Selected Works

A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures
In 1992, in a remote mountain range, a team of scientists discovered the remains of an unusual animal with beautiful long horns. It turned out to be a living species new to western science -- a saola, the first large land mammal discovered in 50 years. Rare then and rarer now, no westerner had glimpsed a live saola before Pulitzer Prize finalist and nature writer William deBuys and conservation biologist William Robichaud set off to search for it in the wilds of central Laos. The team endured a punishing trek, up and down whitewater rivers and through mountainous terrain ribboned with the snare lines of armed poachers.
Climate Change
"This is on the short list of key books for anyone who lives in or loves the American southwest--with scientific precision and understated emotional power, it explains what your future holds. If you live elsewhere: it's a deep glimpse into one place on our fast-changing planet, and you'll be able to do many extrapolations. Remarkable work!"
--Bill MCKibben, author Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet

"As deBuys wanders from Las Vegas to Mesa Verde to the Glen Canyon Dam, he gives the past and present their due as he maps our way to a drier future. No longer are aridity and climate change in the Southwest only of regional interest; deBuys is writing for America and we should all listen to what he has to say.”
--Colleen Mondor, Booklist
Supple and silvery ... The Walk defines hope in terms of mountain and sky, river and pine, mindfulness and love.
--Donna Seaman, Booklist
Biography and Memoir
"It brims with gifts of language and vision." --Barbara Kingsolver, New York Times Book Review
"This is a grand book, valuable and exquisite on level after level."
--Charles Wilkinson
"This compilation, with skillful editing and commentary by William deBuys, is an essential book for anyone who ventures west of the hundredth meridian." -- Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, 1993-2001
"This book is fascinating from beginning to end." --New Mexico Magazine

Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California

(Photographs by Joan Myers)

Review and Comment:

"An absorbing record of the ideas and people that tamed the Colorado River and transformed southeastern California from a desert into one of the continent’s great agricultural regions...a notable exploration of how the American dream has played out."
--Publishers Weekly

"This is one of the most fascinating and informative books that I’ve encountered in a long time. You don’t simply read it, you become immersed in it, captivated by it ... Everyone who would be a professional writer should read this work ... I will be surprised if Salt Dreams doesn’t win a deserved share of literary awards."
--Journal of San Diego History

"Only a few writers, including Mary Austin, Wallace Stegner and Donald Worster, have written about the subject (the West) with as much insight, grace, and power as William deBuys. Salt Dreams is as vivid in its imagery as it is penetrating in its analysis ... (it) is incandescent, brilliantly illuminating the pasts of this complicated place and shedding considerable light on its possible futures."
--New Mexico Historical Review

"Salt Dreams is a book by a master writer ... This is environmental and social history at its finest: people and nature populate the book in equal measure ... Salt Dreams is an almost perfectly constructed wheel."

"DeBuys does the best kind of research, a highly evolved blend of literature and experience: He crosses borders, he squats with delta rats and consorts with bikers, spinning a geographic noir yarn of greed and hubris and ruination."
--Los Angeles Times

Salt Dreams was the winner of the following awards:

• The 1999 Western States Book Award for Creative Non-Fiction
• The 1999 Clements Prize for the Best Non-Fiction Book on Southwestern America
• The 2000 Norris and Carol Hundley Award from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association


We Americans may be the only people on earth who speak of a national dream. There is no French Rêve Nationale nor a Sueño Mexicano, so far as I know, nor a Senegalese or Iranian or Laotian Dream. And there may never be. It took the extraordinary conjunction of a perception of new lands, free for the taking, with crescent economic and political individualism to launch the idea of an American Dream. World events have not seen the like again. One wonders whether the planet could bear it if they did. (p. 1)


There followed, two days later, a spectacle that must have been one of the most extraordinary sights human eyes have witnessed in North America. The natives who had followed Kino, together with gathering bands of Quíquima, all of them turned out in their painted best—stripes, say, on the torso, dots across the face, an arm red, a leg black or white, and everyone different—crowded both banks of the river. The Quíquima cut a path through the jungled thickets to the water’s edge for Kino and his horses, but the horses mired in the river mud and could not pass. Never mind. With Kino’s encouragement the natives lashed cottonwood logs together to make a raft, and a great reed basket, waterproofed with pitch, was placed upon it. The black-robed Jesuit then climbed into the basket while crowds on either bank made “dances and entertainments after their fashion.” From our vantage, centuries later, we may forever wonder whether Kino next spread his hands and smiled, or prayed for strength and grimly eyed the turbid river with its dark relentless flow. We know only that at last, installed in a basket atop his tippy raft, the padre committed himself to the current and to the care of at least a score of Quíquima swimmers, who surrounded his unseaworthy craft and pushed it toward the farther shore. Thus was Eusebio Kino, with all the pomp and fanfare the Colorado delta in 1701 could muster, ferried to the land that by then he knew to be most surely California. (p. 22)


Fears concerning Mexican waters go back to the earliest days of the Imperial Valley, when typhoid headed the list of potential scourges, but the present character of the New River, repeatedly identified as the continent’s most polluted, beggars all comparison. In April 1994, for instance, the Imperial Valley Press reported that a truck careened off a bridge and crashed into the river. Twenty-four hours later, when a wrecker pulled it out, the "water" of the New River had stripped the truck of its paint. The vehicle was carrying a load of San Diego sewage, but officials ruled, with no overt attempt at irony, that its cargo need not be recovered, as it posed no threat to the riverine environment. (p. 236-7)


None of the alternatives for addressing the woes of the Salton Sea can be considered attractive -- and this is one reason why, after decades of discussion, nothing has yet been done. The Salton Sea confounds the region’s and the nation’s traditional confidence that physical problems must inevitably yield to engineered solutions. William Smythe was right when he foresaw that no land on earth, save perhaps the dike-ringed lowlands of Holland, would be more transformed by engineering than the old Colorado Desert. Yet even he could not foresee the eventual, total control of the wild and mighty Río Colorado, converted now into a chain of lukewarm lakes. Nor could he or anyone foresee the emergence of a sixteen-million-inhabitant megalopolis on the dry southern coast of California.
The story of southern California in the twentieth century is fundamentally a story about the control of nature. And yet the Salton Sea is out of control. It is the physical contradiction of a tenet of American life. No good and easy solution to its problems exists, and its problems grow steadily worse. In increasing numbers, people have decried the resulting injury to wildlife, to property values, to the area’s economy. They have lamented the loss of recreation and development potential. They have demanded action, and yet action has not come. (p. 246)