Salton Sea, A Beautiful Mistake
…well, depending on what you consider beautiful. And what you consider a mistake! The long and short of the Salton Sea story is this: During the Teddy Roosevelt administration, using canals along the US/Mexican border, an irrigation project attempted to divert water from the Colorado river into the dry, below-sea level basin along the San Andreas fault in the middle of California’s Imperial Valley. A series of mistakes including low funds, weak temporary structures and a cut made from Mexico to the basin that was too short and steep to properly control, lead to the creation of the Salton Sea. The Colorado river, full of heavy rainfall and melting snow, quickly eroded and widened the man-made passage to flood the basin from 1905 to 1907 and create the body of water. Despite an attempt to close up the new channel, the Colorado River was too powerful and continued to break through levees to travel into the new sea. Eventually attempts to block the raging river succeeded, but at this point the fresh water lake was 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, 110 total miles of shoreline. Intermittent natural flooding continued throughout the early 20th century, but stopped with the construction of the Hoover Dam.
During this time, the surrounding community turned the ecological disaster into a profitable boon: successful resort areas that included Salton City, Salton Sea Beach, Desert Shores and Bombay Beach, rose along the shores of the lake. Sadly, not before too long the sea faced several new ecological disasters. Because there was no outflow system like a typical lake, agricultural runoff increased the water levels and flooded many of the tourist areas during the mid-century. Additionally, the runoff also increased the salinity of the lake, which put the lives of all of the new species of fish, birds and other wildlife at jeopardy.
The rise of the sea levels and constant flooding lead to increasing amounts of evacuation from and abandonment of the former resort towns. Fish died in droves leaving millions of bone fragments behind. Their rotting carcasses which lined the shores, along with the evaporation of sulfuric salt water, untreated river flow from Mexico and algae decomposition created a vicious cocktail of stench that is palpable within miles of the sea.
Despite the smell, the carcasses and the rotting buildings, camper trailers and furniture that dot the salty, sand-encrusted beaches, the Salton Sea is now a mecca for photographers and explorers of ruins. In other words, we are most definitely not alone in our fascination. In fact, as we drove up to the infamous thread-worn, squash-yellow armchairs purposefully perched on top of a small hill overlooking the calm sea, we literally waited in line to take a photo. Not too unlike a family safari through Kenya, a half dozen cars driven by these explorers toured the grounds of the half-abandoned Salton Sea Beach and Marina as we walked through the decrepit homes, loud salty crunches bursting from underneath us with every single step we took. The ground almost looked like it was covered in footprint-clad moon dust, only frozen. There really was no “sneaking around” in a place like this (which proved even more obvious when we came back later that night). We weren’t alone as we explored this seemingly abandoned place. Local residents traveled through the empty streets on golf carts while thrill-seeking visitors sped to the dunes on motor bikes. Dogs barked incessantly in the distant, still-occupied neighborhood…some even wandered the shore. A resort town that once provided endless entertainment by way of fishing, swimming, sun bathing and boating still finds ways of entertaining those who remain there, and of course draw many more from hundreds of miles around, even thousands–in our case.
Laminated condemnation notices were tacked to the outside of every building we entered, mocking the town really. Everything looked apocalyptic–the salt that coated the toys and shoes that littered the ground looked almost like ashes–as if something happened much more suddenly than the several decade-long deterioration. Anyone who visits this place witnesses a museum and record of what in essence is at best a negligent mistake and at worst a glimpse at how powerless the human species is in the face of nature. Those looking to save and restore the area have faced more than their fair of challenges legally- and politically-speaking. While it is a human choice to remain in the area, the survival of the current eco-system has become an important crusade for many. Meanwhile, others believe its restoration is not only futile, but believe humanity has clearly played too much of a role in the area, which should never have been created in the first place.
We left the Marina just as the sun set over the Santa Rosa mountain range. The golden light cast over the sea and its surrounding ghost town actually did look quite beautiful. We had even grown used to the sulfuric odor in the hours we spent there. Like many of these abandoned places we visit, there is so much to take in and we barely scratched the surface…even after returning to visit that night, and again the following night. You can find more of the photos we took here. We hope to post photos of our night time visit too. A place like this at night is haunting to say the least, even with all the barking dogs and Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits keeping us company!