About 11 months ago I visited California to see friends, do some hiking/wandering and ending with a business trip. I spent three years in California while in law school so on this trip, I wanted to do some off the beaten track tourism and see some new things. At the top of my list was to pay a visit to the Salton Sea Recreation area. I had been hearing about the Salton Sea for years but an article in Vice had really piqued my interests.
The Salton Sea Recreation Area sign has seen better days
So, what is the Salton Sea? It’s an inland lake in the Coachella Valley area inland in Southern California near Joshua Tree National Park. The lake was accidentally created in 1905. In an effort to increase water flow into the area for farming, irrigation canals were being dug from the Colorado River into the valley. However, there was an engineering error caused by a heavy rain and millions of gallons of water flowed into the previously dried out lake bed.
In the 50s and 60s, it was a booming tourist attraction that attracted families and celebrities like Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and Sonny Bono. It was “marketed as a ‘miracle in the desert’” it would regularly attract over half a million visitors annually. It was a full service resort town complete with shops, hotels, yacht clubs, fishing and water-skiing.
Salton Sea in its Prime
Salton Sea post card from the 1950s
However, the success of the area was short-lived. The Salton Sea lacks an outflow, which means that runoff and contaminants that enter the lake, have no exit or means of dilution. The Salton Sea is surrounded by nearly half a million acres of agricultural land and its runoff, includes salt, fertilizers and pesticides. By the 1970s, the salinity of the sea was so drastically increased that the water was becoming too hostile to support the life of most freshwater fish. Currently, the salinity is increasing at about a rate of 1% annually and it is more salty than the Pacific Ocean. This caused a die out of fish, elevated bacterial levels and algal blooms that began to rot giving off foul odors.
The Salton Sea Today
Today, only a few species can survive in the lake. The shores are littered with dead and dedicated fish and the beach is covered with barnacles and fish bones.
Dead fish on the shores of the Salton Sea
Beaches covered with the bones of dead fish and barnacles
It wasn’t only the wildlife that suffered. Tourists stopped coming and revenue for resort areas dried up. Most people have left the area but a few still eek out a living. Many areas suffer from blight and vandalism with many vacant homes. I visited the community of Bombay Beach which is a prime example of such abandonment. There are still a few residents, but it is a desperate and desolate place.
Vacant home in Bombay Beach
Graffiti in an Abandoned home, Bombay Beach
A kitchen of an abandoned home in Bombay Beach
But, good news may be coming soon to the residents of the Salton Sea area. Assemblyman Brian Nestande of California announced this week, an initiative to institute a quarter-cent sales tax in the Coachella Valley. The money raised would pay for an earth dike to be constructed across the northern portion of the Salton Sea. The purpose of the Dike would be to create a new body of water the size of Lake Arrowhead that would be fed by runoff and preserve the northern shoreline. The cost of this restoration project could range from $225 million to $510 million.
For more information about the Salton Sea you can check out the following links: