact, it is quite the opposite; as a part of their native traditions, the Torres-Martinez Indians plan for seven generations into the future [2]. When the Quantification Settlement Agreement was passed, the tribe recognized the challenges that their region would face in the coming years. In 2002, the Torres-Martinez Tribal Council voted to take action towards saving the Salton Sea habitat and protecting themselves from the dusty danger of the dry lakebed.

Through support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Department of Water resources, the Torres-Martinez Tribe has been able to develop an 85-acre wetland pilot project at the mouth of the Whitewater River, where it enters the Sea. The project area, shown in Figure 2, aims to

Figure 2. Map of Torres Martinez Salton Sea wetland project. Click to enlarge. Obtained from [2]
Figure 2. Map of Torres Martinez Salton Sea wetland project. Click to enlarge. Obtained from [2]
provide water treatment, habitat restoration, and sediment stabilization through seven water quality cells and four habitat ponds. The wetland project has been in place since 2009, and the Tribe hopes to expand the project to larger areas as needed [3].

Of the acreage in and around the Salton Sea, the Torres-Martinez Tribe is the largest private landowner and thus one of the largest stakeholders in the future of the Sea. Although they were not represented on the board of the Salton Sea Authority until 2002 [4], almost a decade after the group was established, the Torres-Martinez Tribe have come to play a key role in the fight to save the drying Sea. The Salton Sea, and all of southern California, would greatly benefit if everyone involved would emulate the Tribe’s forethought and stewardship in preventing environmental disaster.

Written by Holly Mayton


[1] U.S. House of Representatives, “Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians Claims Settlement Act,” House Report 104-777, Washington, D.C., 1996, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CRPT-104hrpt777/html/CRPT-104hrpt777.htm

[2] “Water Resources,” Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, accessed August 1, 2015, http://www.torresmartinez.org/Departments/Wetlands.aspx

[3] Torres Martinez Wetland Project, Agrarian Research and Management, accessed August 1, 2015, http://agrarian.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17&Itemid=18

[4] “Torres Martinez tribe added to Salton Sea Authority board,” Imperial Valley Press, accessed August 1, 2015, http://articles.ivpressonline.com/2001-06-20/tribe_24201115