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Understanding inaction in confronting ecosystem collapse: community perspectives from California’s Salton Sea

Holly J. Buck, University of California Los Angeles, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability


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Species loss is well-known as a defining challenge of our era. But in an era of increasing anthropogenic stressors, several ecosytems are at risk of collapsing because of human pressures. In the emergent literature on ecosystem collapse, few studies have focused on how ecosystem collapse is experienced by the communities living through it. In this paper I explore how communities understand ecosystem collapse, and possible ways of managing it, through a study of California’s largest lake. The Salton Sea is at an ecological tipping point where it is rapidly shrinking and becoming more saline. This paper draws on 30 semistructured interviews in the Coachella and Imperial valleys around the lake, as well as observation of community meetings and archival material, to explore the following: How do people living around the Salton Sea view its collapse, including the failure to stop it? What measures do they see as having the potential to avert its collapse? These interviews indicate a clear understanding of the imminent decline, and a variety of conjectures about why nothing has been done, attributing this to its peripherality, power inequalities, the professionalization of Salton Sea solutions, and systematic incapacity on the part of the state of California. Respondents also surfaced three potential alternative pathways for restoration, as well as insights into the challenges of implementing them. The story of the Salton Sea, an ecosystem collapse in progress with no real action, may be repeated around the world, including in high-income jurisdictions like California, and it is important to understand the political and social contexts that determine whether or not a major effort is made to prevent collapse.

Key words

ecosystem collapse; local perspectives; restoration; Salton Sea

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087