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.
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.
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 bunnies…in more ways than one. As the salt levels in the water grew, the fish began to die, and not just one or two…we’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.
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.
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 disgust…a 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.
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.
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.
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.