The Salton Sea, A Place Where Dreams Go To Die

The Salton Sea

 

Sometimes from my home  in Joshua Tree, I can smell the foul odor of decaying fish from the Salton Sea, forty-seven miles away, but that is on a rather rare occasion.  For years I have seen photographs of The Salton Sea, in its current state of urban decay. Nothing would prepare me for a first-hand visit to this once thriving Southern California vacation spot; despite having zoomed past it on a few occasions, driving the 86 highway on my way to more desirable places like Anza Borrego State Park; I only stopped long enough to grab a drink and utilize the facilities of a gas station.

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905, when an irrigation canal along the Colorado River burst due to excessive flooding. This caused the water from the Colorado River to divert for eighteen months into the Salton Basin or “Sink”. This wasn’t the first time that Colorado River water had touched this basin, on at least three previous occasions in the last thousand years the Colorado River has naturally diverted itself into Salton Basin. The prehistoric incarnation of the “sea” has been given the name Lake Cahuilla, after the Native American people who lived along its shoreline.

The map shows the boundaries of Lake Cahuilla and modern day Salton Sea.

The map shows the boundaries of Lake Cahuilla and modern day Salton Sea.

 

Lake Cahuilla is believed to have been one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world during its existence, covering more than 2,000 miles and having a depth of over 300 feet.  This ancient lake was over six times the size of the modern-day Salton Sea, at 100 miles long by 35 miles across at its widest point. It basically covered from the delta in Mexico north to Indio. The ancient shorelines are still visible along the surrounding mountain ranges.

Since its latest accidental incarnation, The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake with a surface area of 376 miles. Its average depth is 29.9 feet, and its deepest is about 50 feet.  It loses as much water each year from evaporation, as it received back from irrigation inflow, at a rate of 1.3 million acre-feet or 423,800,000 gallons of water.  Here is where the tragedy lies, when the water evaporates, it leaves behind its salt content, and the influx of new water is adding an additional 4 million tons of salt per year!  The lakes current salt levels are 25% saltier than the ocean.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, California’s Department of Fish and Game made the decision to begin stocking the lake with fish. Even at the time the newly formed lake was salty and increasing more so each and every year. In the 1950s it was decided to stock it with ocean species such as sargo, bairdiella, and orange-mouth corvina

Around the same time as the introduction of the ocean fish species the lake was becoming a hot tourist spot. In the later part of the 50s and 60s, Salton Sea was seeing more than half a million visitors, making it more visited than Yosemite National Park.

A heron enjoying the shores of the Salton Sea.

A heron enjoying the shores of the Salton Sea.

 

A flock of white heron along the shore breaker.

A flock of white heron along the shore breaker.

 

Along with the fish, and the happy-go-lucky people, came the birds. Not just any birds, but pelicans, cormorants, and herons; species of birds that tend to spend a majority of their time along ocean shorelines. 

The tourism influx created several small communities along the north, east and west shorelines. On the west shore, the communities of Salton City, Desert Shores, and Salton Sea Beach. Along the east shore, Bombay Beach; and along the north shore, there is the aptly named, North Shore.

Yacht clubs, hotels and golf courses sprung up almost overnight in an attempt to exploit the “accident”.  And exploit is exactly what they did, land value skyrocketed – and the rich and famous found their new haven.

Just a few short years later, and mother nature “flipped the bird” to the thrill seekers, and beach bunniesin more ways than one.  As the salt levels in the water grew, the fish began to die, and not just one or twowe’re talking mass die offs, with entire beaches littered with thousands of stinking, rotting, decaying fish carcasses. This, along with the wetlands brought a large influx of birds, over 400 species to be more precise.

As quickly as The Salton Sea sprang to life, it died. The beaches became ghost towns, as did the businesses that served the half-million visitors. The sandy beaches of death reeked of sun-baked rotten fish, their bones becoming part of the beach that they lay upon. A horror show, and one that would only become worse in time.

Fast forward to modern-day Salton Sea.  It is a gloomy day with periods of rain as my wife and I approached the lake. Our first stop would be North Shore, on our day long excursion around the lake. We stopped at a more recently abandoned convenience store called, Carniceria Toro Loco #6 and an abandoned gas station next door. A pay phone sits on the sidewalk, next to the smashed windows of the convenience store. Inside the shelves and promotional materials are strung throughout. The Monster Energy advertisement on the front door would indicate the closure of the store in the last few years.

Carniceria Toro Loco #6 in North Shore

Carniceria Toro Loco #6 in North Shore

 

A relic of the not so distant past

A relic of the not so distant past

 

North Shore

North Shore

 

North Shore - I wouldn't depend on this place being open the next time you drive through town.

North Shore – I wouldn’t depend on this place being open the next time you drive through town.

 

We drive on just a short distance to the shoreline. Stepping out of the vehicle we both did everything that we could to keep from losing our lunch, the smell of decay filled our noses. During my wife’s career in the hotel industry, she had the pleasure of discovering the body of man who had been dead in a hotel room for nearly a week. She has always said that she would never forget the smell when she opened that hotel room door; I asked her how this was, in comparison, and her reply was, “close, very close.” Walking to the beach we noticed an abundance of trash along the landscape, intermixed with the carcasses of rotting fish. Along the breaker, several seabirds watched us in curiosity.  Walking out the breaker, I realized that it wasn’t made of rocks per say, but rather broken up concrete from a building or sidewalk. Walking back to the Jeep, not even a hundred feet away, we spotted children playing in a backyard.

Next door, we pay a quick visit to the North Shore Yacht Club, and find that it will probably be the nicest structure that we encounter the entire day, next to the Red Dirt Casino on the west shore.

Rotting and decaying fish make up a large portion of the beaches along the Salton Sea, along with the bones of those that died before them.

Rotting and decaying fish make up a large portion of the beaches along the Salton Sea, along with the bones of those that died before them.

 

Pelicans rest on them remnants of a pier, behind the North Shore Yacht Club.

Pelicans rest on them remnants of a pier, behind the North Shore Yacht Club.

 

A concession stand behind the North Short Yacht Club.

A concession stand behind the North Shore Yacht Club.

 

Yeah, no thanks. You can keep the sandwiches.

Yeah, no thanks. You can keep the sandwiches.

 

Driving on we find an abandoned Cafe, stop for a few photos, before arriving at Bombay Beach. Bombay Beach was just a few short years ago the location of airstreams and boats decaying into the beach. Today, those images no longer exist, they have literally disintegrated into the beach and water. What we are left with is one of the most dilapidated communities that I have ever encountered. Streets of houses, filth, and disgusta few small businesses, including a small market remain in business to serve the residents and passersby. Driving through the streets of town, you would swear that you had entered a third world country. I don’t say these things to be mean, or judgmental, but there is clearly something that has gone awry here.

Let’s look at the numbers, Bombay Beach in 2010 had 295 residents, which was down from 366 in 2000. The average California household income is $58,328, the average household income in Bombay Beach, $17,502. Based on the average household size of 1.68, this places the residents below the poverty level.  100% of the residents place their occupation in agriculture, forestry, fishing (dear God, I hope I’ve never eaten a fish caught in those waters!) or hunting.  

The streets of Bombay Beach.

The streets of Bombay Beach.

 

Bombay Beach was once a thriving little beach front community.

Bombay Beach was once a thriving little beach front community.

 

At Bombay Beach, a building that looks like this, is more than likely your neighbor.

At Bombay Beach, a building that looks like this, is more than likely your neighbor.

 

Leaving Bombay Beach, we soon found ourselves entering Niland, the home of both Slab City and Salvation Mountain. Just before entering Niland we encountered an incredible abandoned warehouse, and where there is abandoned anything, there is graffiti. I can be hard on graffiti at times, I don’t like to see it on historical structures, or in nature. But in an urban decay setting, it can be pretty wicked when done with some sense of artistic value. Nevertheless this warehouse holds a plethora of art, and at the same time is downright spooky in a “Walking Dead” kinda way. We spent a considerable amount of time photographing every last detail.

The warehouse on the outskirts of Niland.

The warehouse on the outskirts of Niland.

 

Urban decay

Urban decay

 

"No Outlet"

“No Outlet”

 

"No Outlet"

“No Outlet”

 

 

"Repeat After Me, I Am Free"

“Repeat After Me, I Am Free”

 

After Niland, we raced to the west shore for the grand finale – Salton City and Desert Shores.  Salton City proved to not be in as much of a state of disarray as I had imagined. Most of the deserted features have been torn down, and hauled away (thank you). Features such as palmless palm trees, and street curbs to nowhere continue to exist, but manage to avoid the creepiness factor of the other fallen communities.

Desert Shores, just a few miles north of Salton Sea take the cake in overall “shit-factor” of the communities of Salton Sea. Yes, it just marginally overtakes Bombay Beach due to the utter disregard for the environment. Every home, every business, everything closest to the shore looks as if a bomb went off with everything in it. It appears as if no effort has ever been taken to clean up this ungodly mess, while people are living alongside a scene which resembles that of a terrorist bombing! In actuality this is the result of several floods that have taken place of the years, but that is no excuse to have left things as they are currently found.

Palmless palms in Salton City.

Palmless palms in Salton City.

 

Desert Shores, aka: HELL

Desert Shores, aka: HELL

 

Little effort, if any has taken place to clean up the shoreline community of Desert Shores.

Little effort, if any has taken place to clean up the shoreline community of Desert Shores.

 

If anything, it has been made worse by illegal dumping.

If anything, it has been made worse by illegal dumping.

 

"Ground Zero"

“Ground Zero”

 

"No Trespassing," really? Who would want to?

“No Trespassing,” really? Who would want to?

 

"No Trespassing," really? Who would want to?

“No Trespassing,” really? Who would want to?

 

"We'll just leave this right here, along the street."

“We’ll just leave this right here, along the street.”

 

Now here is the kicker, a campaign to “Save Our Sea”! Yes, that would be a wonderful thing, but to save it would be to remove the human elements that tarnish it. Not an attempt to return it to the days of hotels, and yacht clubs, but to literally remove all evidence of human occupation. If that is too extreme, those in the communities that support this campaign, can start with the cleanup of places like Desert Shores and Bombay Beach.

Interesting enough these are the thoughts of someone who isn’t even an environmental nutter, but I do have to admit that places like this that may finally make me turn.

Lead by example.

Lead by example.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • pat

    When I was a youngster, the Salton Sea was pretty vibrant. Hard to believe I know, but it was. Always offbeat though. Pretty interesting, that as soon as it was created, it started to deteriorate. It’s like it was never supposed to be there, and neither were the little communities that sprung up. Niland, on the other hand, was always a fringe place, and I don’t know if it ever had a heyday. I know somebody who grew up in Niland, she said it was always dump.

    We’re leaving in the morning for a couple of weeks. Where we will be camping (on a mountain ridge), we can see down into the scissors crossing area of Anza Borrego and can also see the Salton Sea. I’m happy to say that although we can see it, we can’t smell it.

    This was a great post Jim. Your photos are fantastic. I bet that at least a few of them would look amazing in black and white. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. That vacant warehouse, used to have a skateboard ramp, some rails and other items in it. Was there any remains of that stuff in it?

  • David Taylor

    I remember as a kid, my Dad somehow became the owner of a cabin cruiser, the Robin Wood, in the Salton Sea. People were trying to get him to buy up some hot-selling lots nearby. It was a hopping place. But my Dad and Mom both knew something was wrong. So many salesmen in the bars, on the docks. Why such a hard sell to everyone they ran into. If it was that hot, why the almost desperate push? Just about then, someone told him to get the Robin Wood out of there before he lost his investment entirely. The salts and all the other pollutants in the water was eating boat hulls up and down the lake. People were actually pissed when my Dad made arrangements, not to just sell the boat, but have it moved to San Diego Harbor. At the end of the wharf where we rented a birth, was an out-right yacht. It stretched the length of the ‘T’ of the dock. The week the Robin Wood was loaded up and hauled out, the hull on the yacht split in half. I went back years later with my wife. We could barely stand the stench. I found the same dock facility, only now it was almost completely under water, the chain-link fence around it eaten away at the water line.

  • Maureen

    Thanks for this post Jim! Fine photos too. When you look at the popular videos of what the Salton Sea was like in is prime its quite amazing to see it today. Glad you did this post.

  • Penny Hogan

    Wow…..Thank-you Jim….got an education!! Looks like a few bulldozers with scrape blades could go out there one weekend a month and scrape that place off the map! I had never even heard of this place and find it hard to imagine!!

  • Sean Miser

    I have no fondness for this place, I have always felt it should be completely dismantled. It is now a haven for deviants who wallow in its man made filth. It was only nice for a short while because people had dollar bills in their intentions. They need to allow the lake to dry up,for it is a endorheic lake clean up the area, even the residents in the current plight need to make an effort. Sitting around waiting for things to happen, or shall I say government monies, buy out programs nothing will get done.The lake needs to be reclaimed by the desert it will stay disgusting. I suggest you read a book I purchased from Calico , it is an old book but still applies to the newbies. The Water Seekers” Remi Nadeau

  • Rod Rowzee

    Sad use to go fishing there Salton sea back int the 60 and 70 was beautiful place back then . They could have saved it but are goverment dont give a crap about saving places

  • Walter Vineyard

    Wow, just think of all the low budget movies you could make around there. If it can`t be saved then lets flood the whole area out and raise the sea about 50′.

  • Loomer

    Maybe they can put a solar or wind farm there?

  • Desertbat

    Thanks for the sense sacrifices you made to show us we do not wanna go :)

  • carolbrennanwindsor

    That is just so very sad, had friends used to have a house there is the 1970’s. Always spoke of how great it was there, but we chose Newport for vacations!! Have had a house in JT since 1950, never smelled the rotting fish thank goodness!!! Boy, what a wasteland here now!!!

  • pete39

    Used to weekend at Salton Sea in the 1970s. Good company kind of kept my eyes off the sea, tho even then you could see it was fading fast.

    The two care, “We’ll just leave this right here…” appear to be a Mercedes and Volvo, most likely stolen in the Los Angeles area and dumped there. Both appear to have been torched.

  • Joel Smith

    When I was stationed in El Centro, we used to pass this place all the time on the way up to OC & Hesperia. Always kind of wanted to stop & look around, but never did.

  • Jasmyn

    I’ve been visiting the Salton Sea since I was ten years old. I loved it then and even more today. I see the beauty of the Sea and its importance as a habitat for migratory birds. It would break my heart if it was left to dry up. The effects would be devastating for human health and detrimental for wildlife.

  • Tender Branson

    It’s pretty important to save the sea. Not so much for the little towns, although those will surely benefit, but because all the dissolved salts and agricultural chemicals will become airborne particulate matter. An extremely unhealthy part of every breathe taken from Redlands California to Prescott Arizona forever.

  • Leroy Essek

    The Eden Project has begun the effort to turn this giant fixxer upper called the Salton Sea into a modern day Garden Of Eden. Agess, Inc., Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians and Ecomedia Compass have formed the partnership called the Eden Project. The Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians are a 3,000 year old tribe who now own 25,000 acres of land astride the Salton Sea. Over at Agess, Inc., Facebook Page Nathan White the CEO of Agess, Inc., posted the letter of support by a revolutionary-green technology company called Joi Scientific. Located at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Joi Scientific has reached out across America to help save the Salton Sea and the water shortage for California. Ocean water or brackish water can be converted into a self sustaining source of hydrogen on demand. Polluted, toxic, agricultural waste and sewage water is purified as well. Using hydrogen in any type of water to generate the lowest cost zewro pollution electricity 24/7/365 days a year produces desalinated ocean water without electricity, reverse osmosis or filtration. Now the USA can save $125 billion dollars a year on foreign oil using water as fuel via Joi Scientific. Water to power ships, cars, trains and generate the lowest cost electricity sure sounds like exciting news if only the Gov of California would check out Joi Scientific.

  • Jim Hatfield

    Late 60s we’d water ski out there. You could actually float on your back and most of your body would be out of the water. Great place for playing a little Rock & Roll for the girls and tripping on the desert.