Salton Sea: A Series of Unfortunate Events

My time at Van Life Campground: Joshua Tree had come to an end. I sincerely enjoyed the lakeside campsite I’d found at Imperial Dam. Birgit and Tom were still there, and Melinda was coming back any day, so I decided to go back there for a little while. Google said the fastest route there was to take I-10 back to Quartzsite, then Highway 95 south toward Yuma. I prefer to avoid backtracking over familiar ground when I can, so I plotted a course through Palm Springs to resupply, then down past the Salton Sea. I’d heard about this place, which was supposed to be the French Riviera of California but became an enormous environmental disaster that nobody’s really doing anything about.

After stocking up on supplies in Palm Springs, I continued down Highway 86 for a while. Eventually, the Salton Sea came into sight. This is a 13-mile by 33-mile saltwater lake in the middle of the desert. How did it get here? Irrigation and greed. Around 1900, farmers built a canal off the Colorado River to begin farming year-round in the desert, a practice that continues today. They got more and more greedy, taking more and more water. Then, in 1905, the river flooded, breaking through the dams and filling up a dry lake bed, creating the Salton Sea. It would have dried up, but heavy irrigation kept the Salton Sea full of water. That runoff also brought a high salt content to this new body of water, making it about as salty as the ocean. What could possibly go wrong?

During the 1950s and 1960s, developers tried turning this into a vacation and resort area, like Palm Springs but with water. It worked for a while. Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and the Beach Boys all spent a fair amount of time vacationing here. The Salton Sea was stocked with fish so that people could enjoy fishing among other water sports. It was sold as a desert oasis paradise.

This dream was not sustainable. In the 1970s tropical storms caused massive flooding, destroying many areas that were never rebuilt. The salt content continued to increase, leading to mass dieoffs of the fish living in it, and then the birds that flocked to the area to feed off them. The water is slowly drying up. Basically, the area became an environmental disaster, which is to be expected of a sea that only exists because of the disaster that created it.

In the 1990s, Sonny Bono — yes, that one, of Sonny and Cher — was a Congressman who advocated for the conservation and restoration of the Salton Sea to its former glory. The idea caught traction, but his untimely death in 1998 took the wind out of the movement’s sails, and little was ever actually done about it. It’s too expensive, they say.

Now, as the Salton Sea slowly dries up, it exposes the lakebed littered with all those toxic chemicals from a century of irrigation buildup. Who knows how these chemicals affected all the people swimming and playing in the Salton Sea back in its heyday. Nobody cared back then. These exposed chemicals become dust in the wind, spreading them to anyone unfortunate enough to breathe them in. (It was a calm day, and I only got out of the van long enough to take a few pictures. I left before my own asthma could get triggered.) This problem will only get worse over time as more and more of the water dries up.

The area is a ghost town of the upscale resort it once was. While a few lingering residents cling to what’s left of the past, most buildings in the area are abandoned at this point. Billboards on Highway 86 advertise property available for under $10,000. You won’t see me investing in this anytime soon, though.

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