Though the Salton Sea laps desert along its eastern and western shores, on north and south it borders the manicured greenery of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys (pages 544-5). Constellations of towns gleam where lantern-lit tent cities sprang up only two generations back.
“My mother and dad at first lived under canvas, with a stovepipe for a chimney,” said C. W. (Chuck) Seybert of Brawley. “They lived with the dust and got stuck fording the canals. Now we have pavement and bridges, and farmers worry about how much grain they’re losing to wild ducks and geese.
“Sometimes the birds land by the thousands,” Chuck said. I’d met him at dawn near some blinds he manages for sportsmen. “The farmers try all kinds of scare devices. They even set off little explosive charges. Strips of metal foil seem to work best. The least breeze makes them shimmer, and the birds can see that movement, even by starlight.”
Chuck paused as distant V’s of pintails wheeled low. A few ducks fell abruptly, and the dull percussion of shotguns reached our ears. Some hunters straggled from brush-pile blinds, led by 6-foot-5 John Elmore, whose hunting jacket bulged with birds.
Rain Can Be a Nuisance
John is a second-generation Imperial Valley farmer with thousands of acres to cultivate. The talk turned to farming and, inevitably, to the water that makes it possible here—water brought by the 80-mile All American Canal in a volume greater than that normally carried by the Potomac River.
“We’d just as soon not see rain at all,” John said. “It just interferes.” Even though rare, rainfall can erode seedbeds, wash off pesticides, cause leaf rot, and mire machines. “We’re a food factory here in the valley. Sometimes we have to operate 24 hours a day.”
This sun-drenched land yields two harvests a year—in some cases, three. By early November lettuce by the trainload is speeding across the continent from “the nation’s winter salad bowl.” Good Imperial Valley soil grows crops ranging from alfalfa to zucchini.
Even the valley’s poorer soil—the caliche, or chalky hardpan—is good for something if you’ve got water, I found. Last year several “farms” in the area shipped $300,000 worth of catfish to market.
“The caliche is ideal for our ponds,” manager Bob Dailey of the Mesquite Lake Catfish Farm told me when I stopped by. “It’s like concrete—no seepage.” He was having a busy afternoon, packing a shipment in ice for a San Diego seafood restaurant, showing off an albino catfish to some visiting Boy Scouts, and answering my questions.
“They grow fast when you give them the right combination of water, temperature, sunshine, and food,” he said, holding up a pair of plump, bewhiskered three-pounders just netted from the farm’s shallow, diked ponds. “These fellows are only two years old. Last year we marketed 300,000 pounds.”
But the valley’s top money-maker is neither fish nor vegetable. “It’s beef cattle,” Ed Rutherford of Brawley told me. “Feeder-pen beef last year brought Imperial County $125,000,000.”
We met in his office in the rambling Plant-er’s Hotel, since pioneer days a place where cattlemen gather to trade and talk. Firm jaw, dark moustache, and weathered skin gave him the look of a Western movie sheriff, and in fact he does have a stake in the film busi¬ness. With son S. P. Rutherford he runs Ran¬dall Ranch, which stocks a herd of real Texas longhorns, plus buckboards, fringe-topped surreys, and even glass-sided hearses—all for rent to moviemakers. But like his father be¬fore him, Ed is primarily a cattleman.
“We feed out and sell about 100,000 head a year,” he said. The Orita Land and Cattle Company which he runs with partner Dan Cameron, spreads pens over 160 acres. A towering feed mill grinds grain and silage rations by the ton. “We buy animals from as far away as Montana, although most are local stock. We grow most of our feed. Water costs are negligible.” That’s Colorado water, of course.
Rodeo Not All Fun for a Clown
The Imperial Valley’s festivals celebrate its products. In Holtville it’s carrots, in El Centro it’s lettuce, but in beefy Brawley it’s an annual rodeo named Cattle Call. I at-tended it with Ed Rutherford.
“Cattle Call is the first rodeo of the season, and we come to enjoy the good weather and have a good time,” said J. C. Bonine, a top money winner last year. But no rodeo—not even Cattle Call—is all fun, especially for the rodeo clown. “I just got over five broken ribs,” red-mop-topped Chuck Henson said. “Happened when a bull got me up against a fence at Fort Madison, Iowa, and stuck a horn in my side.” In sag¬ging pants, top hat, and sneakers Chuck sashayed into the arena, where he cavorted nimbly to divert wild bulls from thrown riders, or stumbled over his own feet to divert the crowd, as occasion required.
For two days thousands of spectators cheered, and a hundred performers shared bruises and prize money. To keep grass on the rodeo grounds costs water—”about $100 worth a year,” Ed Rutherford said.
It takes a lot more water to stage another annual sporting event over on Lake Havasu, behind Parker Dam, but it’s free. I watched drivers from as far as the Netherlands and Tahiti race for $65,000 in prizes in the Out¬board World Championship. About a hun¬dred tunnel-hull boats reared up and planed at more than 100 miles an hour (page 550).
The Bittersweet Waters of the Lower Colorado “Hardly more than your propeller is in the water,” said St. Louis racer Bill Seebold. “It’s the nearest thing to flying.” “But watch out for gusts—and for holes in the water,” said Bob Hering of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Wakes, winds, and waves can combine to make the “holes.” Bob knows. He hit one in 1971 and flipped, cracking a ver¬tebra: “When you’re doing 100, that water can be hard.”
The race takes place in sight of the most famous bridge on the river. Stately London Bridge, which until recently arched over the Thames, now crosses a part of Lake Havasu (page 554) and helps draw tourists to Lake Havasu City, a development of Robert P. McCulloch, Sr., and C. V. Wood, Jr.
When the London Council in 1968 put the aging span up for sale, the partners offered the winning bid of $2,400,000, “with an extra $60,000 thrown in for Bob’s sixtieth birthday,” as Mr. Wood remembers it. They spent another $5,600,000 to take apart, ship, and rebuild the historic span in Arizona. Under one end now clusters a tiny English village, complete with a pub where the ale and beef are rare, and where two different waitresses thought my first name was “Luv.”
I drove from the river to the Coachella Valley in a couple of hours, but the Colorado water that moistens valley fields is three days getting there by canal. Distance and time mean higher water costs—$3.25 per acre-foot for the Coachella farmer, versus $2.30 in the Imperial Valley.
“Also, except for the main canal, our system is underground—in 500 miles of pipes,” said Keith Ainsworth, veteran assistant manager of the Coachella distribution system.
Minimal seepage and evaporation plus profitable crops like dates and table grapes make the system economically feasible. “Our per-acre yield is $1,280, and that’s tops for any irrigated district in the nation.”