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.
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 .
When we talk about the Salton Sea, the discussion often revolves around science, environment, and economics. How toxic is the water, exactly? Which types of birds rely on the sea’s existence? What is the price tag on implementing restoration projects? While these are all great conversations, we often forget the major and arguably most important factor: the role of people.
From afar, students, researchers, and policymakers around California and the world gawk at the state of the Salton Sea, while thousands of people reside near the Sea and experience its stench and beauty every day. A local photographer seeks to share the stories of these people through Salton Sea Speaks.
At the Salton Sea, a real dilemma of environmental justice has emerged. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as :
“… the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”