Letter From the Desert: Shavers Valley

This time with fewer typos

Fly over the place and it’s clear the land was created by an endless series of flash floods. One cataclysm after another laid down this broad alluvial slope. Speed up the historical record and the floods would appear to come out of Pinkham Canyon and writhe across the landscape like a firehose escaped from a first-responder’s gloved grasp.

You can trace the path of those historic floods by untangling the braid of dry washes they laid down year after year. A network of sinuous channels converge, then depart one another, then gather themselves together for the plunge down steep-walled Box Canyon to the Coachella Valley. The most recent large flood, in late September 2018, snared an unlucky visitor to Joshua Tree National Park. Ankit Goyal was heading back home to El Centro September 30 when the flood crest caught up to his silver Honda. Authorities found his car two days later, swept off the road and — in the words of law enforcement — “significantly damaged.” Goyal’s body, which had been flushed fully out of the canyon, wasn’t found for another month.

The floods upend boulders, uproot trees. They undermine bridge supports and thereby close transcontinental highways. They tear down the mountains piece by piece, turn them into slurry, and flush them into the Salton Sea.

This is not a place you want to build your house. The Glorious Land Company wanted to build 8,500 houses here. As far as I know, none of the principals of the Glorious Land Company planned to risk their lives living here during the monsoons.

I speak here in the past tense for a reason. As of Tuesday November 5, the Paradise Valley Project, which would have put 8,500 homes and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space on this active floodplain, which would have disemboweled the largest piece of dry wash woodland in California’s Sonoran Desert and undermined the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, which would have blocked migration of bighorn and tortoise and possibly Sonoran pronghorn, which would have impeded the view of the Milky Way in the Pinto Basin and tainted the air breathed by its neighbors in Mecca and Thermal,…

… as of Tuesday November 5, that Paradise Valley Project is no more. It was voted down unanimously by the Board of Supervisors of Riverside County. The desert won one.

I played a role in bringing about that defeat, an honor I share with several dozen others at a minimum. Perhaps you are one of those several dozen others, in which case, thank you. I count my modest role in saving this little piece of desert as one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I have been thinking about something that has become almost uniform among proponents of projects that would destroy the desert. Representatives of the Glorious Land Company stated with straight faces, before various meetings of the Riverside County Planning Commission over the last year and change, that their project’s residents would mainly work on the site and that most of those who worked in Paradise Valley’s businesses would be able to afford to live there, as God was their witness. (Each statement was trivially refutable; both claims combined were a near-impossibility even if the city were ten times larger.)

The Cadiz water project’s backers at the Three Valleys Municipal Water District hired a Cadiz supporter of more than a decade’s standing to run an examination of Cadiz’s environmental effects funded by Cadiz, and are calling that potential work an “independent study” of the project. The Brightsource corporation, designer of the bird-incinerating Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, hired an expert to testify before the California Energy Commission that the combined solar energy from a similar project would be comparable to the radiation landing on your face when you use one of those old-school three-part folding tanning mirrors. Contracting biologists are instructed by their superiors to undercount mortalities caused by the client. Or to fail to mention any mortalities at all.

Bald-faced lies became standard operating procedure some time ago.


Idly wondering some time back what this world would be like if it actually hurt to tell a lie, I realized at length that sometimes it does. Lies sometimes carry potential pain severe enough to cause, say, an ambassador to return to Capitol Hill to clarify and expand on his previous remarks to impeachment inquiries.

I feel compelled to ask, possibly rhetorically: what if environmental assessment claims were subject to perjury laws? What if backers of desert water mining projects were compelled to make their aquifer recharge rate claims under oath? What if lead agencies and the public were able to depose proponents’ expert witnesses?

More broadly: what if we could not count on deliberate untruths being a ubiquitous feature of environmental assessment? What if we made a small effort to hold people to the truth?

Truth like a flood comes out of these canyons, batters chainlink fences and tears through hastily cut access roads. Locks rust overnight. Bolts shatter. Specious claims and shiny lies are swept aside. They sustain significant damage. Beyond, the desert thrives.

All photos in this issue are by me, November 2018, on land that would have been destroyed to build the Paradise Valley project.

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