The Salton Sea is a strange and disquieting place located in the arid Colorado Desert of southern California. It is a lake, not a sea, and its surface currently lies about 71.9 m (236.0 ft) below sea level. The “sea” was formed in 1905 when engineers mucking around with the Colorado River and irrigation issues made a boo-boo that resulted in the river flowing into the Salton Basin for two years. Since there was no outflow, a large freshwater lake formed.
Lying in the midst of a desert climate with warmth and sunshine much of the year, the Salton Sea, as it came to be known, became a magnet for funseekers. Resort towns popped up along its shores, hitting their heyday in the 1950s.
Over the years, however, as the lake evaporated, turned more and more salty, and became increasingly polluted from agricultural runoff, the resorts faded away.
“Many of the species of fish that lived in the sea have been killed off by the combination of pollutants, salt levels, and algal blooms. Dead fish have been known to wash up in mass quantities on the beaches. The smell of the lake, combined with the stench of the decaying fish, also contributed to the decline of the tourist industry around the Salton Sea.” (Wikipedia)
Today, the area is scattered with the remnants of abandoned settlements. It is the closest thing to an apocalyptic landscape that I’ve ever seen.
Recently, the US House of Representatives passed a bill in support of allotting $30 million “for projects that would address the environmental and health crisis at the Salton Sea.”
The question is, what are they going to do with that money? I wonder if they even have a clue.
It’s a tricky situation. Technically, the lake doesn’t belong there at all. It’s the result of an environmental catastrophe. However, it has now been there for over a hundred years and nature abhors a vacuum, so it has become a vital resource for birds in an otherwise waterless landscape. Amazingly, birds can survive in this bleak habitat; so much so that the Salton Sea is internationally recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Which is how I came to be there, checking out the burrowing owls and other intriguing species. People also continue to live around the lake.
If the powers that be allow things to continue as they are going—“let nature take its course”—the lake will eventually become so poisonous that nothing will be able to live there. Millions of birds will lose their resting, feeding, and breeding grounds. After that, it will dry up completely, forming a toxic dust bowl that could sicken anything that stills lives in the vicinity, animal or human.
If, on the other hand, they decide to preserve the lake, it would be a massive undertaking. California already has chronic water shortages. Where would the water to save the lake come from? And if they somehow found that water, how would they solve the problem of pollution from agricultural runoff?
What would be the ultimate goal? To recreate the Salton Sea’s glory days, when tourists water skied and swam, and a commercial fishery existed? Or to maintain the area as a nature park, inhospitable to humans, but a haven for wildlife? Do they turn the clock back 10 years? 20? 60?
What should be done for the people who live there? Relocation? Welfare? Publicly funded communities?
How do you “fix” something when you know it’s definitely “wrong,” but you don’t know what “right” is?
There are several documentaries on the Salton Sea but I’ve only seen one of them: Bombay Beach (2011), an experimental style film heavy on the bizarre ambience of the place.