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February 2005

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Salton Sea

By Joel Bourne, Jr.
If I didn't know better, this would seem the perfect place to toss a beer can, bury nuclear waste, or hop in a big monster truck and drive wherever the hell I want. I am standing 227 feet below sea level on the desert shore of California's largest lake and this country's strangest backwater: the Salton Sea. It's prettier from afar, a broad blue lens lapping at the base of rust red mountains. Up close the beach, if you can call it that, isn't sand but layer upon layer of barnacles and bones from the millions of fish that have expired here in mass die-offs over the years. The blue water is an illusion as well, a reflection of the desert sky. The sea actually looks like dark beer, and carries more than a whiff of sulfuric decay. Gobs of foam line the shore. Stringy mats of algae float in it as if it were some kid's science project gone horribly wrong. Just the place for a swim.

It will be a ceremonial swim for me, my penance as a former resident of San Diego, 85 miles west of here. I figure I owe the Salton Sea that much, since it's mostly my beloved beach town that's begun to suck the lake dry. In 2003 a historic water deal transferred a huge gulp of Colorado River water from the farms of the Imperial Valley, which feed the Salton Sea, to the sprawling office parks and developments of the old mission town. The acrimonious water deal reaffirmed an old saying in these parts: In the West water flows uphill toward money. The transfer will cut inflows to the Salton Sea by 20 percent, water the shallow lake desperately needs to keep from shrinking into a hypersaline mud puddle, devoid of little more than microbial life.

So I will swim. But not here. Not now. When you go to dip your toe in the Salton Sea, it pays to be picky. I hop in my go-kart of a rental car, scratching gravel as I cruise past the withered palm trees of Salton City. I pass the Sidewinder Golf Course—no greens fees, no greens, just different grades of sand scraped together by enterprising retirees from a nearby RV park.

A few older men are finishing up on the nearest hole, and they raise tanned arms to wave. As I wave back, it hits me that the future of the Salton Sea hangs on two things: golf balls and pileworms. Golf balls, of course, being the target of that addictive game perfected by the Scots to torture retirees and line the pockets of real estate developers. Pileworms, of course, being the slimy strands of biomass no bigger than a golf tee that are the target of millions of fish and birds—some critically endangered—that have for decades viewed this giant stagnant pond as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Together, in the right mix, they could be the sea's salvation, creating a utopia where wildlife, fun-loving humans, and industrial agriculture peacefully coexist. But in this place of big schemes and broken dreams, I had to admit it was a long shot.

There would be no pileworms, no birds, and indeed no Salton Sea to worry about if it weren't for the Imperial Valley, a bone-dry des-ert the Spanish called the Valley of the Dead before developers tapped the Colorado River and turned it into an agricultural Eden. A hundred years ago spring floods blew out an intake canal just south of Yuma, Arizona, and in no time the entire Colorado River was cascading down the 400-foot elevation drop into its old on-again, off-again repository then known as the Salton Sink. It took two years to close the breach, and by then a 500-square-mile freshwater lake covered the basin. Unlike previous incarnations that evaporated in the 115-degree sum-mer heat, the new Salton Sea hung around, thanks to the runoff of salty, fertilizer- and pesticide-laden irrigation water from booming valley farms. The nearly half million acres of fields now grow much of the produce in the United States, earning it the nickname "winter salad bowl of the nation." 

To those who wouldn't spend a dime to save the Salton Sea, who'd let "nature" take its ruthless course, I have two words: Owens Lake.

By the mid 1920s, Los Angeles had drained the Sierra Nevada lake to fill the taps of its sprawling suburbs. Today the dry lake bed is the largest single source of particulate matter air pollution in the nation. In 1998 a local agency forced Los Angeles to begin controlling the fine dust blowing off the lake bed. The total cost of dust control on the worst 30 square miles has been estimated at 415 million dollars, plus another 26 million dollars a year to keep the lake bed damp enough to stay put.

The amount of water to be transferred from the Salton Sea is about the same as the amount taken from Owens Lake. But the potential exposure at the shallower sea could be triple the size. The Imperial Sand Dunes southeast of the sea—now an off-roaders' paradise—are testament to the area's strong winds. What's more, the sea's sediments contain heavy metals, pesticides, and salts, which act like a defoliant on field crops and golf courses alike. The sea's murky waters, which now cover 376 square miles, may serve a noble purpose after all: to keep the Impe-rial and Coachella Valleys from becoming the toxic Dust Bowl of the 21st century.

Water is a precious commodity, however, in a region with limited supply and growing demand. The Imperial Irrigation District expects to eventually pocket 50 million dollars a year for selling its water to San Diego. That's good for valley farmers since the money will go to projects like canal lining and pump-back systems that will make farms more water efficient, but not so good for farm workers trying to put food on the table. Imperial County, which is 72 percent Hispanic, already has the highest unemployment rate and lowest per capita income in the state. The transfer could cost the county thousands of jobs as cropland is fallowed to send water to the cities.

Still, few would have cared about the fate of the sea if someone at California's Department of Fish and Game hadn't had the bright idea to stock the newly formed lake with fish. With no outlet, excessive evaporation, and the Imperial Valley adding four million tons of salt a year, the lake was soon as salty as the Pacific Ocean. So fisheries biologists in the 1950s introduced ocean species such as sargo, bairdiella, and orange-mouth corvina—delicious sport fish that were as much fun to eat as they were to catch. The Atlantic pileworms? They were also introduced by the California Department of Fish and Game in the 1930s, from San Diego Bay, where they most likely had been dumped by ships releasing their ballast water. The pileworms thrived on the abundant algae in their strange new surroundings, and soon fishermen and fish-eating birds like pelicans, cormorants, and herons were flocking to the Salton Sea.

The 1950s and early 1960s were the heyday for the sea. Some years it boasted more than half a million visitors. Stars like Roy Rogers and Guy Lombardo drifted down from Palm Springs to race speedboats, while fans partied and watched from yacht clubs. A young Sonny Bono learned to water-ski here, as did a million other kids. The real estate market was so hot that salesmen were taking people up in small planes and selling lots from the air.

Bob Miller remembers the star-studded days of yore. As a boy he and his dad would take Lon Chaney, Jr., Hollywood's "master monster," fishing. "He liked to sit on the front of the pontoon boat and drag his feet in the water," says Miller, a tall, mustachioed cowboy who'd look perfectly at home in a Marlboro ad. "He had the biggest, gnarliest toes I've ever seen."

Dreams die fast and hard in the desert, and the Salton Riviera was no exception. The sea itself, with its fluctuating shoreline and creeping salinity, had by 1964 turned into a cruel mirage. Things only got worse in the 1970s. It's hard to sell waterfront lots when dead fish carpet the shore and rotting algal blooms raise a stench vile enough to keep people indoors miles away. The final blow came in 1986 when 60 Minutes declared the New River—which brings in a third of the sea's inflows along with remnants of sewage from nearly a million residents of Mexicali—the most polluted river in the world.

It's dawn on a February morning, with snow frosting the Laguna Mountains to the west. Bob Miller and I are sipping coffee and riding in his battered truck along the south shore, near the national wildlife refuge named for Sonny Bono. The air, the water, the rustling reeds all tremble with feathered creatures of every shape and hue. Black-necked stilts probe the bottom for a pileworm breakfast beside blushing American avocets and rakish eared grebes with their cocky pompadours flung high. Ruddy ducks and cinnamon teal buzz by, while great blue herons lord over them all from the shallows.

Miller reels off a dozen varieties of shorebirds and creamy white gulls and then without warning slams on the brakes, sending coffee flying. He leaps out the door, grabs a digital camera rigged to a spotting scope, and fires off a few frames of a yellow-footed gull—a bird that to my eyes looks identical to a hundred other gulls bobbing nearby, save for its banana-colored appendages. "Ya hoo!" he yells, as if he had just hopped off the winning bull at the rodeo. "That's the best bird I'm going to see all day."

Somehow this odd accidental lake, with its prolific fish and nearby fields, has become one of the most important migratory bird habitats in the U.S., if not the world. Millions of birds representing more than 400 species can be spotted here, including endangered brown pelicans and Yuma clapper rails. Snow and Ross's geese arrive from the Arctic; blue-footed boobies cruise up from South America. Why? Perhaps because in southern California there's no place else to go.

"Ninety percent of all wetlands in California are gone," Miller says, shaking his head. "This is what's left of the Pacific flyway."

It's not always the safest rest stop. More than 150,000 eared grebes perished here in 1992. The cause is still a mystery. The death of some 10,000 pelicans from avian botulism in 1996 brought national attention to the sea, along with some much needed federal money from Congressman Bono to see what, if anything, could be done to save it.

Even the most grandiose solution will rest heavily on the back of the lowly pileworm. Fish eat the worms, birds eat the worms and the fish, and when the fish die—sometimes by the millions—the worms get the last bite. Who would have guessed that a little red wiggler that swims to the surface and explodes to reproduce could be such an important species?

At the Salton Sea, it seems, anything is possible. Miller picks up a piece of pumice and hurls it into the water. The stone bobs in the salty waves. "Besides," he says, "where else can you throw a rock in the water and it actually floats?"

The sea has more fans the farther north you go, though everyone seems to have a different reason for the attraction. Even in Bombay Beach, a hard-luck development on the east shore, hope stirs among the few hundred residents. Rising lake levels in the 1970s turned their lakefront into a flooded junkyard, with salt-encrusted trailers and cars slowly dissolving into the ooze. But in the cold dark recesses of the Ski Inn bar, retiree Barbara La Clair sees a silver lining.

"You're out of the smog, out of the city," she says. "It's a nice place for retired people. It just grows on you." La Clair started coming in the early 1960s, camping and fishing with her husband and four daughters, and retired here in 1990. In the '60s, she recalls, Bombay Beach had five bars and five restaurants. Campers jammed the nearby state beach four rows deep, and you had to make reservations at the boat ramp.

 "Does anyone swim in it anymore?"

"Yuck," says Paulette, the bartender.

"I don't even know how to swim," confesses La Clair. About then a young couple walks in the bar, and La Clair's face lights up. "You should talk to Bill and Thelma. They're in it all the time."

Bill and Thelma Leslie love the sea. They fish, ski, and just mess about in the water with their four kids every chance they get. "I never got sick from swimming in the sea," says Bill, who has lived here for 27 of his 35 years. "I got strep throat from swimming in the [Coachella] canal once. But in the sea, never."

"I tell the kids, keep your mouth shut tight," says Thelma. "We just hose them down when they get out." Bill works at a nearby fish farm and delivers fresh tilapia from tanks to the fish markets in San Diego and Los Angeles. These are the same variety of hardy freshwater African fish that somehow appeared in the lake in the 1970s and in a few short years took it over. Filter-feeding omnivores, tilapia thrived on the pileworms, plankton, and algae, while the bigger corvinas and fish-eating birds like pelicans, cormorants, and herons thrived on the tilapia. Moreover, some fishermen claimed they could catch a hundred of the tasty fish in an hour.

As recently as 1998 there were untold millions of fish in the Salton Sea. Then the fish started dying. In winter, cold snaps killed the tropical tilapia; in summer, desert winds churned up lethal deoxygenated water. An estimated 14 million fish turned belly up in 2000; 21 million in 2001. Despite the yard-long whopper of a corvina hanging over the bar at the Ski Inn, only a handful have been caught in over a year. Scientists believe the rising salinity, now more than 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, may have contributed to reproductive failure in three of the four main species. The long-predicted death of the fishery may finally have arrived. But Bill Leslie, an avid fisherman, doesn't buy it.

"Two years ago the fishing was unbelievable," he says. "One year of no fish and everybody panics. But it's a cycle. Next year will probably be a boom year. Two years ago we didn't catch 'em all. They've got to still be out there.
"The sea's not dead," he says, willing it to be so. "The sea's not dead."

He's right. The pileworms are still there, miraculously enough. But at some point they too will perish like salt-doused slugs. After that, the only thing left for fishermen—or birds—to catch will be minuscule brine shrimp, microbes, and salt-loving bacteria. 

It couldn't be farther metaphorically from the rusted out trailers of Bombay Beach to the gated golf course communities of La Quinta, 45 miles north in the Coachella Valley. But that's where at least some of the sea's water will go—a payoff to the local irrigation district to allow the water deal with San Diego to proceed. Here golf courses, designed by the likes of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, have multiplied like tilapia—124 at last count. Folks from Los Angeles to Seattle are retiring here in droves, lured by endless sun, active lifestyles, and, of course, golf.

That's what Tom Kirk is counting on. A young land planner with a degree from Berkeley and the fine features of an actor, Kirk until recently headed up the Salton Sea Authority, a local government agency that includes Imperial and Riverside Counties, the Coachella and Imperial Valley irrigation districts, and the Torres-Martinez Indians, who happen to own some 10,000 acres currently submerged under the Salton Sea. With a paid staff of two and help from two scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, Kirk had the impossible task of finding a way to save the sea while pleasing everybody. He considered and rejected a number of plans to reduce salinity, including connecting the sea via pipes to the Gulf of California, digging a canal to the Pacific, or desalinating the inflows from the Imperial Valley. All were discarded as too expensive or physically infeasible.

In his small offices in a quaint La Quinta shopping mall, Kirk spread a new map on the table that contained his latest vision of what the Salton Sea could be. An eight-mile-long causeway bisects the lake at its narrowest point. To the north lies a deep blue lake roughly as salty as the Pacific, stocked with tilapia, corvina, and other marine fish. The old seaside developments of Salton City, North Shore, and Bombay Beach have blossomed back to life, replete with new marinas and even a lakeside casino owned by the Torres-Martinez. Each has a brand-new golf course. To the south of the dike, a series of wetlands and lakes are strung out like commas, providing pileworms and habitat for millions of birds, and cover to keep the dust from blowing. Large canals ring the east and west shores and provide inflows from Imperial Valley drain water and from the New and Alamo Rivers, cleansed of their impurities by man-made wetlands. Another set of canals provides the much needed outflow to keep the salinity in check, falling in stages to the evaporation pond. Farmers reclaim some land in the south and allow a booming geothermal electricity industry at that end to expand, helping ease California's energy crunch. The price tag for this dream: only 750 million dollars.

It's bold. It's audacious. It's absurdly optimistic, especially since California water officials—not Kirk or the authority—control some 300 million dollars carved from the water deal to mitigate whatever environmental damage it will cause. Not to mention the fact that you'd be building an earthen dam on sediments the consistency of peanut butter on top of the San Andreas Fault. Or the fact that southern California's thirsty population is growing as fast as a developing nation. None of this seems to bother Kirk.

"We're not restoring the Salton Sea," says Kirk. "We're re-creating the Salton Sea. We're creating habitat and recreation areas and trying to achieve multiple societal objectives with less water. It may be crazy boosterism, but I don't think we'll achieve environmental objectives without getting people excited about the economic potential. The cheapest land in southern California is around the Salton Sea. Boomers are retiring and looking for hot dry places to live. My motto is 'If you build it, they will come.'"

With more than 15 million sun-seeking people living within a three-hour drive of the sea, Kirk may just be crazy like a fox.

Later, along the shore, I rise at dawn and drive to a state beach, a strip of campsites and bathhouses squeezed between the water and the Southern Pacific Railroad. A few campers are around, but the sea itself is deserted. I hike a short distance down a nature trail, waiting for the sun to warm things up but also procrastinating a bit. I know what I have to do, but I can't say I'm looking forward to it.

In summer the sea hits bathtub temperature, but in February it hovers in the 50s. Finally, with no more excuses, I pull on a wet suit and walk past a playground into a man-made lagoon dug out to allow boats to launch. I take one step into the cold blackness and sink to my knees in the muck. Finally committing, I launch into the water, which smells like a thousand old pilings drying in the sun.

I try the breaststroke—my forte on the swim team those many years ago—only to learn that in hypersaline lakes, the parts of the body with greatest subcutaneous fat float higher than others. My butt is bobbing like a life preserver, so I switch to the sidestroke and make a mental note to start climbing stairs at the office.

I can swim out the channel into the open lake, but it seems wiser to climb out on the far side and walk over to the swimming beach. I reenter the water next to a grime-encrusted buoy. Barnacles crunch underfoot. I wade out about 50 yards and it's still only knee-deep, and I keep running into rocks with my shin. Algae shifts back and forth, oozing up in jellylike fronds. OK. That's enough absolution for one day.

The swim back across the lagoon is uneventful, even refreshing compared with the open lake. Perhaps the smell or some algal red tide is addling my brain, but I begin to see the possibilities. The rugged Santa Rosa Mountains climbing from the far shore don't look that different from the drier sides of Hawaii. There's a quiet, unbelievably sublime beauty amid all the muck. A vast, stable, healthy lake in the middle of the desert could be a recreational paradise. You just need a little imagination. And a lot of dough.

After climbing out, I find a coin-operated shower in the men's room. Just to be on the safe side, I stand under the steaming spray and scrub until I run out of quarters.


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