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Monday, April 16, 2018

Southern California Vol. 19 - Salton Sea

There's a good chance that you've never heard of the Salton Sea.  I know I'd never heard of it until I met my wife and she told me her parents liked to drive by it on their way to other desert destinations.  I have to admit that it's one of the places that I really want to visit but haven't made the trip yet.  Everything you read below comes from reference materials and Wikipedia, but I'm writing about it because it absolutely fascinates me.

You see, the story of the Salton Sea is a California story of boom and bust that is actually pretty recent.  In fact, those most affected by it are still struggling to deal with the fallout and the state itself is scrambling to keep it from turning into a major health crisis.

The Salton Sea is that large blue hole in the middle of the map above.  To put it in perspective, you can find San Diego in the lower left of that map.  It's basically a giant body of water out in the middle of the desert and it came about by accident.  Back in the early 1900's, a series of canals had been dug to divert water from the Colorado River to make some of the land in that area more fertile.  The canals worked but soon silt from agricultural runoff began to build up in them.  

Engineers tried their best to open up the canals further but had no luck and in 1905, when the Colorado River swelled way beyond normal, the water breached the Imperial Valley dike.  The breach created two new rivers and diverted the Colorado entirely.  Over the course of two years (basically until they were able to repair the dike) the water began doing what water generally does.  It gathered in the lowest point in the area and what we know as the Salton Sea was born.  

The lake itself is relatively shallow and since it sits in the desert, there's no shortage of "beach" area along its shores.  This is exactly what started to catch the eye of developers in the 1950's.

Soon, the Salton Sea was being marketed as California's Riviera.  There was a marina, restaurants, bars, and night life.  People visited to swim, ski, sun bathe and relax under the desert stars.  I'd have loved to visit it in its heyday!  

One of our family's favorite giant bug movies (The Monster That Challenged The World) is set there and much of it was shot on location. 

So what happened and why am I even writing about this now?  Well, because the Salton Sea today is a much, much different place.  One thing that you have to remember about big lakes in the desert is that unless they have a constant influx of water from rivers, they tend to get polluted and dry up.  The Salton Sea is no exception.  

Over the years, runoff from nearby agricultural areas polluted the water and contributed to fish kills and algal blooms.  Additionally, because the water sits on top of a salt flat and the desert air continues to evaporate what water is there, the salinity of the Salton Sea continues to rise at about three percent each year.

What happens when the giant body of water you live on begins to smell like dead fish and rotten eggs?  Well, people stop visiting and when tourism dies, the tourist town dies with it.

The towns around the Salton Sea are not quite ghost towns yet.  There's still a hearty group of people who live there, but all around them things are decaying.  

It's not just an unpleasant odor that's causing people to leave either.  As the water recedes, dust is being picked up by the desert wind and blown toward the coast.  This dust is creating asthma issues for people in nearby cities already, but it's estimated that if something isn't done to bring more water into the area, the dust level could increase so much that it actually reaches the coast.

Still, there's something weird an beautiful about this place even as it's decaying.  If you find yourself around the Palm Springs area, you could do worse than traveling out to the Salton Sea for an afternoon among what was once a thriving vacation spot.

Speaking of decaying ghost towns, there's one in Utah that doesn't exist anywhere but in the pages of my book The Wash.  You may find that one interesting also.  You can pick it up at my Amazon Authors page here.

Until next week, adios!

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