The Salton Sea—a relic of 1950’s Americana—has left behind an ecological disaster that has outlived the memory of a once thriving resort destination.
Branded as a literal oasis in the Imperial Valley, the Salton Sea now exists in a state of post-apocalyptic dilapidation. With dead fish lining its shore, the lake emits a strong malodorous stench that severely impacts those with respiratory issues. A growing number of these people are children whose asthma symptoms are heightened by pesticide particles that traveled to the bottom of the lake from irrigation run-off, but now blow in the wind as the lake shrinks in size.
A series of overwhelmed canals diverting from the Colorado River accidentally led to the the Salton Sea’s inception in 1905. The canals eventually broke and inundated the basin for the following two years, until repairs could be made and the flow of water was stopped. Now the Salton Sea is essentially landlocked without access to any external body of water, leading it to diminish in size. That coupled with deep rooted salt beds in the lake, agricultural runoff from neighboring farms and minute amounts of rainfall have caused the salinity levels of what was once considered a freshwater lake to rise higher than those found in seawater. This in turn is to blame for the decay of the surrounding wildlife, which causes a domino effect in an already fragile ecosystem.
Repair attempts have stalled throughout the years and temporary fixes like creating furrows in the exposed land to keep it from blowing in strong gusts have been sporadic and sparse. There is a proposed 10-year management and restoration plan in place, set forward by then Governor Jerry Brown, but it missed its first year goal and is on track to miss the second as well. In the meantime, the surrounding communities have resorted to seeking help from non-profits like Comite Civico Del Valle, whose health workers promote programs like flag warnings in schools to alert of dangerous wind levels and visit the homes of asthmatic people to share information about potential hazards.
The boarded up buildings that remain, with peeled off paint that once announced bait shops and drive-ins, make the Salton Sea look like a ghost town. But the truth is that there is a community there, albeit a small one. Homegrown pride has inspired the restoration and remodeling of a local yacht club into a community center. This community-led effort has also led to the establishment of Desert X, a high-concept outdoor art museum featuring instillations sprawled along the nearby desert.
Saving the Salton Sea is a daunting task both monetarily and labor-wise, but California cannot afford the devastating environmental effects caused by ignoring a problem like this.