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.