Salton Sea: Desert Oasis to Post-Apocalyptic Disaster
It was a 400-square-mile oasis in the middle of the California desert.
Less than 70 miles from Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, and just 35 miles from Coachella, it entertained more visitors than Yosemite National Park.
It was a place where families, and even celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Desi Arnaz and the Beach Boys, came to cool off.
Today, Salton Sea is so incredibly toxic it’s unsafe to even wade into it unprotected.
The waterfront community of Bombay Beach, once looking to rival the French Riviera, now more closely resembles the post-apocalyptic site of a Hollywood zombie movie.
Less than 300 people remain, though, in an interesting twist, they’ve created a unique bohemian arts style along the beach and amongst the decaying buildings and rusted out vehicles.
It is considered one of the nation’s greatest environmental disasters.
Residents of the nearby community of Mecca experience asthma and other illnesses several times higher than normal, believed to be associated with dust storms carrying the chemicals embedded in sediment from the lake. Hay bales have been placed across 68-acres near Salton Sea in an attempt to reduce wind-blown dust.
As if all that weren’t enough, wait, there’s more! Now high-in-demand lithium has been discovered in the area. That’s the metal used in batteries, especially electric vehicle batteries.
Ground breaking on a $1.85 billion lithium extraction and geothermal power plant was held two weeks ago today on the southern edge of the lake. They hope this first plant, there’s others on the drawing board, will provide enough lithium to power more than 400,000 electric vehicles.
I suppose the only place to start in telling this story is the beginning. My intent here is to simply provide the Cliff Notes version, along with links to additional information for those wishing a deeper dive.
Birth of a Sea
Since the beginning of time, what was originally the Salton Basin remained uninhabited. This was and still is the desert after all. In the late 1800s, however, as methods for growing things and surviving in the desert began to evolve, people began inhabiting the basin.
As more people came, the demand for water continued to exceed supply, until 1901. That’s when commercial companies began building canals transporting water to the area.
Those canals worked ok but the supply was still too little, so along came the California Development Company who, in 1905, built not just a canal, but a channel, 50-feet wide and 67-feet deep, from the Colorado River to the basin.
They overdid it. The water from the river was too much and they hadn’t built a way to stop, or even slow down, the flow.
To make matters worse, torrential rains, the most ever at the time, fell soon after the channel was completed and into the following year.
The Salton Basin was completely flooded. 110,000-cubic-feet of water crashed down the channel every second. The water reach the tops of telephone poles.
Businesses were wiped out, families lost their homes. It took several years for the water flow to finally be stopped by teams of workers throwing boulders and fallen trees into the channel.
The ultimate result, in what many looked at as a happy accident, Salton Sea was created. The water settled into the basin, resulting in the 400-square-mile lake.
Rise and Fall
In the 1910s and 20s, attempts began to capitalize on the newly-formed lake with mixed results.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s and 1950s that the idea really began to gain momentum. Tourists slowly began to appear. In 1951, hundreds of people turned out to witness boaters setting 21 speed boat records.
To draw even more tourists, the California Department of Fish and Game began stocking the lake with what seemingly was a “let’s throw everything in and see what survives” attitude. Everything from oysters to croaker to salmon was included. There were even flamingoes to add to that resort kind of ambiance. (The only remaining fish is tilapia, though you wouldn’t want to eat it.)
In a sort of, if you build it, they will come, way, people definitely came. During the 50s and 60s, it was a popular destination for both families and celebrities. It even rivaled Palm Springs.
Businesses sprung up to serve the tourist traffic, cabanas were built on the beach and yacht clubs were formed. Bombay Beach and Salton City, directly across the lake to the east, along with other small communities, flourished.
There was just one problem. With that California Development Company channel now dammed up, fresh water from the Colorado River was no longer flowing in and the lake began to evaporate.
Approximately 1.3 million acre feet of water evaporates per year.
Some, but not all, of that is replaced by agricultural drainage from the nearby Imperial Valley and, to a lesser extent, the Coachella Valley. Those farms receive water from newer, modern-day, irrigation systems.
With no fresh water flowing in, that means the Salton Sea’s chemical content from ag drainage only increases every year.
And, with more water evaporating then coming in, the lake also becomes more and more salty. Four million tons of dissolved salts enter it every year, the equivalent of 13,500 train cars.
Salton Sea is more than twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean.
In a side note, there is now concern that Utah’s Great Salt Lake may be following a similar path.
These issues began to surface in the 1970s. Many of the fish died off and accumulated on the beaches. Birds who fed on the dying fish began dying themselves. There were days the water began smelling like rotten eggs.
It was not long before tourism began to decline, and quickly stopped altogether, leaving once thriving communities around the lake to wither, decline and die along with the lake.
Bombay Beach Bohemia
How would I describe Bombay Beach today?
Your first reaction really is that you’ve wandered into some post-apocalyptic wasteland.
There are still homes and trailers obviously occupied by the few residents still living there. But they are quite literally surrounded by cinder block buildings and other graffitied structures crumbling to the ground.
Then there’s the art. Walk along the beach and drive around the few blocks of the tiny community and you discover these full-size art pieces. It’s as if artists, who don’t wish to be confined by larger society, have found their way here.
Along the beach, there’s a star the size of a small car, suspended on metal rebar, a swing set so large it looks like it belongs in a circus big top and a monolith that would easily fit into the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, titled the Bonolith.
In town, there’s a plane made entirely out of scrap metal, resting atop a pedestal, a life-size re-creation of the Park Place board space in the Monopoly game, and the Bombay Beach Drive-In that looks very much like an actual drive-in theater, except all the vehicles are junked out cars and the screen is a white semi-truck trailer.
It all makes for a one-of-a-kind experience that, as ‘they’ say, you have to see to believe. If you’re ever in the area, do it.
Deep Dive Links
Ok, if you’re ready to dive off the deep end, here you go:
I highly recommend Atlas Obscura’s Salton Sea podcast. It’s 18 minutes long and is how I first learned about it.
All That’s Interesting has a story that encompasses the history of the sea to the present.
I have to mention the Salton Sea Authority that is trying to bring people and groups together to find a solution. They have a great FAQ about what has, and is, happening there.
Here’s a story from KUER 90.1, an NPR station, posted just Wednesday about the health problems of nearby residents.
Finally, here’s one about the new lithium plant underway, and the lawsuits threatened against it.
**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.