The Song Remains (Mostly) the Same: Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, Eight Years Later

The following is a guest blog post by Christopher Norment, author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World.

Along a tiny spring in a narrow canyon near Death Valley, seemingly against all odds, an Inyo Mountain slender salamander makes its home. “The desert,” writes conservation biologist Christopher Norment, “is defined by the absence of water, and yet in the desert there is water enough, if you live properly.” Relicts of a Beautiful Sea explores the existence of rare, unexpected, and sublime desert creatures such as the black toad and four pupfishes unique to the desert West. All are anomalies: amphibians and fish, dependent upon aquatic habitats, yet living in one of the driest places on earth, where precipitation averages less than four inches per year. In this climate of extremes, beset by conflicts over water rights, each species illustrates the work of natural selection and the importance of conservation. This is also a story of persistence–for as much as ten million years–amid the changing landscape of western North America. By telling the story of these creatures, Norment illustrates the beauty of evolution and explores ethical and practical issues of conservation: what is a four-inch-long salamander worth, hidden away in the heat-blasted canyons of the Inyo Mountains, and what would the cost of its extinction be? What is any lonely and besieged species worth, and why should we care?

It’s been eight years since Relicts of a Beautiful Sea first was published, and although the world feels as though it has been transformed (think COVID-19 and Donald Trump) the central story line of Relicts has lost none of its relevance. As Led Zeppelin has it, the song remains (mostly) the same: rare and endangered species of the Southwest—particularly those dependent on aquatic habitats—struggle on, their precarious existence threatened by drought, human ignorance, neglect, and dwindling water supplies.  The title of a recent volume of scholarly papers succinctly describes the situation for aquatic species in North American deserts: Standing between Life and Extinction.

Most critically, what hasn’t changed in the Southwest since 2014 are the contrasting trajectories of human population growth and diminishing water resources. Between 2010 and 2020 the population of Clark County, Nevada—essentially metropolitan Las Vegas—increased by 15%, from 1,950,000 to 2,265,000. During the same period Lake Mead, which supplies 90% of Clark County’s water, dropped to its lowest level since 1937, due to decreased precipitation and river flows in the Upper Colorado basin. The band of bleached rock and soil that rings Lake Mead is a brutal symbol of the environmental challenges that confront Las Vegas and the Southwest’s aquatic biodiversity. In 2015 the reservoir’s third water intake came on line, to counteract Lake Mead’s decline and the likely failure of the first two water intakes at a lake elevation of 1000 feet—but what if the reservoir keeps falling? Meanwhile, the Southwestern “megadrought” of 2012-2014 has continued through much of the last eight years, with the autumn of 2021 looking particularly worrisome.  And as a bleak background to long-term drought and Lake Mead’s decline: the incessant increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration, from an annual mean of 399 ppm in 2014 to 414 ppm in 2020

Lake Mead’s “bathtub ring” in October 2010; by October 2021 the reservoir’s level had fallen by another 15 feet.

Another phenomenon that hasn’t changed much since 2014 is what Barbara Tuchman described as “the march of human folly,” although the pace of this relentless slog seems to have quickened in our “post-fact,” anti-mask, anti-vaccine-riddled pandemic world. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, for all of its admirable efforts to conserve water in southern Nevada, still thinks in terms of “unprecedented drought conditions,” never mind the history of long-term regional droughts extending back 1,200 years, while our political discourse is filled with the language and attitudes of Donald Trump and his acolytes. Take for example his claim that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive, “ or that California’s water problems are a “man-made,” avoidable situation caused by environmentalists “trying to protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish,” a view promulgated in 2017 by the then GOP-dominated House Resource Committee. On and on. 

Of course, there have been changes to the landscape (in its broadest sense) of Relicts of a Beautiful Seasince 2014. Jim Deacon, who did so much to conserve endangered aquatic species in the Southwest, particularly the Devils Hole pupfish, died in 2015. Darrick Weissenfluh, who worked diligently to create pupfish habitat at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and develop the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility, has moved on. Steve Parmenter, who struggled to protect the Owens pupfish, retired from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2020—although his mentor, Phil Pister, now in his 90s, remains active in conservation efforts. Fortunately, biologists like Deacon, Weissenfluh, and Parmenter have been replaced by a cadre of smart, imaginative, and passionate young professionals. And in terms of infrastructure, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans for a pipeline to transport groundwater mined from the aquifers of northern Nevada collapsed in 2020, killed mostly by a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists.  

A territorial Owen pupfish male. (Photo courtesy Ceal Klingler)

But what of the rare and threatened animals of Relicts, which after all were the main point of the book? All of them—six taxa of pupfish, a toad, and salamander—are still with us, and most seem to be doing as well or better than in 2014. As of 2021 the Devils Hole pupfish population stood at roughly 170 observable individuals, up from thirty-five in 2013, and biologists at the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility have made progress with propagating the species in captivity. The Owens pupfish also is doing well, after being introduced into a new refuge created by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.  The Inyo Mountains salamander also seems to be holding its own, in spite of massive flash floods that pummeled some of their habitat. Since 2013 researchers have discovered three new populations, and other undiscovered populations undoubtedly exist in more inaccessible parts of their range. Only the black toad appears to be a bit worse off than in 2013/2014, due to drought and mismanagement at one of the four springs where it occurs. 

An Inyo Mountains salamander, eyeing its (temporary) captor. (Photo courtesy Ceal Klingler)
A black toad, hanging on. 

And so the pupfish, toads, and salamanders survive, buffeted by forces unleashed or intensified by the Anthropocene but still moving through their worlds as best they can. I find so much hope in their tenacity and capacity for survival, and how some people have worked to protect and nurture them—effective antidotes to the fear and frustration and despair that can grip us all, in this time of great change and greater threats. Thus my hope that Relicts of a Beautiful Sea still resonates, that its stories of survival, extinction, and conservation are worth the telling and the remembering.

Christopher Norment, professor of environmental science and biology at the College at Brockport, State University of New York, is the author of In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir and Return to Warden’s Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows