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Elegy to the Salton Sea (February 25, 2004)

In 19th Century England, William Wordsworth strolled through his garden. “I am at one with Nature,” he declared. Hemingway’s 20th Century hero Nick paddled with his father in the canoe in the unspoiled Minnesota lakes. He put his hand into the ice cold water, “It was good.” I sometimes try to kid myself like the great writers who felt they had some organic relationship with Nature despite the pervasive encroachment of industrial technology on all areas of life. 

Could I aspire to become a 21st Century Nick, as I looked at the unruffled picture post card water? The pristine blue landscape reflected the desert sun. The tamarisk trees cast flimsy shadows on the lake’s surface. Southern California’s largest body of water, the Salton Sea, exudes calm and natural beauty — as long as you have a clothes pin on your nose. 

Pull it off and the stench threatens to ramrod its way through your sinuses. This invasive redolence combines residues from agricultural runoff (pesticide and chemical fertilizer), sewage from surrounding desert cities (Palm Springs, Coachella and Indio) and even some toxic waste from maquiladoras in nearby Mexicali across the border.

The lake measures 35 miles in length, up to 15 miles in width and has about 115 miles of shoreline. On the western shore, tens of thousands of carcasses of dead and festering birds and fish belie its tranquil image and add to the pernicious odor. 

In 1996, government agencies affirmed that 1,200 endangered brown pelicans died of avian botulism. In addition, 19,000 waterfowl and shore birds from 63 species perished. In 1997, 10,000 plus birds from 51 species died. From January through April, 1998, 17,000 birds from 70 species caught Newcastle’s disease and avian cholera. The immune systems of thousands of eared grebes became weak, probably from ingesting selenium, and they succumbed to avian infirmities. Their carcasses decompose on the shore alongside the skeletons of fish. Some biologists predict that all the fish will begin to die as salt levels increase.

But a flood in the 1960s preceded the overwhelming stink. Surrounding agribusiness owners had irrigated their overly-chemical drenched soil with a huge increase of water. They did not consider the impact of their action on the Salton Sea. Residents had to abandon modest retirement homes and vacation cottages. These vacant edifices loom like graveside monuments to the lake-side community that had mushroomed on the edge of the Salton City after World War II.

The origins of the predicament date back to 1905 when a dam in the Colorado River broke and water raced through mineral heavy canals for two years to collect in a pre-historic dried-up lake bed. The new body of water contained a high salinity level. This new culture proved ideal for certain saltwater fish, as well as a place where birds and ducks and geese could migrate and breed. Indeed, scientists have observed almost 400 species of birds at the sea. During the 1950s, experts estimated that in winter some four million birds used this artificial water body. Indeed, for flying non-insects, it became the most utilized sea in the nation. New flora grew on the shore: Desert scrub, creosote bush, saltbush, and tamarisk.

Developers and speculators built tourist facilities that serviced some 200,000 visitors a year, including campsites, trails, playgrounds and boat ramps. The lake became a virtual speedway for boat racers who took advantage of the high salt content that gave their craft more buoyancy. Water and jet skiers roared past annoyed fisherman. By 1958, the North Shore of the lake sported a Yacht Club, with one of the largest marinas in Southern California. In the 1950s, Jerry Lewis docked his boat there. Desi Arnaz and Johnny Weissmuller played on the 18-hole golf course and hung around Salton Bay Yacht Club. Bulldozers paved the streets.

These forsaken structures have shed their paint. Motels and yacht clubs, places from which water skiers once took off, have also lost their essence: the neon has dripped out of their signs.

Like other ghost towns that once vibrated with life and crackled with festivity, some of the Salton Sea communities now symbolize ecological disaster: conditions that arise when hustlers attempt to manipulate Nature for profit without acknowledging that the future may involve very high costs. Like Melville’s white whale, the Salton Sea today threatens to become a metaphor for Biblical punishment. “You have gone too far,” the great voice in the sky might have roared. “You are threatening Nature!”

“Hey, that’s the nature of capitalism,” the developers might well have replied.

To regain their profitable relationship with people and Nature on the Salton Sea, the “men of progress” call upon “science,” the ubiquitous magician, to solve environmental messes.

“Fix it,” they metaphorically order the men in white lab coats. “And get the government [taxpayers, not corporations] to pick up the tab.”

So, EPA, The Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and various California agencies contacted scientists who dutifully began to study this putrid body of water more than three decades ago. They differ about how to apply their magic to sections of the lake, in some areas fifty feet deep, covered with thick layers of viscous silt. Some marine biologists wonder if anyone can clean up this peanut butter-like deposit of chemical slurp that looms as a major ecological calamity.

Nature seemed to rebel in the form of an ecological chain reaction. Altering the flow of Colorado River water to create the Salton Sea also led to the diversion of River water to irrigate the Imperial Valley. The ensuing runoff flowed naturally into the unnatural Salton Sea. When farmers poured their “excess” water into the Sea, the Sea rose — having no outlet for the excess water — and flooded the shoreline residents, including those on land belonging to the Torres-Martinez reservation.

Geologists call the Salton Sea a “terminal” water body, one that receives water flow, but has no outlet. So, it had no place to send the agricultural run off, post irrigation water that contains chemical fertilizers, pesticides, selenium and other minerals and salts — other than onto the shore, with its people and edifices.

The levels of poisonous materials have risen steadily. The Sea diminishes only through evaporation. Allowing it to dry up would mean that poisonous selenium dust would infect all living things in the area. In 2004, scientists estimate that the Salton Sea contains 25% more salinity than the ocean. Even most saltwater fish cannot survive in it. Today, the Sea's ecosystem suffers from significant stress. Several million fish and birds have already died from disease and depressed levels of dissolved oxygen.

Not all the nearby residents have fled, however. In the eastern shore communities of Bombay Beach and the Slab City trailer community, some people live on meager social security checks. “I like it better here than in rural Alabama,” says a man with confederate flag sewn on his trucker’s cap.

The bar flies at Bombay Beach’s Ski Inn drink, smoke and gossip about daily life. They have become accustomed to living in an environmentally challenged area. From the bar, they drive in Mad Max vehicles to their trailers or small homes. The disgusting odor that pervades the western bank occasionally infiltrates their community as well. It seems worse in the summer when the thermometer rises above 110 degrees.

Some fishermen still drop their line in the lake and duck hunters hide in the blinds on the lake shore. “I sure hope they don’t eat what they catch or shoot,” says a man who has watched the Sea deteriorate over the decades.

The residents wait for the conflicting interests, like urban water authorities, conservationists, agribusiness, and native peoples, to figure out a “cure” for their ecologically diseased Sea.

One interested party, the Torres Martinez tribe had to change their life in 1905 when the Colorado River water overflowed their reservation. Like the fauna, flora and people in the area, these Native Americans adapted to the new environment and abandoned their traditional hunting and gathering culture for fishing and modest farming, as they debate whether to build a Casino. In the 1960s more flooding and increasing salinity and pollution of the Sea further threatened their future.

The Salton Sea, like the Aral Sea in Central Asia, which is 400 times its size and shrinking fast, symbolizes ecological catastrophe. Soviet industrial “planners” had treated Nature just as the California capitalist developers did: they employed “productive” technology without calculating — or even thinking about — consequences. Nearby resident animals and plants suffered horrendous consequences.

But humans learn slowly. They know that reproduction of the species requires a healthy environment — clean air and water and uncontaminated soil. But some of the smartest engineers can lose sight of that truism when offered the chance to manipulate Nature for short-term profits.

Indeed, these “forward looking” individuals view Nature as something to dominate, not nurture. Will it take the rule of romantic poets to teach that tornadoes, hurricanes, El Niños scream metaphoric messages? “Hey, there’s something more powerful than all of you!” 

Environmental nightmares like the Salton Sea have not humbled those who exude “progress” but lack the sensitivity to understand that serious lessons follow the modification of the earth’s ecology.

Wordsworth’s Nature was:

“the language of the sense,

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.” 

(from Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey)

2 Comments

  1. George Hollister January 27, 2021

    The problem with the Salton Sea is salt, a gradual build up of salt to toxic levels. Water from the Colorado, directly or indirectly, has a lot of salt. So water comes in, evaporates and leaves salt. Toxic levels of salt kill fish creating the stench, and the botulism. When the SS was first filled, salt levels were low, passing birds noticed and decided to stay a while. Plans to revive the SS involve some form of removing salt, or sequestering it. At this point it is all talk.

    Jim Armstrong has an interesting idea. How about bringing ocean water into one end, and replace water that is pumped into the desert on the other? If pesticides are an issue treatment with ozone should do the trick. The desert sun could provide the energy for that. The result would be a pile of salt in the desert, and a revived SS. Of course this is California, and the cost of studies for a project like this would be in the billions of dollars. The CEQA document would cost the same, and the project then would be tied up in court because of a lizard that is supposedly going to go extinct as a result. Of course, then there is the Coastal Commission. Forget it.

  2. Jim Armstrong January 27, 2021

    It is about 220 feet below sea level.
    Even with out the ability of siphons to do the whole job, it still might work to keep it full with Pacific Ocean water.

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