Stop 13: Salton Sea

It’s about time I get back to this blogging thing. I’ve had one of the busiest years ever, this year. So I really didn’t put any effort into my blog since the fall. This year, I’ve taught three different types of classes, one of which I hadn’t taught in several years, and one that was entirely new to our school, so I spent a great deal of time writing curriculum for that class. Aside from that, I had two part-time jobs, and our oldest graduated from high school. I wish someone had told me to expect to spend about $1000 on all the odds and ends that come with being a senior… SAT test, college applications, housing application, buying a cap and gown, etc. etc. etc. And more than the money, the time… honors nights, band awards nights, all the “last times he’ll be doing this and that.” I guess I knew all of these things were coming, but I wasn’t really ready for it. It’s definitely been a bittersweet and busy year. BUT I am determined to get all of our experiences from what has come to be known as the BIG TRIP down before the memories fade too much. We’ll see how that goes!

After we left the California coast, we drove a little way inland to Ontario, California. We spent the night at a hotel near the airport. When we got up in the morning, we grabbed breakfast and headed to visit a place I had been curious about for many years. The Salton Sea is not known for its geologic history or its beauty, but I just HAD to see it. I had learned about it because I teach Environmental Science. Living east of the Mississippi, I think of agriculture and irrigation differently than people out west do. In the eastern part of the US, farmers can generally use rivers, reservoirs, or aquifers to water their crops when needed, but they can also count on some rain during the growing season as well. Farmers in California can’t just turn to abundant natural (or man-made in the case of reservoirs) fresh water sources. They have to work a little harder. Diversion of the Colorado River has been the primary source of water for California’s growers for a long time now. It continues to be a concern because the cities at the mouth of the river frequently get no water from upstream. This also means there is also no sediment replenishment, which is a concern at the north end of the Gulf of California (APES students will want to review this later on).

The story of the Salton Sea goes something like this: In the early 1900’s, a water diversion project mistake caused the Colorado to be completely diverted into a large, low, desert Basin, that had previously been filled with water, but had evaporated, leaving behind a layer of salt about fifteen feet deep. By the time the flow was stopped and the Colorado returned to its banks, the basin was filled to a great depth, and it became known as the Salton Sea. It quickly attracted a large population of people who built homes on the seashore and enjoyed the desert sun and beautiful water. People stocked the sea with tilapia and other sport fish. The water allowed for lots of agriculture, so fruit growing became a booming business. But the basin didn’t have great soil, so lots of fertilizer had to be used. And in the early to mid-1900’s, there were few public concerns about pesticide use, so those were used in high concentration as well. The Salton Sea being a basin, had no outlet so all the agricultural runoff from the area ran into it. The hot desert sun evaporated the water, but not the dissolved chemicals (as you will remember from discussions of distillation in chemistry class). There were also no natural tributaries that would bring fresh water into the Sea. Over the years, the fertilizers and pesticide concentrations in the Sea rose to levels that killed off fish and caused algal blooms, which tend to cause dissolved oxygen levels to drop when aerobic bacteria decompose them. Low dissolved oxygen levels also kill fish. (AP Environmental Science students should stop reading and go review “cultural eutrophication” now.) At this point, the Sea began to have a characteristic stench of dead fish. This problem didn’t go away, in fact, the Sea continued to evaporate and the shoreline receded to reveal new beaches, not of sand, but of barnacle shells and fish bones. The property values declined drastically, and the population fled.

When we were leaving Ontario, CA (basically an eastern suburb of LA), and heading toward the Salton Sea, I tried to explain to David and the boys why I wanted to go see this place. I warned them that it would probably smell awful, and might not be too pretty. They grumbled that it seemed like something we could skip, but I insisted we go. We drove through Palm Springs, which reminded me a bit of Las Vegas… lots of glitz and excess in the middle of the desert. Seemed like a big waste of resources to me, but I was intrigued by the MANY MANY MANY windmills and solar panels. At least they are getting some of their energy in a renewable manner. We pretty much blew through town without the opportunity to get to know the city better, so maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake.

Near Palm Springs, CA

As we continued south, we began to see plantations of orange trees and palm trees, which I later realized were date palms. The fruiting parts of the tree were wrapped with netting to keep the dates from falling on the ground (or is it to keep critters from eating them??). When we arrived at the Salton Sea, we drove to the sign that cheerfully said “Welcome to Salton City” and turned down the main street.

Welcome to Salton CIty

The community looked like the homes were built in the 50’s or 60’s. They were moderately-sized ranch houses, some well-kept, and others slightly disheveled. But many lots either never had houses built on them, or the homes were torn down. Only about two-thirds of the lots had homes on them, and there didn’t seem to be a pattern to explain which did and which did not. A small K-12 school building appeared to serve the community. We drove to the marina and beach, which appeared to be placed in the wrong spot. It was obvious that the shoreline had been higher in the past, and the marina was far too shallow. There were no boats at the docks. We parked in the middle of the beach (there was no parking lot) and got out. The smell was overwhelming. We walked toward the beach and tried to avoid stepping on the fish skulls.

Hazy view of the Salton Sea

The water was beautiful and had a haze over it that made me think the sunsets there were probably gorgeous. Normally when we go to a beach, we toss off our shoes and run to put our toes in the water. I didn’t even feel the need to tell the boys not to do it here.

Guess which scout camp song this place brings to mind.

At the water line, there were thick mats of bacteria that reminded me of small versions of the stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia, which gave scientists clues about the first life on Earth. There were some long-legged shore birds that kept flying too close to us and screeching. I finally realized they were probably trying to scare us away from their nest. It didn’t take long before I found a few well camouflaged eggs sitting out in the open among the fish bones and shells.

Black-necked stilts (I think)

Eggs among vertebrae and barnacles

We took some pictures, but didn’t stay long. In all, we were probably in Salton City for 45 minutes, but I didn’t see a single soul there. For those who are interested, for $99 a month, you can own a lot there in seven years. It almost seems like a good deal.

When traveling with your children, it is impossible to predict which locations will make lasting memories for them. David took a picture of Evan staring out over the water, looking very pensive. Months later, I found the picture and thought it was a really good one. A little while later, Evan was writing his college application essay and what he wrote came as a bit of a shock to me. I’ll share it here with his permission:

Evan at the Salton Sea, photo by David Kern

As surprising as it may be, the place in which I experience the most contentment I have only been to once. The Salton Sea in California is my destination of choice for any vacation. The Salton Sea is surrounded by ghost towns composed of broken down buildings, the scent of dead fish, and an overarching air of complete, deathly silence, aside from the crunching of fish bones as you walk atop the “sand”. All of this would normally act as a deterrent, but it draws me in. Just like a good horror novel, the back-story behind this place sets the mood for visitors.

The Salton Sea was the result of an awful mistake in the diversion of the Colorado River. The men working on the project did not expect the massive amount of flooding that came their way in the spring of 1905. Via miscalculation of the vast quantity of water, this flooding overwhelmed the gates designed to keep the water from escaping, leaving the mighty Colorado to flow wherever she pleased. When they finally had stemmed the flow of this beast, the Salton Sea had already been born. Because of the generally high temperatures and low elevation, the Salton Sea became a massive hit among vacationers. This prosperity was very short-lived because the sea had no influx of fresh water. After about fifty years, the quality of water and life in the area declined and the vacationers began leaving. The sea’s salinity levels began rising thus making it harder for fish to survive. The water began to evaporate leaving the remains of fish bones as a sort of pseudo-sand. This is what is seen by passers-bye to this day.

I find the story of the Salton Sea from “birth” to “death” to be a horrific tale, but despite the grotesqueness, there is something beautiful hiding in those briny waters. Maybe it is the stagnant air. Perhaps even the backdrop of desert. Maybe the sheer idea of a boomtown that once was intrigues me. What it is about the Salton Sea that I find so remarkable, I cannot quite say. However, what I can say is this: it changed my viewpoint on life. The Salton Sea serves as a window into a possible future. Could it be showing a world after us? What we decide to do with the planet now is the only thing that creates a defined line between a prosperous world and a world like that of this environmental anomaly. Seeing the consequences of these actions made me realize that I should use this example as a reminder that the decisions I make in life can have a profound effect on not just my personal life, but on the world around me.

Also, I think this short video about the place is interesting and very well done. It is probably the biggest reason I wanted to see the Salton Sea with my own eyes. I didn’t quite see the desolation this video shows, but I have no doubt that some communities around the Sea are even more economically depressed than the one we visited. The man at the end who built/painted the “God is Love” monument died several months before our trip. I might have considered visiting that part of the Seashore had he still been alive, but it was farther out of our way, and we had plans to meet with a park ranger at Joshua Tree National Park that afternoon. So I’ll leave Ransom Riggs to share his bleak, but beautiful view of the Salton Sea with you.

The end.

One thought on “Stop 13: Salton Sea

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *