The Ruins of the Salton Sea

31 Jan
2012
Posted in: California
By    11 Comments

I love ruins. I like to imagine how people lived, once upon a time. So I was really excited to go to the Salton Sea after reading an intriguing National Geographic article a few years ago. But I found the Salton Sea utterly depressing…the ruin all feels too recent. It’s been decades since the resort-town fortunes of Salton Sea have risen and fallen, but there are still people there, trying to hold out for a new heyday. Most of the ruins are now gone — the bulldozer tracks are still obvious because no vegetation has been able to grow to cover them. Around Bombay Beach, the town has scraped clean its surrounding acreage to build a dike to protect the rundown remains of the twice-hurricane-destroyed town. The landscape is barren, and the feeling of pain and loss is fresh.

And the story hasn’t ended, yet.  The sea is evaporating, and its only inflows (a couple polluted rivers from Mexico, farmland runoff, and seasonal flash floods) aren’t helping the pollution quotient. There’s a very real fear that, if the lake dries up, the valley’s fierce winds will pick up the layers of salt, metals, and pesticides (thanks to the runoff) and pollute the nearby farmland. Keeping this stuff sealed under a body of foul water keeps it contained. But like any body of water in the southwest, its future is hotly debated.

The modern Salton Sea was an accident. There’s been water here, from various sources, for millions of years. But the valley had been dry for the past few hundred years, until a 1905 flood caused the Colorado River to redirect itself into a newly created canal running from Mexico into the Imperial Valley. For almost two years, all of the Colorado River’s water flowed into the Imperial Valley, creating the Salton Sea. Finally the river was dammed and the canals reinforced, and the lake has been slowly evaporating ever since.

We popped into the visitor center at our campground for a brief history of the lake. The official opinion is much rosier than our on-the-ground takeaways. The official opinion goes something like this: “Everything’s fine, go swimming, go kayaking, catch some fish, have a great time! Tell your friends!” “There’s been a small fish die-off recently because the weather is a little too cold for the younger tilapia, but don’t you worry about that. It’s perfectly normal,” said the cheery volunteer running the entrance booth. It felt a bit like speaking to a group of religious fanatics, eager to capture a few new converts.

The sea itself is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s surrounded by desert mountains and can be flat as a mirror, reflecting anything happening in the sky. It’s the largest body of water around, and it’s full of all the things birds like, so it’s home to millions of gulls, stilts, herons, white pelicans, etc., and is also a temporary stop for many migrating birds.

But the stink is a problem. It stinks. At first, it wasn’t bad. The wind was calm and we’d only catch foul hints every now and then. Then the wind picked up, and it was a constant onslaught of reek. Every lake (and ocean) stinks from time to time. I grew up along a lake in upstate New York and every summer, in the right conditions, there’d be an algae bloom. For a few weeks you’d be covering your face and gagging as you drove by, and swimming was out of the question for a few miserable weeks. This is different. The runoff causes massive algae blooms and die-offs, all of the time. Dead fish line the shore and float on the surface of the water. It powerfully assaults the nose and eyes.

I went to the Salton Sea with an open mind and the hopes of seeing some interesting modern ruins, but in the end I found it hard to even be there. I’d recommend it in a second to any serious, and strong-stomached, birdwatchers, but that’s about it.

The marina at Corvina Beach.

The marina at Corvina Beach.

There are a lot of dead tilapia along the shore. Tilapia are now the only fish that can survive in the Salton Sea: there are millions of them, living and dead.

There are a lot of dead tilapia along the shore. Tilapia are now the only fish that can survive in the Salton Sea: there’s an estimated 400 million of them, living and dead.

There are thousands and thousands of birds living it up on the sea.

There are thousands and thousands of birds living it up on the sea.

Reverse sunset over the empty marina.

Reverse sunset over the empty marina.

Sunset.

Sunset.

A deserted building in Bombay Beach.

A deserted building in Bombay Beach.

In the foothills above the sea.

In the foothills above the sea.

  • Scott

    Why is it that people only write about the run down areas of the Salton Sea? Bombay Beach is horribly run down but thats only a small part of the area. I live and work here. I am a Realtor and I sell here too. I have been living here for three years and that smell everyone talks about is very rare. I have not experienced it since I moved here. Talk about West Shore and you will learn about great communities like Truck Haven and Vista Del Mar. There are tens of thousands of acres of off road play grounds and one of them is a State Park. (Occotillo Wells ORV). Hang gliders and ultra lites come here to play all the time. On any weekend you will find the campers flocking out here by the thousands. Big motor homes towing their toy boxes fill the open desert.  Summers are brutal with August heat reaching triple digits and then some. This time of year is not when you want to go camping here. You people bashing my neighborhood need a reality check. 

    • Lisa

      In doing some research on the area, I was surprised at all of the debate and negative comments even the most factual of articles seemed to spawn, so I was expecting some negativity here. I suppose I should have been more specific about where we stayed – the campgrounds on the east side of the sea are all located along the shoreline, and we stuck to the coast while exploring the western side too.  When I’m visiting a body of water, I’m drawn to the shore – that’s the place with the beaches, the birds, and the views. Depending on the wind – the strength and direction – the smell was either tolerable or not. As soon as you move away from the shore, it’s a whole different story. 

      The Ocotillo Wells area was very interesting – it’s definitely on our list of places to return with an off-road vehicle. 

      There are negative and positive aspects of any place – I know most people have strong opinions about our hometown, Chicago!

    • http://drivinginertia.com/ Paul David Olson

      East of 86 near Salton City, there are endless empty lots near the shore. West of 86 it’s a different story, and I suspect it’s because the homes are far enough from the water to escape the smell but close enough to enjoy the view (and they’re closer to Ocotillo Wells). During our 4-day visit, we didn’t see a single boat on the water. The west side is an ORV mecca with hundreds of motorcycles and dune buggies buzzing around. The fact that none of these people want to recreate on the water is very telling. 

      • Lisa Marie

        It just means that people are not educated and are scared of the water.  The Salton Sea is a perfectly fine body of water to swim in, it will not make you sick.  People from other countries appreciate its beauty and come to swim in it.  I love the water and find it very peaceful and healing.
        Unfortunately the majority wins and therefor will continue to be ignorant and perceive it as dirty.  Which is so not the case, and the smell is not an issue, it rarely has a foul odor.  People just feel better bashing the beauty that is The Salton Sea.

  • Dukeredhair

    I disagree with this post entirely. The Salton sea is dying, but the people are wonderful genuine and warm. The communities are welcoming. I have been traveling to the sea for years and I know it’s not for everyone but there is new life and art and work and struggles popping up all over the valley you just have ot look below the surface.

    • Lisa

      We haven’t met an unfriendly person yet – in fact, everyone we spoke with in the area was quite warm and welcoming. 

  • DeeLaw67

    We had a place @ Desert Shores growing up, & yes the smell was sometimes bad but the great times we spent there were well worth it. I will never regret my times there or the people I met. I live in Indiana now and miss being able to go there, relax & see the beautiful scenery. My father has retired to Salton City and he loves it there. During the summer he travels across america to see the sights, but he always goes home to ‘His Oasis’.

    • Lisa

      You can’t beat the winter climate – mid-70s in the middle of January is a great thing. 

  • Un_spamable

    I agree with my fellow commenters that too much negative is associated with the salton sea. While I regularly go down to document the constant change that is happening down there, I find it quite beautiful. I will admit, the smell on the eastern shores in mid summer is a bit rough. However, spend 15 minutes googling this place and you know what you’re going to experience way before you get there. Disneyland it isn’t, but many of us prefer that.

    • Lisa

      Direct quote: The sea itself is breathtakingly beautiful.

  • Ralaeana

    The Salton Sea takes some getting use to. my parents and I would go there several times a year while my dad went hunting for birds. Ocotillo Wells is where we normally stay. Offroad trucks are preferred in most areas. The smell is atrocious driving in, but you get use to it. In the summer the heat is so bad and the mosquitos are terrible! I loved it though as a child! There was run down buildings everyone. I loved to explore them on my own. It was like being in a ghost town. It is beautiful and ugly all at once. But its definitely apart of my childhood and anyone can learn to appreciate its charm.