Reclamation

2022

The Western United States has been dealing with a major drought for close to twenty years. As a result, watercourses are drying up and reserves are lower than ever. In a mere fifteen years, flow rates in Colorado have diminished by about 20%, due, it is said, to the combined effects of evaporation, reduced intake and the increased use of water resources. During an extended trip across the United States in 2021-2022, I began photographing rivers and dams as part of my study of the water crisis. For a long time now, this natural resource has been overused in order to supply big cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas, which were built in the middle of the desert and continue to expand into it. Although the region’s agriculture has continued to prosper, nobody knows how long this will continue. Responding to the growing demand for water is becoming increasingly difficult in our time because the vast hydraulic infrastructure designed to conserve it was built at a time when floods, not drought, were the main source of concern.

The salt flat of Owens Lake lies east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. Since this chalky plain is blinding in the sunshine, I had to photograph it at dawn to fully appreciate the complex mineral structures that dot its surface. Over the course of that same day, bulldozers arrived to spread layers of gravel over the desiccated sodium to contain the toxic sediments that would otherwise be carried on the wind. The gashes left by these machines across this livid expanse made it look even more desolate; like scars, they reminded me of the wounds caused by the California “water wars.” In the previous century, these conflicts pitted the farmers of Owens Valley against the builders of the Los Angeles aqueduct system. Before these quarrels over water rights and the diversion of the Owens River, the lake covered an area of 280 square kilometres and had an average depth of twelves meters. Only a few shallow basins remain but ponds are being created for migratory birds in an attempt to restore the surrounding ecosystems.

The San Carlos Dam is located on the land of the San Carlos Apache community in Arizona. This Amerindian reservation, one of the poorest in the United States, was once known as “Hell’s forty acres” because of the terrible environmental and sanitary conditions that prevailed there until the late nineteenth century. The Coolidge Dam, built on the Gila River in 1930, was intended to irrigate the neighbouring agricultural land. However, this artificial lake has been filled to capacity only three times since its construction and has often remained almost completely empty. On the horizon, bare hills surrounded by vast stretches of sand indicate that the water level in the dam has indeed fluctuated over time. The infrastructure near the launch ramp appears to be in poor condition and the site is littered with trash, forming a striking contrast with the serene beauty of this semi-arid landscape.

The Rio Grande draws its water from the Colorado Mountains and stretches over 3060 kilometres to the Gulf of Mexico. The river here is barely more than an algae-covered stream, the stink of which causes a sudden wave of nausea. Close to where I am staying, I meet a couple of retirees, Dave and Larry, who live in their vans and camp in the hills. Larry tells me that the dam gates are closed during the dry season to prevent further drops in the water level, which is currently at only 13% of its initial capacity. I spend over three weeks observing and photographing these desolate places. At one point, I notice a dilapidated sign that once welcomed boaters to the Damsite Historic District; it reads: Making tomorrow’s memories today. I think about this as I contemplate these lands, which were once under water. Today, the desert is reclaiming these landscapes laid out by civilization, where cacti are once again growing.

This project includes 27 large photographs and is still ongoing.