The Salton Sea

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Images courtesy of Luke Daniel Photo

When Luke suggested a trip to Bombay Beach, I naively packed a Frisbee and a picnic lunch. What I found was sand crusted with salt and fish bones. Oddly viscous water flopped onto the shoreline. Discarded artifacts from someone’s long-ago home, like a piano, withered in the sun. This is not quite what I expected from our visit to the Salton Sea.

California’s largest lake, averaging 15 miles wide by 35 miles long, got a strange start in life. According to Wikipedia, “The Salton Sea was accidentally created by an engineering mistake in 1905. In an effort to increase water flow into the area for farming, irrigation canals were dug from the Colorado River into the valley. Due to fears of silt buildup, a cut was made in the bank of the Colorado River to further increase the water flow. The resulting outflow overwhelmed the engineered canal, and the river flowed into the Salton Basin for two years, filling the historic dry lake bed and creating the modern sea, before repairs were completed.”

The resort towns of Desert Beach, North Shore, Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, Desert Shores and most notably, Bombay Beach, popped up along its eastern and western shores in the 1950’s. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to play in the sea in the middle of a desert. They built charming homes, restaurants, hotels and marinas. Boats were launched and palm trees were planted in neat rows.

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A drive down their unmaintained roads today evokes a more post- apocalyptic feeling. Many of the towns have either receded or been altogether abandoned due to the increasing salinity of the polluted water. Red algae blooms have picked up where agricultural runoff left off to kill a large portion of the sea’s fish populations.

But the reality of the Salton Sea is disguised from a distance. The Imperial and Coachella valleys support rich, fertile farmland – fields of Technicolor green stretching as far as the eye can see. The sea itself shimmers joyously  in the distance. All of this leads you to believe you’re approaching a vibrant coastal town  – until you catch yourself downwind of the lake’s stench.

As someone who likes a happy ending, this scene was depressing as hell. I tried to imagine what these beach towns looked like in their heyday, with bustling streets and yellow bungalows with white fences. This trick sort of worked, but reality kept finding its way in through the cracks of my imagination – like the two dead seagulls I found rotting in the tangled metal frame of an old pier.

Nearing the end of our journey, we stopped in Desert Shores – a town with an audible heartbeat. New homes were being built on the outskirts of the original town. Many more plots were staked out around them, marked by a sign advertising the cost of land – $7,000. One home had a banner draped across its stone fence that said, “Save our Sea.org”

I went to the website and found a group of people fighting to bring the sea back to life. Which goes to prove, once again, that hope springs eternal, regardless of how dire the situation seems to be.

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