Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Google Map Photography: Potash Ponds near Moab, Utah


I can't drive and I also can't fly, so there are many places I can't visit. I haven't been sleeping well lately, and last night at about three am I found these ponds, strangely blue, in the deserts of Utah, near the Colorado River. I think they're beautiful, and they reminded me of just how astonishing it is that today we can see places on the internet that are really difficult to access, even for those living nearby. The closest town to these bodies of water is Moab, twenty miles away, and there is a road that runs through them, but I doubt it's open to the public.

But what are these ponds, exactly, and why are they there?

These ponds look, to me, like paint-boxes. The lakes, filled with a brine solution — created by pumping water from the Colorado River into a mine — are dyed blue to assist in evaporation. This evaporation allows potassium salts, known as Potash, to be harvested. Potash is primarily used in fertilizers, but also can be used for brewing beer, in fire extinguishers and in photographic chemicals. There are other evaporation ponds in the United States, but these two, covering 400 acres together, seem among the largest.

The ponds are beautiful, but they're also threatening water supplies and water quality in the area. I've found some photographs from the air, most taken by visitors on small planes flown by EcoFlight, an organisation that raises awareness of environmental issues through tours showing the vastness of American nature and the impact of human activity on these landscapes. It also appears in the 1982 documentary Koyannisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It's hard for me, looking at pictures of the ponds, to reconcile their attraction with the problems they're causing. It's a reminder, perhaps, that visual seductions come in all forms. It reminds me, perhaps strangely*, of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi, and the problems and prettiness of industrial sites from the nineteenth century.

But of course this landscape is very different to the industrial monuments of the nineteenth century. These ponds are astonishing, but they're not being used as propaganda. They were built by men and are owned by a corporation, but their seduction springs from how astonishingly blue they are against the red desert. The waters, deep blue and azure, play into our cultural fantasies of oases hidden in the desert.

And yet this isn't an oasis. The ponds are filled with brine, not water, coloured with dyes. They're not providing respite from a dry environment. Instead, they're the most visible element of a mining process that is draining rivers and endangering the desert, which is never as dry and lifeless as cartoons suggest.
*My academic research concerns the visual seductions of late nineteenth and early twentieth colonial capitalism, and these subjects and sites are never far from my mind.

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