After watching the film Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea, an intriguing John Waters documentary about the bizarre history of an area only about 25 miles outside of Palm Springs, I have been vying to check out the Salton Sea for myself.
To give some background, the Salton Sea is essentially a man-made, engineering eco-disaster. The “sea,” which is actually a lake, covers an expanse of about 376 square miles, making it California’s largest lake. It was originally a salt basin, which then flooded about 100 years ago– after a domino series of engineering failures diverted the Colorado River. Turning this mistake into a profitable venture, the Salton Sea grew into a hugely popular tourist attraction for the Hollywood jet setting crowd of the 1920s. This caused the surrounding cities to quickly adjust themselves to meet the whims and needs of a tourist destination.
However, this success came to a halt as environmental problems plagued the area, including mass die-offs of the tilapia that came to inhabit the lake.
“The accepted scientific explanation of summer fish die-offs involves the oxygen-depleting combination of sun and salt. Salt water carries less oxygen than fresh water; hot water carries less oxygen than cool water. When the sea’s increasingly briny water heats up in summer temperatures that can reach 125 degrees, fish begin to suffocate.” (Diana Marcum, 7.6 Million Fish Die In A Day At Salton Sea, L.A. Times (Aug. 12, 1999).)
As brown pelicans eat the rotting fish (it is unclear if they eat them dead or alive), the pelicans catch avian botulism, quickly causing their death. These dead pelicans must immediately be removed by state employees or the botulism can spread.Before his death in the 1990s, Palm Springs Congressman Sunny Bono forcefully advocated for the restoration of the Salton Sea. These Salton Sea Restoration efforts are still being pursued, but the particular challenges of the environment seem like an ever increasing loop of insurmountable hurdles.
Today, the Salton Sea is mostly deserted. I see a young couple taking photographs of the flocks of birds flying and nesting throughout the serene landscape. A series of trailers line the campsites across the parking lot. Although it is a beautiful day with perfect temperatures, the lines of barbecue grills are unused and the picnic tables are untouched. As I walk across the white sands, closer to the pale turquoise water, it is impossible to ignore the scent of stale, rotting fish. Sprinkled across the sand, and gaining density as I approach the shore, are the corpses of dead tilapia. The clumps of dead fish lining the sea are eerie and unsettling- a macabre seashell variation.
While politicians continue to debate what should be done with this area, Salton Sea remains a beautiful and mysterious, off the beaten path thing-to-do in the Coachella Valley of the Inland Empire.
Salton Sea State Recreation Area: 100-225 State Park Road, North Shore, CA 92254. (760) 393-3052.