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A Bit of Eden

By Steve Horvitz, January 12, 1998
Superintendent, Salton Sea State Recreation Area

"The Salton Sea is a gift of inestimable worth -- ours to take and make whole again if we will." Pat Laflin, 1995 Periscope

This gathering of like-minded individuals is about connecting and sharing information. Today the word synergy has great meaning. There is no greater power of progress than the coming together of multiple minds. The potential is awesome. It is my hope that during this symposium we not only share ideas about public/private partnerships, common problems, entrepreneurialism but also (in the words of our Past Director) that we talk about the survival of the human spirit, for our spirit grows strong from the natural world around us. And in saving the Sea we allow one more resource in which to sooth our spirit.

We, in California State Parks are very much in the business of teaching. We call it interpreting. We interpret the natural resources to those that come into our parks; to our neighbors, our schools. We also interpret history. To aid in this, it is our habit to save snippets of antiquity in the form of newspaper articles. Those that have come before me at the Salton Sea State Recreation area have done a wonderful job of collecting what are now, to us, small frames of history. A look back as far as the mid 1950s - when the park was dedicated - that continues to today. Our collection spans 40 years of events associated with the Salton Sea.

For this presentation I was asked to provide a "View of the Salton Sea" and perhaps a little bit of a vision for California's largest lake. To help present the past to you, I brought several of our newspaper clippings. I started at the back of our files, in the 50's and worked forward toward today.

In the beginning they have exciting headlines: "Coachella Valley True Sports Wonderland, Desert Does Offer Outdoorsman Tremendous Sports Opportunities," "Desert Sea Lures Armada," "Salton Sea Praised As Fisherman's Paradise, Big Corvina Provide Action for Anglers," "Salton Sea Today -- Swank Resorts," "Salton Sea Tempo Quickens," and one story that chastises us, the State Park, for endangering the swimmers that use our beach the story says, that with the number of boats that launch from our ramps we were jeopardizing swimmers with boat traffic.

These stories are of prosperity, and activity. Yet the paper they are written upon has yellowed with age.

Stories written about the Salton Sea today relate a whole different picture, one of distress, rather than success. Compare these faded and yellowed articles with the more recent, and one wonders what happened. What went wrong?

There was a time when more people came to the Salton Sea than went to Yosemite National Park. There was a time when 400,000 boats used the Sea each year. There was a time when the Salton Sea State Recreation Area was the second busiest park within our Department. Many long time residents remember the days when traffic on HWY. 111 would back up as campers and boaters made their way to the Salton Sea. Rangers that worked at the park then, tell me that they could not register campers at our entrance stations because the lines would extend to the highway and traffic would stop. So we threw the gates open and allowed them to come in unrestricted, and staff would register our guests by foot as they walked through the campgrounds often not being able to finish the job before the end of shift, simply because there were so many people in the park; too many people, too many campers. One Ranger, who still works for State Parks, told me that after working a year at the Recreation Area he started putting in for transfers. Not because of the desert heat, not because of the Salton Sea, rather because it was so busy he couldn't stand to work there.

Now I stand in the park and am lonely for the want of visitors.

Our old journals though, tell a story of dreams, of excitement and vision.

Then, finally they tell a story of heartbreak.

With thanks to a friend of the Salton Sea, Pat Laflin, who prepared an historic publication about the Salton Sea (The Salton Sea: California's Overlooked Treasure)for the Coachella Valley Historical Society that was printed in their 1995 publication called the Periscope. We know that as far back as the mid 1800's, even before there was a "Salton Sea" stories of human events in the Salton Sink tell of our adventures.

In the years before the Salton Sea, it was well known by the Native People, by explorers and simple wanders of the desert that the Salton Sink contained a high concentration of salt. In the 1800's the desire for salt caused many to travel to the Sink to bring salt back to their villages. Portions of the trail that they walked can still be found in Imperial County. These trails were used primarily by Indians from the Colorado River area and those from the coast. As early as 1815, ox-drawn carts from Los Angeles made the month-long expedition. The salt was used as flavor for their food, and I imagine for trade for goods.

Later when the economic value of salt was realized and the technology was developed to the point that it made the mining of salt profitable, George Durbrow, from San Francisco began commercial mining of the salt beds in 1884. He shipped over 1,500 tons of salt to San Francisco. The salt deposits comprised over 1,000 acres of extremely pure rock salt, and were considered one of the largest in the country. During the company's active years, Cahuilla Indians provided the labor force. Historian George Wharton James described the operation in these words: "They moved across the brilliant, glaring white fields, tilling deposits. The salt was plowed by means of plows attached to bands that traveled across the salt bed from one engine to another. The furrows cut were eight feet wide and six inches deep and each plow was capable of harvesting over 700 tons per day. The richness of the field was such that it is doubtful whether the company ever worked more than one hundredth of the area.

I find it interesting that the very thing that we fight with today was what sustained many in the past.

In 1896 The California Development Company was formed by Charles R. Rockwood. The new company boasted the possibilities of agriculture in Imperial Valley and actively marketed the concept that but for the want of water success was immanent and - they would provide the water.

Rockwood soon formed an association with George and William Chaffey who sought to take water from the Colorado River at Pilot Knob, near Yuma and bring it into Imperial Valley by canals to be used for irrigation of crops. On May 14th, 1901 they were successful in bringing water through the Pilot Knob head gate, and irrigation of the Salton Sink became a reality. Crops started to flourish and the future was laid for what would soon become the Salton Sea.

But by late summer of 1904 problems began to develop with the water delivery system. Silt built up and choked off the hastily made canals. New residents of Imperial Valley that were dependent on the water began to worry and soon filed suit because of the lack of water.

Drastic action was called for. A cut was made in the West Bank of the Colorado to allow water into the canal and water flowed again. But because of unpredicted storms in the northern states and the great floods of water that went cascading through the river, by June of 1905 engineers watched as 90% of the Colorado River now rushed into the valley.

So early developers were successful in their promise to provide water for agriculture - only, to their panic, much more than they intended, as they looked behind them to see a huge lake rapidly forming.

And it was from that mistake, a treasure was born: the Salton Sea.

Recent use of the Sea grew as we became more familiar with it. In 1926 Gus Eilers fell in love with the vistas of the Salton Sea. He and John Goldthwait, from the Bay Area planed to develop Date Palm Beach on the North Shore. In a sense that was the beginning of the town of North Shore. Streets were laid out and named. He built a small building a pier and talked a few boaters into racing upon the Sea. And it was Date Palm Beach were the official electric timing clock for boat racing upon the Sea was first used. Races have been held on the Sea since then.

Did you know that the Sea is the fastest body of water for racing in the continent? Its high salt level, and high air density due to low elevation make it unbeatable, given the right conditions. Even today races on the Sea continue to break records. The world's longest and fastest personal watercraft race is held at the park every December. We wish you would hear more of these good things happening on our shores. Such as these races, or the new Interpretive Trail, the Santa Claus Christmas Parade, the harbors that were recently reopened for boaters, all on the west side of the Sea.

Back to our history: Later Desert Beach was formed by Kenneth Hunter and J.S. Stein. Hunter owned the Royal Date Garden in Indio. In a newspaper article he said, "We are very enthusiastic about prospects for the beach down here. Salton Sea is destined to become one of the nation's greatest play spots." And that held true for a while. Just -- not long enough.

By 1958 Ray Ryan and Trav Rogers developed the North Shore Beach area and constructed a Yacht Club, touted as a $2 million marine paradise with one of the largest marinas in Southern California. The Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, and the Marx Brothers were a few that visited the club or kept boats in the marina. For those that weren't aware the North Shore Yacht club was designed by the noted architect Albert Frey, a resident of the Coachella Valley.

Also in the 50's development at Salton City began and culminated with a championship golf course that saw visitors such as Desi Arnaz, Harry James, and Johnny Weissmuller. The centerpiece of the development was the $500,000 Salton Bay Yacht Club. It was said that Salton City would become the most popular sea resort in all of Southern California. The streets were built, infrastructure installed, but the people never came.

And finally on February 12, 1955 the Salton Sea State Park, later to become the Salton Sea State Recreation Area was dedicated. Built at the request of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors it was the second largest park in the state and it was written that it "would become the greatest single spur to the development of the Salton Sea as a great inland recreational area." For a while it was, as in the 50's to the late 70's, recreation and use upon and around the Salton Sea abounded. So many people tell me that they grew up learning to water ski on the Salton Sea, or fished and camped.

I wonder how many of them, how many of you, have had your spirit touched by and enjoyed a sense of what is right with the world by being at the Sea in those days.

All of these events and more are documented by binders and binders of yellowed, dusty newspaper clippings that we have back at the Park.

As are the stories of Charles Davis: Captain Davis a wanderer that settled in the Sink and built a home on an old volcano that later became an island (now known as Mullet Island - infamous for the outbreak of Newcastle's Disease last summer). Captain Davis set up operation upon the (now) island and opened up "Hell's Kitchen" where he fed and entertained many locals. At one time he even imported and released sea lions into the Sea. They didn't last long in this environment, and as a humorous anecdote local farmers suspected that they crawled out of the water to steal their pigs.

Here, though we move forward a little in our newspaper library and at about this point we begin to see a change in the theme of the stories. There were fewer headlines claiming success, fewer stories of dreams. Rather the stories written in the 60's and 70's sound an alarm, "Salt mars Salton Sea sports," "Salton Sea's brine threatens fish life" "Congressmen plan public hearing at North Shore on aid for Salton Sea," "Salton answer unlikely in time to save fish," "Morton's reign salts Sea booster Wounds," At that time Morton was the Secretary of the Interior, and he had just announced that he will not support a plan to reduce the salt level of the Sea. "Salinity Threatens Salton Sea . . . " "Group still hopes to save Salton Sea" then: "Salton Sea Dike Plan Loses Priority Label," And scribbled upon the top of this article by one of our staff twenty years ago is a question: "Salton Sea Obituary.

Media, residents, politicians all spoke of the need to move, and move quickly to solve the Sea's problems. In fact a congressional task force was formed and convened several meetings with the intent to Save the Sea. Only to finally fail shortly after the tragic death of one of their members in an airplane crash.

But even then, with all of that happening, nothing was done and we look today at a problem that we were aware of, and one that we designed a cure for twenty years past.

Some time ago I was fortunate to hear a speech given by the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt as he discussed the trials of another long-suffering eco-system in Florida. One very special to all of us, one manipulated by the hand of man -- to its detriment. It was an optimistic speech as he outlined the methods to be taken to set this resource back to its natural state, but it also chastised us for allowing the problems to develop and for being the cause of much of the problem.

In his presentation he told a story of a writer that visited the area years ago only to comment that he could: "find no Eden" any longer. Sadly, Eden is more elusive today than in past years. It's become harder to find, even in the everglades, that which he spoke of. We don't see as much of Eden around us as we once did.

But I've found an Eden -- here at the Salton Sea.

Eden exists at California's largest lake in the vistas as one stands upon its shores and gazes at snow capped mountains. In the brilliant sunsets that reflect gold in the feathers of majestic pelicans, in the guttural cry of the snowy egret as the sun lowers into the horizon. Eden exists in the spirit of those people that use, enjoy and depend upon the Salton Sea for their state of mind; their state of soul.

But Eden at the Salton Sea is in trouble as it slips from our grasp and fades even as life fades from the eyes of our suffering birds.

We need your help to restore Eden to the Sea. And we need it quickly. The Sea can't afford to wait any longer, its breathing is labored, and its time is nearly due. It strikes me that the Salton Sea will turn 93 years old this year. In seven years we will celebrate its first centennial. What cause for celebration if at that time we stand on the shores of the Sea knowing that its future has been charted and it's a bright future. How miserable if our celebration is tainted with the realization that nothing has been done.

And if I can push your patience to suffer one more yellowed article: it reflects much of what those of you who know me, understand my frustrations to be about the Sea - again from the '70's: "Image problem contributing to Salton Sea's slow death." As we seek to restore Eden, we must remember that it has to be done not only with sensitivity to the resources but with sensitivity to those people that work, live and depend upon the Sea. The thousands of folk that share life upon its shores. Lacking this, we hurt the Ray Jennings of the Salton Sea who at one time sold over a thousand dollars each month in bait to fishermen, and who now shows a fraction of that. People have stopped coming to his store; they have stopped coming to the Sea. Not because of conditions here, but because they fear it, by how we present it. Because for years they've heard of death, dying, plague, scourge, "pollution," but they've not heard of the sunsets, or of Eden.

We've done well at telling our neighbors of the problems that face the Salton Sea. Sadly though, we've not told them of the good that exists there today. Of the fact that they can spend a weekend and enjoy the chatter of a few of the millions of the birds that use it daily this time of the year. Or of the vistas of snow capped mountains across a shimmering lake. We understand that the Salton Sea is nearing its crisis. We don't understand that we can spend a delightful afternoon walking its shores. That's our fault for not telling you of the sunsets at the Sea, as we strive to seek a solution to its ailing systems, we've scared you from visiting. Those of us that manage it's waters and shoreline, those that study its depth, or birds, and those that report on our comments haven't understood the need to offer the Sea as a place to enjoy now. A place to wander upon trails, to explore Visitor Centers, to boat, to sail upon. We seem to favor the worst; while not allowing the fact that there is a soothing to the soul to watch the rosy glow of the Mecca Hills as the sun sets over the Santa Rosas.

And we've convinced countless numbers not to come to the Sea, and sadly sometimes not to support efforts to cure its systems.

I wish you could spend a sunset at the Salton Sea. Maybe you will find your Eden, perhaps in the stately figure of the Great Blue Heron that stands poised at the shore in the waning light.

There is value in the preservation of the Salton Sea. There's a resource value to the animals that depend upon it. There's an economic value to all of us that live in Southern California. And there's value to our soul in doing the right thing.

Last year as article after article went over the wire decrying the terrible problems that we face, and highlighted the wringing of our hands for the need of the money that was crucial to fixing this great resource. I saw a letter to the editor sent to the L. A. Times that said "Shame on us" for knowing how to solve the problem but being stopped by a perceived lack of money. For the money exists in our society to fix the Sea. We just need to do it.

Even today, when I look at the Salton Sea I see a bright future. I believe the Sea will become a boom to the region, and I believe it will happen quickly. As we step on the path that takes us into the future we must understand that we have to do it together. From small shop owner, to Governor, hand in hand. From researcher to fisher, from land manager to newspaper reporter, from bird-watcher to President, if we all walk together, we'll soon be running and, how we'll celebrate on the 100th year of the Sea's creation.

I can't end today without a word of appreciation to a great friend of the Salton Sea, who we lost last week. Congressman Sonny Bono was good for the Sea, good for us and good for our spirit. He pushed us down the path to resolve the Sea's problems encouraging us to run rather than walk. I can't tell you how much I appreciated his statements to the effect that we have to save the Salton Sea and we should have done it yesterday.

Steve Horvitz is the Superintendent of the California State Parks in the southeastern portion of the State. He has worked at the Salton Sea for the last seven years. You may contact him direct at or write the Salton Sea Sector, office of the Superintendent, 100-225 State Park Road, North Shore, Ca 92254, (760) 393-3059.

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