Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, 2004
The Salton Sink was a desert basin lying over 200 feet below sea level in southern
California, close to the border with Mexico and halfway between the Pacific and Arizona.
In centuries past it had sometimes briefly held water when the Colorado River overflowed,
and when the water evaporated, what remained was surprisingly fertile soil. People started
farming the Sink, which required irrigation. Channels were cut from the Colorado to the
Sink. But in 1905, the Colorado flooded again, burst through the dike, and began to flow
directly into the Sink; it took two years to repair the damage, by which point the region
had become the Salton Sea, an endorheic lake 35 miles long and 15 miles wide.
Normally the lake would have just evaporated like previous bodies of water in the area,
but the portion of the Imperial Valley that remained above water was still a
big farming area and so
the sea was fed by agricultural runoff as well as the rivers created by the 1905-7 flood.
However, this means that the pure water that evaporates is replaced by salty, polluted
water — the New River which flows from maquiladora-choked Mexicali into the Salton Sea
is the most polluted waterway in North America, full of heavy metals, pesticide and biological
toxins — and so the Salton Sea is now saltier than the ocean and an ecological
This documentary covers the history of the lake since its formation a hundred years ago
(complete with clips from oh-so-1950s tourism films) and introduces the viewer to several
of the few local residents. I saw it at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley; it's also
playing at various film festivals all over the place.
I liked it. I'm always interested in learning what it's like to live in different corners
of the globe, and the Salton Sea is certainly an unusual spot.
A lot of Californians, let alone others, haven't even heard of the Salton Sea. I had; in
fourth grade we had to make relief maps of California out of flour paste and paint them for
elevation, and it was hard to miss the huge lake down at the south end. But I didn't
actually go there until 16 August 1998, on the way back from a trip to Joshua Tree with
Neil Guy. There were some picnic benches along the lakefront that had clearly not been used
in years, possibly because the shoreline was covered in dead fish.
Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea explains the deal with the fish. In the
1930s fish were introduced to the Salton Sea in hopes of making it a tourist destination
for fishing enthusiasts. It worked: the fish thrived, or at least the tilapia did —
there are 100 million tilapia in the Salton Sea. But salty water carries less oxygen than
fresh water, so as the lake grew saltier, oxygen stores were depleted... and hot water
carries less oxygen than cold water, so in late summer, the fish suffocate at a rate of
about ten million a week, leaving blankets of dead tilapia miles long and miles wide along
the shore. This annual die-off attracts flies. Flies lay eggs, which hatch into maggots,
which get into the water. Some of these maggots carry botulism. The surviving fish eat
the infected maggots and contract botulism. These fish are then eaten by birds. The
birds die. There are guys at the Park Service whose entire job description in the summer
is to round up the sick and dead pelicans. (Because California's coastal wetlands are
gone, the Salton Sea area has become a crucial haven for migrating birds.) Finally, the
dead fish that end up back in the lake serve as nutrients for algae, leading to enormous,
malodorous algae blooms, which feed the surviving fish and allow them to partially replenish
their stocks for next summer's die-off.
As for the picnic benches — in the 1950s and even into the '60s, the Salton Sea was
a popular vacation destination with a yacht club, an annual boat race, Hawaiian luaus,
even songs by Beach Boys knock-offs. Sinatra played there. Eisenhower visited. So in
1958, a group of developers built Salton City, a resort town with 250 miles of paved streets
with water mains, a sewer system, and electricity. They offered 25,000 lots for sale, and
people snapped them up. It looked like a great investment: buy a patch of desert, wait for
everyone around you to build the place up into the next Riviera, then sell for millions
when the last few parcels of empty land become precious commodities. The only problem was
that everyone who bought in Salton City had the same idea — in effect, you had
thousands of land speculators looking at each other and saying, "Well? Start building!"
Fifty years later, this elaborate web of streets with names like "Arcadia Avenue" and
"Shore Estate Place" has a population of 978. (See the image at the top of this page for
an aerial view, or
poke around yourself.)
The few communities that did spring up along the lakeshore were severely flooded in the
1970s, as the level of the lake rose and destroyed a lot of the infrastructure. Tourism
had already dwindled, and the flood pretty much spelled the end of the Salton Sea as a
potential resort area. Now the fear is that with a new deal to redirect to San Diego
much of the water that currently flows into the lake, the Salton Sea will evaporate into
a small puddle and the contaminated soil thereby exposed will blow northward into the
ritzy Palm Springs region. Unlikely? This is pretty much exactly what happened to
the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union! Its feeders were diverted, it dried up (losing
80% of its volume and actually splitting into two lakes), and now toxic dust storms in
the Aral region have caused a spike in cancer rates and lung disease. Infant mortality
has multiplied thirtyfold. Soon the lake won't even have enough water left for Islam
Karimov to boil political prisoners in.
So will anyone do anything about the Salton? Sonny Bono made some noise about it and even
got Newt Gingrich to come down and make a speech, but then he skied into a tree and the
Salton Sea faded as a fashionable cause. At the screening of the film some volunteers
were handing out postcards to send to Arnold Schwarzenegger asking him to save the Salton
Sea in memory of Sonny Bono. When your movement depends on the empathy of one has-been
celebrity for another, you've got problems.
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