For a number of years now, I’ve been fascinated by the Salton Sea. Ever since I moved to Los Angeles, I have wanted to take the 2 ½ hour drive to what was once called “California’s Riviera”. And on Sunday evening, I finally had the opportunity to see for myself how a once vibrant and popular tourist destination had become an apocalyptic wasteland.
The Salton Sea is located in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys directly on the San Andreas Fault. This 43-foot-deep lake is 234 feet below sea level and has a surface area of 343 miles. For thousands of years, water would flow in and out of the valley from the Colorado River. During this time, the valley alternated between being a freshwater lake, saltwater lake, and dry desert basin, all depending on the Colorado River’s cycle. Then in 1905, the cycle was dramatically altered.
Engineers from the California Development Company, in an attempt to increase irrigation for farming in the area, dug a waterway from the Colorado River directly into the valley. Fearing a silt buildup would slow the flow of water, a deeper trench was dug into the Colorado River.
The resulting flow overwhelmed the engineered waterways, filling the basin over the course of two years before the repairs were finally completed. This sudden massive influx of water and lack of drainage created the largest lake in California.
In the 1950s, developers seeking to take advantage of America’s post-war economic boom and increasing desire for recreation sought to turn the lake into a tourist destination. Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, Desert Shores, and Bombay Beach were the results of their efforts. Almost overnight, the Sea sprung to life full of Southern Californians looking for a resort-style vacation close to home. The Salton Sea was the ultimate recreation spot, hosting fishing tournaments and boat races, as well as just a place to sit on the beach and unwind.
The Sea quickly became a place where celebrities could intermingle with regular folk. Big names like Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis began making appearances at the lake. The Beach Boys, Guy Lambardo, and the Marx Brothers were members of the North Shore Beach Yacht Club. However, the party didn’t last long.
Fed by the locally polluted rivers as well as agricultural runoff, drainage, and creeks, the Salton Sea quickly turned from California’s Riviera into an ecological nightmare. The New River, which flows westerly from Mexicali, Mexico, has the distinction of being one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. Heavy salt deposits and pesticides from agricultural runoff didn’t do the Sea any favors either. By the 1960s, high levels of salt, pollution, and the lack of an outflow were taking a heavy toll on the Sea. Fish began dying off by the thousands, their decomposing remains littering the beaches. The smell became unbearable and tourism came to an abrupt halt. Almost overnight, this bustling hotspot of fun and frivolity had died.
My first stop was at a video store and service station off of Route 111 on the north east shore. Long closed down, it was obvious the shop had suffered from a decade’s worth of vandalism and looting. I stepped out of my car completely unprepared for just how bad the smell of rot and decay was. It’s the first thing you notice and makes it quite clear why the tourists stopped coming here. Leaving the door open as I walked around taking pictures, I returned to my vehicle to be greeted by a number of flies, probably looking for someone to take them away from here.
Driving with the windows open, in hopes of getting rid of my uninvited hitchhikers, I reached Bombay Beach just as the sun was beginning to set. Bombay Beach was built as a quiet retreat on the eastern shore of the Sea. Unlike Salton City, residents here enjoyed private beaches and simple vacation homes.
When conditions became too unbearable, many Bombay Beach residents who were unable to sell their homes, simply walked away leaving behind most of their possessions. Only a handful of stalwarts remain.
As I took pictures, a friendly local (who is probably used to the thousands of photographers who now comprise most of the Sea’s tourism) was more than happy to talk to me about the Salton Sea’s new purpose as an artist retreat. He handed me a flier from a past art show called the Bombay Beach Biennale. The event took place right after the Coachella Music Festival and featured artist installations from all over the world. Even notorious street artist Banksy stopped by to put his mark on the festivities.As more vehicles (too new and clean to be local) began pulling in to Bombay Beach, the Sea’s new found importance became increasingly clear. Photographers, videographers, and the just plain curious began to descend on the nearly desolate community. California’s playground was now a photogenic ecological disaster within easy reach.
There is an odd, yet deceptive beauty to this place. The serene blue waters, which you would expect to be teaming with boaters, are completely empty. It’s a surreal scene seeing such a large expanse of water completely devoid of all activity. When you get to the water, you realize that the blue-tint is just the reflection of light off of the desert sky. The water itself is actually dirty brown.
The white beaches are made of decades’ worth of dead fish bones bleaching in the sun before being pulverized into fine particles by the currents and wind. Even what remains of the dilapidated structures looked like modern art sculptures.
Mandated water transfers into metropolitan areas threaten to decrease water by another 20 feet between 2018 and 2030. By 2021, it is expected that this drop in water level will expose 130 miles of dry and polluted dust. In 60 years, scientists believe the Salton Sea will no longer exist. Although some may see this as a solution to a large body of polluted water in the middle of the desert, a sudden dry-up reveals host of issues. On the south shore is the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge. This bird sanctuary hosts more than 400 species of birds and is a popular layover along many migration paths. If the sea does disappear, these migration patterns could be forever altered and threaten the existence of multiple species. A decrease in water level will also lead to a large scale fish die off. However, the most important reason for keeping the water flowing into the Sea is the huge cloud of salt and polluted dust that the high winds will kick-up and send blowing all across Southern California.
(Photo credits- David McKendry)