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colors of water marco van middelkoop

In 2006 I gave up smoking cigarettes and rewarded myself with a trip to the USA. That first journey inspired me to start the Colors of Water project.


ater has no color of its own, color in water always refers to something extra: reflections of sky and foliage, water bedding shining through, algae and other micro life, metals or minerals brought in from the soil or otherwise - sources that are either natural or the result of industrial pollution, sometimes harmless or sometimes disastrous; and ironically the worst kinds of ecological disaster create the most striking colors of water, delighting the eye until they turn bleak or black when the spectator realizes what causes this luring beauty and at what price. For me the lovely little orange streams in Owens Lake turned pitch black when I learned how this lake had fallen dry after in the early 20th century the Los Angeles Aqueduct had been built, turning it into a salt bed and mineral mining area from which alkali storms plague the surrounding regions, causing various illnesses. The dazzling cyanoblue of a large basin in Baha California (Mexico) paled when I found out it was brought about by waste from huge power plants providing electricity to tens of thousands of households. The intense and ecstatic green of an Arizona pond washed into grim greyness when I realized poisonous mine tailings pigmented the water. I felt this cruel beauty might not only speak to me but also to others, and might arouse an interest in what had brought it about. So I decided to document these colors of water as signals of ecological impact of mining, water supply, farming, irrigation, salt industry and power plants. Next to Owens Dry Lake, the Cerro Prieto power plants areas and Arizona mining areas, I portrayed Salton Sea, the San Francisco Salt Ponds and Searles Lake (Trona) - all are the result of human interventions in the landscape and all are polluted areas though not all equally disastrously. A few areas have entered the first phase of restoration. For most areas, however, this still is a faraway future.

Colors of Water

Owens Dry Lake


wens Dry Lake is an example of shameless use of natural resources and how it went wrong. The 110-square-mile Owens Lake was once a formidable body of water fed by the Owens River. The tragedy started when Frederick Eaton, who was mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, created the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and appointed his friend William Mulholland the superintendent. Eaton and Mulholland were expecting Los Angeles to grow much bigger and the limiting factor in growth was the water supply, their solution was building a gravity-fed aqueduct that could deliver the Owens water to Los Angeles. The Owens Valley had a large amount of runoff from the Sierra Nevada. By 1905, through purchases and bribery, Los Angeles purchased enough water rights in the Owens Valley to enable the aqueduct. The aqueduct was sold to the citizens of Los Angeles as vital to the growth of the city. However, unknown to the public, the initial water would be used to irrigate the San Fernando Valley, north of the city. A syndicate of investors (friends of Eaton) bought up large tracts of land in the San Fernando Valley with this inside information. The 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in November 1913, water from the Owens River reached a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley on November 5. After the aqueduct was completed, the San Fernando investors demanded so much water from the Owens Valley that the Owens Lake was gone from continuously holding water for more than 800,000 years to a contemporary biohazard, a crusty alkaline dust bed by 1924. Today Owens Dry Lake is the largest single source of PM-10 (fine dust) pollution in the United States. Salt grass and the installation of 300 miles underground pipe with 5000 irrigation bubblers have to accomplish the slow process of turning Owens Lake from biohazard to possible habitat.

Cerro Prieto


he Cerro Prieto Geothermal Field is located in the State of Baja California, in northwestern Mexico close to its border with the United States. The geothermal field covers an area of approximately 15 km2. From a tectonic viewpoint, it lies in a “pull-apart� basin of the San Andreas Fault system, limited by two important right strike-slip faults, the Imperial and the Cerro Prieto. These NW-SE oriented faults are interlaid by several NESW faults that act as collectors of geothermal fluids. The heat source is a regional thermal anomaly resulting from the thinning of the continental crust at the bottom of the basin. The heat - along with hydrothermal fluids - is transferred through Late Cretaceous, granitic basement rocks to deep aquifers within Tertiary sandstones and shales. The first Cerro Prieto geothermal power unit was commissioned in 1973. Presently there are 13 power units in operation, grouped into four powerhouses with a total installed capacity of 720 MW. The power units have different capacities, ranging between 25 and 110 MW. The last four 25-MW units were commissioned in July 2000. The geothermal field has more than 120 km of steam pipe; 40 km of pipe and 60 kilometers of channels to channel brine, and 10 km of pipe to conduct non-separated fluids (mixing). During 2002, there were 138 production and 13 injection wells in operation at Cerro Prieto. The wells produced 47.6 million metric tonnes of steam at an annual average rate of 5,430 metric tonnes per hour. This represents the highest annual production of steam in the last 10 years. In addition, 72.3 million metric tonnes of geothermal brine were produced and disposed of by injection and evaporation. Evaporation takes place in a solar pond with a surface area of 18 km2. The electricity generated at Cerro Prieto in 2002 was 4,934 gigawatthours. This electrical generation supplied more than 50 percent of total demand for all of Baja California, which has a power transmission system that is isolated from the national electric grid.

Searles Lake


earles Lake, lured by the Gold Rush of ’49, John W. Searles and his brother Dennis sailed from New York to California in search of precious metals. Like most prospectors, they found plenty of hardship and very little gold. Unlike most other prospectors, they found treasure of another kind. While searching for gold near the Panamint Mountains in 1862, John Searles came across a crusty dry lake bed. Noticing crystals shimmering in the sunlight, he scooped up a handful and tucked them in his ore sack, unaware that he had discovered the worlds richest deposits of chemicals. Ten years passed. Then in Nevada, Searles saw Francis “Borax” Smith recovering borax from similar crystals. Suddenly recognizing the value of the dry lake he had found in California Searle’s returned to his earlier discovery. His find was worth more than the gold that had eluded him. Searles and his associates staked claim to 640 acres and formed the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company. In 1874, its first year of operation the company produced 1 million pounds of borax worth an estimated $200,000. In the early 1900s dozens of promoters and miners tried unsuccessfully to recover soda ash from the lake’s surface. The California Trona Company borrowed nearly $2 million to build two experimental plants to recover soda ash, potash, borax and sodium sulfate from the lake. Deep in debt, they were placed in receivership before the facilities were completed. Serving as receiver for the failed business, S. W. Austin began building roads onto the lake and drilling exploratory wells. The Valley’s earliest operators had quite literally, scratched only the surface of the lake’s mineral wealth. Early operators recovered borax by scraping crystals from the lake’s surface crust. Austin discovered a mineral-rich layer of salts about 100 feet beneath the surface. Operators have concentrated on recovering that brine ever since.

Salton Sea


large salty lake in the middle of the Californian desert, the Salton Sea, was formed in 1905 when engineers trying to build a canal for the Colorada River underestimated the power of the water. The river broke through the temporary gates and for two years it flooded into the Salton Trough, a valley on the San Andreas fault. For decades the water lost by evaporation has been replaced by rain and runoff from farms, via 1,500 miles of irrigation drains and the New, Alamo and Whitwater Rivers. This drainage water, rich in the fertilizers applied to the fields, has created a tremendously productive ecosystem at the sea. Fish and invertebrates swim through its turbid waters feeding enormous numbers of pelicans, cormorants, herons and other birds. Where farming is the life line of the county it is also the greatest threat of the Salton Sea. Each year four million tons of dissolved salt and tens of thousands of fertilizers flow into the sea; today the Sea is 25% saltier than the ocean. Nitrates, Phosphates and Magnesium have accumulated to dangerous levels, feeding the proliferating algae. Mass fish and bird deaths and the sulphurous stench of oxygen-starved water have driven most tourists away; along the shore derelict homes, hotels and diners stands witness to what was meant to be a paradise in the dessert. The crisis now hanging over the Sea was precipitated by the signing of the Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement in October 2003, the agreement obligates the state of California and the southern California water agencies to be using 15 per cent less Colorado water in 14 years; for half a century California has used 800,000 acre-feet more than its legal entitlement of 4,4 million acre-feet. Part of the agreement is the largest farm-to-city water transfer in the history of the United States; California’s Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell up to 200,000 acre-feet farm water to San Diego. The decrease of water use for agricultural felds in the Imperial Valley means less agricultural runoff into canals and rivers that flow into the Sea. Without action the shoreline of the Salton Sea would recede to expose 160 square miles of seabed, and the remaining salts and chemicals would be concentrated in a much smaller pool of water in which most fish and insects would be unable to survive. For the millions of birds this would be devastating loss. By the lost of 95 per cent of its wetlands California has cut out most of the birds refuelling stops for migratory birds, making the Sea an critical stopover. The biggest threat to people would be from exposed seabed, which would become a vast reservoir of dust full of selenium, arsenic and other elements which have accumulated from farm chemicals or leeched naturally from surrounding soils.

San Francisco Southbay


he San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary on the west coast of the USA, and the wetland ecosystem of tidal marshes and related habitat compromises some of the most valuable natural recourses in the region. Although the Bay Area is prized for its beauty during a period of more than a hundred years it has evolved from an essentially natural ecosystem to a mix of urban, suburban, and open space land uses. About 80 percent of the wetlands were diked or filled, ruining the ecosystems that acted as nurseries for fish and crabs, habitat and feeding grounds for birds. One of the major wetland projects underway today is the effort to restore thousands of acres of salt ponds along the south bay shoreline from Redwood City to Hayward. Restoring these salt ponds will be one of the largest projects of its kind in the world. The work to acquire and restore the South Bay salt ponds presents a unique historical opportunity, with the potential to increase the Bay’s naturally functioning tidal wetlands by nearly 40%. The restoration project will effectively preserve open space, improve water quality, provide critical habitat for endangered species, disperse flood flows, prevent shoreline erosion, recharge groundwater, and create opportunities for public access and environmental research and education in one of the most urbanized regions in the USA. Restoration and management actions will be phased over approximately 50 years. Gaps in ecological knowledge and inadequate tools for predicting change may be barriers to achieving the projects goals. To deal with that uncertainty, the project developed a science-based adaptive management approach using research, monitoring and modeling to provide timely and useful information that project managers will use in decision-making.

Green Valley


he area southwest of Tucson has been known as a rich mineral area since the late 1800, but in the early days, the miners followed an ore body by tunneling and chipping it out. It had to be smelted. In the early 1970’s, the “hardrock” mining started. They dig up the bedrock and process it, even if it has only 1% of copper. This requires the separating out of the copper (and other desirable minerals) with chemical reagents. The resulting slurry is put in tailing impoundments. The groundwater table has been dropping some 2-3 ft. per year from the combined affects of pumping for mineral processing. In U.S. the states are responsible for their own water laws, even on Federal lands. When the Arizona legislature wrote the “Groundwater Code” in 1980, they “grandfathered” (ie. honored the status quo) all agricultural groundwater pumping and exempt mining companies from any water depletion rules, although the deficit at that time was 2.5 million acre feet per year. They accomplished this stupidity because they were getting Federal money and loans to pipe Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. The water usage by the mines is causing cones of depression all over Arizona. The pollution of the groundwater is extensive near the tailing impoundments since they were built before laws that impoundments had to be lined. The biggest problem is that there is uranium scattered throughout bedrock in the Southwest, so when inert uranium is loosened from its native place, ground to power, and dissolved in chemical solutions, it starts decomposing into its many components, such as Gross Alpha and Radon, which are more harmful to human health. Even though the toxic plume had entered the drinking water of the small, retirement town of Green Valley in 2000, nothing was being done because the main contaminant was sulfate compounds, not a carcinogenic. However, the extremely hard water was ruining electric appliances, hot water heaters and the whole town was buying bottled water from cooking and drinking. Nancy Freeman determined to do something about the problem and she copied all the records from Department of Environmental Quality records and compiled the data into logical, readable tables. Then she posted them to a website and had weekly meetings at the local library telling people what was going on. Also the Arizona Attorney General’s office became involved and found an old statue that prohibited any pollution to public drinking water. Then the mining company did sign a contract that they would do something. In 2007, they spent 12 million dollars providing the water company two wells outside the toxic plume. Then they have spent two years studying the plume, making reports, and deciding the best procedure for actually cleaning the plume. Today that plan is complete, and is going to Dept. of Environmental Quality for approval. This plan includes a new lined tailing impoundment away from the town. The old impoundment will be closed and water wells will be sunk in the middle of the plume. The contaminated water from those wells will go directly to the mining operations to be used there. So the twice-contaminated water will go to the new lined tailing impoundment.

Colorado River Delta


ess than 80 years ago the Colorado river flowed unhindered from Colorado through Utah, Arizona and Mexico before pouring out in the Sea of Cortez. The delta ecosystem that occupied 3325 square miles received approximately 15 million acre-feet of annual water flow from the United States. Today 90 percent of the water is used in the United States, the 10 percent that flows across the border is consumed by municipal, industrial and agricultural users in Mexico. The only water that now reaches the delta comes from agricultural wastewater. The delta ecosystem has been reduced by 90 percent, the decline in wetland has forced many migratory birds to use alternative water sources such as agricultural waste ponds and the Salton Sea resulting in an increase of avian disease and bird mortality.

Resume Marco van Middelkoop 1963 1984 - 1988 1993 2005 2006 2006 2007 2008 2008 2008 2008 2008 2009 2009 2009 2010 2010 2010 2011 2011

Born in Haarlem, The Netherlands Private professional training in aerial photography Owner of Aerophoto-Schiphol, an aerial photography company based at Schiphol Airport Publication of the book “The Netherlands 365 days from the air” 17,000 copies sold Nomination of PANL Awards (highly regarded Professional Commercial Photographers’ Association) Group exhibition “A Day in Amsterdam” by Fotografenavond (Photographers’ Evening) in ABC Treehouse Gallery, Amsterdam Exhibition “Postcards from America” in Waterland Photo Gallery, Waterland Nomination of PANL Awards Exhibition of 4 seasons 4 different large prints from at the Black Wall in Melkweg Gallery Amsterdam, during one year Exhibition “Postcards from America” in Art Transit Gallery, Amersfoort Exhibition “Postcards from America” in Hogeschool Domstad, Utrecht Group exhibition “Living Landscape”, Kasteel Groeneveld, Baarn Group exhibition “An Unusual View on Dutch Landscape”, Galley Art Options, Langbroek Exhibition “Colors of Water”, in Melkweg Gallery Amsterdam Group exhibition “Holland seen by the Photographers’ Evening” by Fotografenavond (Photographers’ Evening) in ABC Treehouse Gallery, Amsterdam Exhibition “Colors of Water”, in HsEntree, Haarlem Group exhibition in Moscow, Russia: “Amsterdam, City of Ten Words”, by GKf Professional Photographers’ Association Group exhibition “Close to Skin”, Dutch School for Professional Photography, Amsterdam Curated Group exhibition “Dutch Delight”, New York Photo Festival, New York Invitation to the highly curated Center portfolio review, Santa Fe

Special thanks to: Mom, Lidia, Onno, Anja, Ron, Olaf and Jeanette

References: Cerro Prieto José Luis Quijano-León and Luis C.A. Gutiérrez-Negrín Comisión Federal de Electricidad, Morelia, México Searles Lake Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation Salton Sea The observer, The Dying days of a living miracle by Juliette Jowit, January 2006 High Country News, California strikes a water truce Matt Jenkins, October 2003 La Prensa San Diego, Historice water deal triggers worries along U.S-Mexico border Perlita R. Dicochea, January 2004 San Francisco South Bay Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation 50-year plan for turning South Bay salt ponds to tidal wetlands by Jane Kay, SFGate 12/12/07 Green Valley by Nancy Freeman

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Colors of Water  

This photo project is about the painful beauty of polluted waters in Arizona and the Callifornian regions of the USA and Mexico.