Desert Dwellers and Hidden Faults
It was a crisp, warm, desert night in the summer of 1986. A few scattered clouds decorated the night sky. All was calm. At 2:21 AM , the city of Palm Springs was woken up. The New York Times reported residents hearing an ominous sound: coyotes howling in the night. A growl from the earth followed, piercing throughout the Coachella Valley, ricketing storefronts, shattering glass, roaring through the nearby San Jacinto mountains, and shaking awake sleepy residents. An earthquake. The epicenter was placed in North Palm Springs, activating the Banning and Garnet Hill Faults. Both of these fault lines, while not part of the famous San Andreas Fault, run parallel along it. Twenty nine people were injured in the night quake and fifty one homes were damaged or destroyed. Rocks and landslides from the mountains crashed into the city, destroying roads and creating blockages. Local newspaper, The Desert Sun, reported that boulders, as large as small automobiles rolled into the road. 100,000 people were left with no electricity, four fires were started and a freeway ramp collapsed. No human deaths or major injuries were reported, but the people were still shaken. The USGS reported it initially as a 6.0 magnitude earthquake. Later, it would be downgraded to 5.4. The ground split and roads were cracked, but the USGS attributes this to shaking rather than surface rupturing of the fault line. People were wary and cautious, the earthquake was a reminder of California’s long fabled , “Big One”, a massive earthquake that was extremely overdue. Thirty one years later those same fears continue in Palm Springs and in the Thousand Palms Oasis, a portion of the beast rest quietly and patiently, waiting for the right moment to make its grand reappearance.
Southeast of Los Angeles, tall, white windmills along Interstate 10 mark the entrance to the Coachella Valley. Follow the highway and the first of the desert resort cities will start to appear. Veering off and driving inland, towards the mountains, the road becomes narrow and cracked. Lush country golf clubs vanish and residential blocks of concrete chlorine pools end. The 21st century does not seem to exist here. The Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is hidden among miles of creosote bush and sand. It is a green scar in the desert. From a distance the palm trees look like they move in a jagged line leading nowhere. They appear out of thin air, lush and green and full of life. It is one of the places that the San Andreas Fault Line cuts through the desert. The movement and slip between the two tectonic plates, created the little haven for wildlife and desert creatures. It’s quiet, the noise of cars and people are gone. Dry, dead leaves and fallen branches rustle against the sand. Palm trees sway, their trunks wear scarves made of browning fronds. Beneath them, they are reflected in ponds of murky green water that at first look, seem to lay still. The water ripples at the surface, tiny water creatures are snake their way in the ponds, running away when a shadow or a hand is in their line of sight In the wind, the leaves sound like the ocean or quiet whispers. They fuse together, stitched at the trunk, like limbs clinging to one another
The Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve exists as it is today because of a small, rare endangered species called the Coachella Valley Fringe Toed Lizard. The fringe toed lizard is a small animal, only six to nine inches long and the color of wet sand. Black dots and stripes run the length of it’s body. Its black, beady eyes are surrounded by bright orange skin, like a swipe of eyeshadow. It’s fringed toes look like alien claws, long and disproportionate to the rest of its body. They help the lizard grip its way through the desert sand and dive in between dunes when hiding from predators. In the growing desert, free sand, is becoming rarer to find. The fringe toed lizard only lives in extremely fine sand dune environments called “blowsand.” Blowsand is sand that has eroded down into fine particles because of the strong wind that moves throughout the Coachella Valley. “Blowsand” environment is being destroyed as more and more buildings and windbreaker plants are being placed on the desert stopping the flow of sand in the wind.Their habitat has shrunken to a space of only 50 square miles (32,000 acres) originally its habitat spanned 270 square miles (172,800 acres). Developers saw the barrier in designating areas to their urbanization plans and a decades long battle between nature and modernization occurred.
In the 1970’s Wilbur “Bill” Mayhew became the biggest advocate for the lizard. A biology professor at UC Riverside from its first days in 1954, Mayhew used to take his undergraduate students on overnight camping field trips all over the Southern Californian ecosystems. Before he joined the founding faculty at UC Riverside, Mayhew hated the desert. But by the late 1950’s Mayhew began to commute from Riverside and research the native desert habitats of the Coachella Valley. The white, previously untouched sand dunes were being cleared over and flattened out. The land space that was once thought as worthless became valuable and developers could not seem to stop constructing projects. When he applied for federally reserved land and listing for the lizard, Mayhew was denied every step of the way by city councilmembers, local congressmen and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. Mayhew blamed their denial on some of the high profile residents of the Coachella Valley, even though they were never directly involved. Former presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and important figures such as former vice president to Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Chief of Protocol of the United States, Leonore Annenberg and her husband, US ambassador to the U.K. Walter Annenberg all owned homes in the Coachella Valley. Mayhew found himself fighting to keep the sands pure like Wilhelm, even after getting blackmailed. Lawyers threatened to convert the proposed habitat area for the lizard into an agricultural area if he kept pushing for the lizard to receive federal listing. Mayhew did not give in and finally, in 1980, the Coachella Valley fringe toed lizard received listing, both state and federal, as an endangered species. And like the desert, the lizard survived.
The Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is a fault line oasis. The southern portion the San Andreas Fault twists at the preserve. There is no open wound in the desert to show the San Andreas. The monster does not have a mouth. It is a ghost here. No significant movement has been felt here in nearly three hundred years. The last major earthquake on this portion of the San Andreas was in 1690. The slip rate (how fast the two sides of the fault are slipping against each other) of the southern portion is about 2.3 to 3.5 centimeters per year. Like a mountain lion surrounding its prey, it creeps slowly, waiting for the right moment to pounce. To the east of the oasis, towards the sand hills, is the North American plate, and to the west, is the Pacific Plate. The two plates met in what is now California thirty million years ago and has been creating mountains and disasters ever since. The San Andreas Fault is ten miles deep and cuts through 800 miles of California land from Hollister, through the oasis preserve, into the Salton Sea and then extends to Mexican state of Baja California. It is a right lateral strike slip fault, to call it by its geological name, meaning that if you were to be standing in the middle of the fault during an earthquake, the right plate (North American) would move towards you. The left plate (Pacific Plate) would be moving up and away squashing you like a grape.
On tours, you can hike alongside the fault and place a foot on each side although you can not tell exactly where it is since there has been no movement in centuries. It has decades of sand, rocks, and plants growing on top of it. There are thoughtful signs pointing to the fault, however, and to stand astride is a novelty, like stepping on two different state lines or two country borders. There is something eerie about the faultline however, something dangerous, that makes people jump back onto one side quickly, backing away from what they perceive to be the dividing line. No one wants to be split in half. The potential earthquake looms below like a storm just waiting to happen.
“ When it happens, the first thing I’m gonna do is take my phone out and record it” Mike says, a Thousand Palms Volunteer caretaker, taking out his iPhone 7 and pointing it towards the door of the Visitors Center. When he talks about earthquakes, some of the boyish charm of he must have had in his youth returns. His blue eyes widen as he speaks and the laugh lines around his mouth deepen. The Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is entirely run by volunteers, like Mike. He covers his white hair under an olive colored baseball cap and his stomach juts out against the desk he is stationed at. Behind him a mint colored refrigerator hums, the only type of beverage the center offers is cold water and a bowl of Hershey’s kisses, the only food.
“We are in between two fault lines right now.” Mike says. He motions to a topographical map on the desk and points down at the area. “One right in front of us , right here on Mission Creek. And another one on the other side”. The fault lines he is referring to are outlined in bright red lines crossing the white page. The fault lines he is referring to are the Mission Creek and Banning Faults, two small branches off of the San Andreas Fault. “They are what created the Indio Hills mountain range right here.” The mountains on the map are curved thin blue lines in the middle of flat desert. He motions to the outside again. Some of the mountains he is talking about can be seen from the Visitors Center, under the direct sunlight, they look washed out and delicate. “ Both of the fault lines have pushed the mountains up together.” He makes a scrunching motion with his hand on the area of the map where the mountains lay. “Because you look at this view, it's a little strange, don’t you think that these mountains pop up in the middle of a valley.”
According to a potential scenario by the United States Geological Survey, also known as the USGS the epicenter for the long awaited “Big One” is thought to occur along this portion of the southern section. The USGS is a federal scientific agency established in 1879. They monitor, map, and research natural sciences and hazards. The USGS predicts that there is a 60% chance of the southern epicenter in the next thirty years. Any earthquake along this southern ridge will be big. The built up tension along this portion should erupt an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 or above on the Richter scale, when it blows. The fault line is likely to jump forty four feet, changing the landscape of Imperial and Riverside Counties forever.
In recent times, the most devastating earthquake along the San Andreas was the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Hitting along the northmost portion of the fault line, the earthquake causing sixty three deaths and 3,757 injuries. Loma Prieta occurred along the same stretch of the fault as the Great Earthquake that almost destroyed San Francisco in 1906, and killed around 3,000 people, many in subsequent fires. The 83-year gap of inactivity between the Great Earthquake and Loma Prieta produced enough pressure to create a temblor of 6.9 on the Richter scale. People driving back from work were trapped under pieces of highway road, cars swerved and crashed from the shaking, and the third game of the 1989 World Series was interrupted when the game playing in Oakland had to be cut short and broadcasting was cut off.
When the 10 Freeway and Bay Bridge cracked and fell, they were much less crowded than they would usually be. Commuters had gone how early to watch the game in their homes. Like a scene out of a post apocalyptic film, viewers across the nation were treated to flickering images of the game along with heavy static, the last words heard from the broadcaster, “I’ll tell you what: We’re having an earth---” before the image gave out and was replaced by a green World Series stand-by image. It took eleven years before the highways were fully rebuilt again. Deep cracks had forced apart the earth and the rest of the world were treated to images of ruptured pavement and destruction. At the Thousand Palms Oasis, Loma Prieta is a warning. Or maybe a premonition.
Strong shaking will probably last at least one full minute in the Coachella Valley, but nearly two minutes will pass before all of the initial shaking stops. Because the fault lies in a valley, the earthquake waves will bounce off the rock walls for a longer period of time than they would in the flatlands. The earthquake will burst along the Coachella Valley, shaking the sand along the rock bed. Interstate 10 along the Coachella Valley will be destroyed and should they even survive, the residents of the desert will be cut off from the rest of Riverside County. As a 2014, a local population survey by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, estimated that there were 443, 401 residents living permanently in the Coachella Valley. As of 2012, most of these people were baby boomers and people fifty five and older, making up 32% of the population. There would be no way inside or out via car.
Renderings of potential damage show destroyed and crumbled roads, highway overpasses shattered on the ground, and homes imploding on themselves. The entirety of Southern California will come to a standstill as the earthquake waves creep up towards Santa Barbara. The I-15 will break at the Cajon Pass along the San Bernardino Mountains because this it was built directly on top of the San Andreas. Thousands of fires will spark along Los Angeles and nearby counties. Water, gas, and electricity lines will all rupture and break, leaving people without any of these utilities for months. There is a $213 billion economic loss estimated for the region, 50,000 injuries and 1,800 deaths.
Research on the fault has been done at the Thousand Palms Oasis by the USGS but the volunteer docents are quick to point out that the trenches that scientists have dug out have been found to be inconclusive. There has been too many years of unmoved sand for scientists to decipher any concrete information. Liz Colvard a content educator at the USGS, sympathizes, “ Unfortunately, most of our public information about the San Andreas fault is targeted to the San Francisco Bay Area.” Because that area of the San Andreas has shown more movement , it has received more attention, leaving the southern end a little more unnoticed.
At the oasis, the evidence of the fault is only seen when you are looking for it.The signs are subtle. Small jagged hills composed of different rock forms because of the extreme pressure they were created in emerge and fall in the desert. Vegetation follows the fault, through the native deserts plants, like the desert gold poppy. The divide between the two plates means that one side of the fault has more small plants growing, while the other is stark and barren. There are small wooden signs along hiking trails that say things like , “The Palm Oasis is made possible from water that comes up from the aquifer and through the faults in the earth.”
Mary, a middle aged volunteer docent at the preserve remembers the 1986 Palm Springs earthquake waking her up and thinking “ L.A. must be gone. But it turned out to be a 6 point something. It broke a lot of windows, shattered a lot of junk. It was rough cos’ we couldn’t do much.” Although the quake produced only a small amount of damage relatively, in her mind, it was much more extreme.“ First thing we did when we moved down here is get earthquake insurance. It’s expensive stuff but it’s gonna be worth it when we gonna have it.” Mary adds, clasping at the edges of her turquoise sweater together.
Lorraine Winchester, a preserve volunteer docent and desert expert has similar thoughts, “As long as I have food and water , I am good.” She says. She touches her green bandana, wrapped around her neck like a scarf to tug it into place. “There is nothing to worry about as long as I have water and food.” Lorraine moved to the Coachella Valley 10 years ago. The palm trees surrounding the oasis what were drew her in initially. “ The water these palm trees are getting are from the San Andreas”. She points down towards the bark, which the house is made of. “ The bark looks like billions of straws that go into the aquifer and they go all the way to the top, which is why all this is green and they this is how they have been able to survive and grow as long as they have.”
The preserve is busiest with tourists during the winter months when the heat hasn’t set in. Adventure Hummer Tours makes a stop at the oasis, guiding clusters of tourists in and and out of the preserve around the clock. A ticket to the three hour tour around the preserve and an old gold mine is $149.00 for adults and $99.00 for kids under 16. Snacks and water are included. Everybody asks for the the fault.
“Have you felt the San Andreas move here?” one woman asks.
The bearded tour guide replies without missing a beat. “Yes! With the sand here, it sounds like a damn freight train! The sand moves downwards” he says pointing towards the open space. “You can tell from the ground we are on right now”. He points to the slightly bumpy and uneven gravel they are standing on. Nothing out of the ordinary. A couple coming back from a hike see him speaking and they linger. He notices them and stops speaking. He motions for them to keep walking. People who didn’t pay for his tour don’t get to hear it for free.
Speaking more quietly, he continues “ All this used to be flat surface. This is so active, that in a year it's changed the terrain” The group gasp as they look down at the ground again.
This seems to contradict what Lorraine tells people, “ The USGS were out here, but they have never been able to find anything. It’s quiet down here, it hasn’t moved.”
Mary explains that people pay for these tours because they have a special permit that allows them to access other geological points of the San Andreas Fault in the Coachella Valley. Those areas and canyons are only accessible through the hummer company. The Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is the only choice for those that want to see the San Andreas up close in the Coachella Valley and not pay anything for it.
In the meantime, the tangled, fused together trunks of the California Fan Palms will continue to sway in the wind. Coyotes, bobcats, beetles and birds will continue to lurk behind the shadows, away from the heat of the sun. People will keep visiting. But someday, maybe soon, the earth will break. Mother Nature will be heard first, reawakening from the deep and stretching within her skin. The swaying will turn into frantic shaking, snapping, and splintering of the surface as the San Andreas is resurrected. Water will rise up from the sand, mountains will take form, boulders will crash down. A person driving to work on the I-15 will find themselves trapped or sucked into the earth. An old man, a”baby boomer”, will be unable to escape his home after it collapses on top of him. Rocks from the San Jacinto Mountains will tumble down into Palm Springs, bursting into new homes built close to the mountains. But for now, time has hidden it away, counting down until the next major earthquake arrives.