The Salton Sea
My dearest undertakers,
It was SKI WEEK last week and we went on a road trip!
Here in Northern California Fancy Land, SKI WEEK is a whole week off for private schools. This way, Harley Vixen St. Fauntleroy and her brother CHANCE Q JACKSON THE III can hit Aspen without missing a week of instruction that most definitely is not caught up in the CRT bashing cycle. And calm down, I’m obviously talking about myself here. But we decided to go to the DESERT instead.
On our road trip, we stopped to see THE SALTON SEA, which I took to IMMEDIATELY because it’s a strange, strange area in a semi-ruined, semi-preserved state. Kind of like a living ghost town in some spots. It gives off a definite Burning Man vibe, with makeshift dwellings and guerilla art, not to mention the fact that the beach is called “playa” (the name for exposed lakebed and also the annoyingest linguistic flex of the BM crowd).
The Salton Sea wasn’t always like this. It was once a playland for Harley and Chance! And now it is a dried up apocalyptic looking ghost town that smells like dead fish and looks like Mad Max! How the fuck did that happen?
The short answer is - it was an accident. The Sea was created when the Colorado River overran an irrigation system, flooding what was known as the Salton Base. It took two years to stop the flooding, but by then the *largest lake* in California had been created - the Salton Sea. The water didn’t connect to any other freshwater sources, so it was very salty. Only rain water replenishes it, and it’s constantly evaporating, concentrating the salinity.
For a while, the lake was a beautiful, calm sea that was perfect for swimming, boating, and fishing. The state stocked the lake with fish from the Sea of Cortez, and wildlife flourished. Millions of birds passed through as they migrated along the Pacific Flyway. Resort towns sprung up around the lake, and people from all over came for vacation. Frank Sinatra performed there! The salty water was ideal for speed boats, and remember how big of a deal water skiing was? The Sea was so popular that it had more visitors than Yosemite.
The area started to have problems in the 1970’s, however. The only sources of infill were rain and agricultural runoff from nearby farms. The shoreline was highly variable depending on infill levels, and it flooded frequently when rainstorms came through. A series of massive storms hit the area in the late 70s and early 80s, flooding the area and ruining crops and farmland. This started the depopulation - wiped out houses and businesses weren’t replaced. As the farms went away, so did the irrigation, and the sea levels began to drop drastically.
As the water dried up, exposed lakebed churned up toxic dust that polluted the air for miles. The water got saltier and warmer, killing off fish and driving away birds. This is why the playa around the lake is not just made of sand and dried mud - it’s full of crushed fish bones. Harrowing, no?
Everyone seems to understand that the rapid evaporation of the Salton Sea is an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, and the state seems completely unprepared to deal with it. According to one source, it will take $9B to remediate the problem, but cause up to $70B in damage if it’s not addressed. The state has allocated somewhere around $500M on a plan, but as of 2019 had not even spent it. Meanwhile, the sea shrinks, the lakebed is exposed, pollutants are released into the air, and people suffer.
I didn’t actually know any of this when I went there! I just love semi-abandoned spaces and public art. I thought the apocalyptic vibe of the spot came from its lost-in-time appearance. But it’s so much deeper than that - the mood reveals actual danger. The environmental calamity only *started* in the 1970’s - the worst is yet to come. The Sea itself is being reduced into a super concentrated toxic stew, leaving a wasteland behind. As it decays, the land around it follows, and the effects will be felt further and further away. Imagine 400 square miles of poisonous dried mud, cracked and filled with crushed animal bones and pesticides, baking in the volcanic desert sun. That’s what the dilapidated structures and graffiti of Bombay Beach are warning us about; that’s what the gutted ruins on the playa say.
Check out these sources on the Salton Sea for more. The documentary "Miracle in the Desert" is great and FREE!
From Hotspot to Ghost Town: 33 Photos of California’s Abandoned Salton Sea
Miracle in the Desert: The Rise and Fall of the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, A Photo Essay by Scott London Photos of the Salton Sea Over the Years (aerial photos of the shrinkage)
Lake Cahuilla and the History of Indigenous Settlement of the Sea