Is there a stranger sensation than coming upon a large body of water in the middle of a desert. The sight of Lake Mead suddenly appearing after hours traversing the lonely Nevada alkali, or Lake Powell emerging from the Colorado Plateau, studded with pontoon boats and jet skis. And then we have our own version, here in California:
Its surprising how unfamiliar many Californians are with the largest body of water within the state; the Salton Sea. Last month, while down in Palm Springs, I spent the day out near the Salton Sea, a truly bizarre and beautiful place. The Sea is an accident- it was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River, swollen from rain and snowmelt, overflowed the headgates of a canal, and flowed unimpeded into the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sink. The water flowed into the sink for the next two years , thus creating this massive new lake. Here’s the map, and you can just see the Colorado at the far right:
This vast new lake soon became a target for development, and a vast recreation mecca was dreamed of, and began to be realized. Huge developments along the north and east shores of the sea were planned and developed in the late 50’s and early 60’s. One can only imagine the optimism as developers envisioned the booming metropolis to the east sending a steady stream of recreation enthusiasts east to these new resorts.
These developments came to partial fruition just as it became apparent there was something terribly wrong with the Sea. The only source for additional water to sustain the sea were highly saline creeks and washes, themselves largely agricultural runoff. As a result, the salinity and toxicity increased astronomically, resulting in large-scale fish die-offs. Thus, the resorts very short moment in the sun was over, and they began a steady decline. Today, a tour of these locations is reminiscent of other desert outposts that we have visited the last couple of years, where owners and developers simply walk away, leaving whole buildings to be preserved in this briny wasteland. The result was, and is, a bizarre , salt encrusted and oft-malodorous stew of scrappy communities living on the edge of the sea, amidst dead fish and these abandoned resorts. Here are a few photos that tell the generally sad tale near the Sea: