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Salton Sea Resort Area Hoping for
Return of Glory Days
[First of a two-part series]

By Eric Niiler
The San Diego Union-Tribune, June 30, 1998

SALTON SEA -- The faded postcard above the cash register captures images of water-skiing, bustling marinas and hotel pools at "North Shore Beach -- Glamour Capital of the Salton Sea."

For Martha Adame, the memories linger.

"This place used to be so much fun," said Adame, a petite, dark-haired woman who runs a liquor store with her husband, Bob, just off the main highway encircling this shimmering desert sea.

Adame first came to the Salton Sea as a teen-ager from Riverside in the early 1960s. She met her husband here and moved permanently in 1979.

"It was party time every day of the week. You couldn't find a place to put your towel on the beach. At night, the noise would drive me up the wall."

For a time, thousands of Southern Californians flocked here for high-profile fun and games. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin led the Rat Pack on speedboat races. The Beach Boys and Pointer Sisters performed concerts. A young Sonny Bono learned how to water ski.

Adame, 50, and other longtime residents believe those good times can roll again. They say the sea's daunting ecological problems -- the rising saltiness of the water, accumulating toxins in the sediment, and the overload of nutrients from agricultural runoff that is robbing the lake of oxygen -- can and should be fixed.

That hoped-for resurrection got a unlikely lift this year when Bono, the sea's greatest congressional advocate, died in a January skiing accident. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Bono's widow, Mary, quickly pledged to continue the former entertainer's support for a revived Salton Sea.

A House subcommittee approved a $350 million clean-up bill in May; a full House vote is likely before August.

Mary Bono, who won her late husband's congressional seat in April, compared the Salton Sea's problems with those at Owens Lake in central California and the Aral Sea in Russia -- two places that have nearly dried up because of engineering diversions, threatening nearby residents with airborne dust and toxic pollution.

"What if we let it sit there," Bono asked. Doing nothing about the sea, she said, "is not an alternative."

A UC Riverside study released this year concluded that a restored Salton Sea could boost the region's tourism and real estate economy by $270 million to $360 million annually.

But until that happens, ghostly reminders of past booms will continue to haunt the sea's shoreline: empty subdivisions with water and sewer connections; paved roads and palm trees that stretch across the arid landscape; recreational vehicles parked on abandoned concrete foundations in a place now dubbed "Slab City."

Obstacles to any significant cleanup of the sea will be huge.

An engineering solution, say observers, will take an enormous and expensive effort. Two currently prominent ideas involve building massive dikes to cordon off sections of the lake, funneling salt and toxins into these sections to reduce levels elsewhere or pumping in sea water, which ironically is fresher, from the Gulf of California 100 miles away.

"Most of the technology we're talking about exists," said Roberta Burns, an administrative assistant for the Imperial County Board of Supervisors who has been developing restoration plans. "It's just a matter of applying it to a body of water this size with this much salt in it."

While the Salton Sea may never become the desert paradise envisioned by Adame and others, the alternative is probably worse.

Experts say that ignoring the sea's problems could eventually lead to miles of barren salt flats, more dead wildlife and possible human health threats, such as respiratory problems caused by airborne contaminants blowing off of a dried-up sea floor.

"I want it cleaned up, not only for business, but for all those birds that come from Alaska and Canada," Adame said one quiet weekday afternoon. "If the birds die, the next generation won't get to see them."

The Salton Sea covers the desert floor like a hazy mirage. Located 120 miles east of San Diego, it was once the bottom of a larger prehistoric sea extending from the existing Gulf of California deep into the Imperial Valley.

The waterline of this ancient sea, known as Lake Cahuilla, stained the surrounding mountains like a bathtub ring. Traces of it can be seen on the Santa Rosa Mountains just north of Salton City.

Today, the sea -- 35 miles long and 9 to 15 miles wide -- acts as a sump, collecting excess irrigation water used by the region's $1 billion farming economy.

Well-watered fields of wheat, alfalfa, corn, carrots, strawberries, beets, lettuce and asparagus blanket the landscape. Roadside signs boast that "Water Grows Food and Clothes."

Every year, 1.2 million gallons of this water, siphoned by an extensive series of canals from the Colorado River, washes naturally occurring salts, chemical fertilizers and pesticides from the farm fields into the Salton Sea.

About 10 percent of that runoff comes from the New River, which flows north from Mexicali. Although laced with sewage, it provides the only natural source of freshwater to the sea. Because the sea has no outlet, evaporation under the relentless sunshine slowly concentrates the salts and pollutants.

Over the next 10 years, experts say, the Salton Sea will likely become even saltier. Imperial Irrigation District officials recently agreed to begin selling water not needed by farmers to the San Diego County Water Authority for human use and consumption. By 2010, farm runoff into the sea will be cut 20 percent from current levels.

"A smaller sea is going to be less expensive to reclaim," said Michael Clinton, the Imperial Irrigation District manager. "There's going to be a financial trade-off."

Some environmental critics, however, say the water deal will make things worse by opening the door to future water reductions.

"If (Congress is) not serious about guaranteeing the water supply to the Salton Sea, then this current legislation will be a waste of money," said Stewart Hurlbert, director of the Center for Inland Waters at San Diego State University. "The Salton Sea will shrink, fish will disappear and it will become a hyper-saline lake with hundreds of square kilometers of salt flats."

•••  

This vast sea was created by human error, the only engineering mistake visible from space.

It happened in 1891, when the California Development Co. and its ambitious president, Charles R. Rockwood, set out to remake the Imperial Valley desert into a garden. They cut a small channel from the Colorado River to an old streambed that flowed north.

For a few years the river flowed peacefully, regulated by a wooden headgate. The towns of Calexico, El Centro, Imperial and Brawley sprung up with this water, as did fields of valuable fruits and vegetables.

But in time, sediment deposits formed a 20-foot-tall earthen levee, blocking the gate. Farmers complained, so Rockwood decided to cut a new channel four miles south of the Mexican border (an illegal incursion).

The fix worked until unusually high floodwaters peaked in June 1905. The levees broke and by August, the river was out of control, with the entire current flowing through natural river beds into the Salton Basin, 285 feet below sea level.

Officials summoned a giant dredge from San Francisco to help rebuild the levees, but it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake before it could be shipped. Area developers then begged the Southern Pacific Railroad for assistance. President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the railroad's executives to stop the river, promising money from Congress.

The railroad built a new line to the channel from Yuma and assembled 1,500 workers from throughout the West to battle the torrent, including members of six Indian tribes. It was not until February 1907, however, that the raging channel was dammed with several hundred carloads of rock and sand dumped onto piles of brush. By then, the Colorado River had filled the old Lake Cahuilla bed, and the Salton Sea was born.

•••

It wasn't long before fish and game officials began experimenting with introduced species in the Salton Sea. In 1929, striped bass were brought in from the San Joaquin River, but none survived. Salmon were tried in 1934, but they died out as well. Halibut, bonefish, turbot and anchovies were trucked across the mountains from San Diego Bay, with the same result.

The problem, even then, was the sea's rising salinity level.

In the early 1950s, game wardens tried again with an assortment of saltwater fish from the Gulf of California, as well as various clams, mussels, oysters and squid. In 1951, something finally lived: gulf croaker, sargo and orange corvina.

In 1975, they were joined by tilapia, an exotic dark-colored African perch that farmers had dumped into their waste-water canals to feed on weeds. Some of these animals later escaped into the sea.

The explosion of these fish species fueled the recreation boom of the 1950s. Water skiing, boating, bait shops, beauty contests and nightclubs sprang up around the shores. It was billed as Palm Springs-by-the-sea.

The boom died in the late 1970s when the sea's water level began rising from two flood years and increasing agricultural drainage. Shorefront homes, marinas and stores flooded until the water stabilized in 1980 after farmers instituted water conservation measures that reduced field run-off.

The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, an exclusive restaurant and resort hotel, went out of business, only to be temporarily reborn as a drug rehabilitation center, then a senior center. Now it sits empty, a hulk surrounded by broken glass, scattered junk and 15-year-old restaurant checks that litter the entryway. Dead, dried-up fish cover a nearby beach.

•••

Not everybody left when the good times ended. Howard Heaton, a 78-year-old former San Diego resident, spends half the year at Mecca Beach in a recreational vehicle. His wife volunteers at the state campground.

"This is such a beautiful place," he said after cleaning his catch of the day. "I love it down here. I've been coming here since 1963."

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area anticipates 220,000 visitors this year, double the number of five years ago. It has a become a popular fishing ground for working-class Asians and blacks from the Los Angeles area.

Standing along the rock jetty, it's easy to see why so many people come: the fishing is easy.

In just six hours, Mario Mendoza has filled his white plastic bucket with more than 50 tilapia, using worms as bait. There are so many fish, they flop out of the bucket.

"You can fry, or bake them, or cook them with tomatoes," said Mendoza, a 24-year-old Morena Valley resident. "We're going to catch as many as we can."

Doesn't he worry about the state health advisory for selenium, a nonmetallic element allegedly linked to certain health problems?

"You can't eat them every day," Mendoza answers. "Just once a week."

•••

The other reason people come to the Salton Sea is to watch birds. Drawn by the fish, and lack of predators, the sea has become an important wintering ground for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. As a result, millions congregate here: egrets, herons, terns, avocets, stilts, gulls, frigate birds and boobies, to name a few.

Observers have identified nearly 384 species, about half of the total number of species found in North America. Only the Texas coast can claim better bird watching on the continent.

Colonies of brown pelicans, listed as endangered by federal wildlife officials until this year, discovered the sea and moved in from the Southern California coast. Cormorants followed, establishing a colony on Mullet Island.

Great bird watching co-exists with great perils to wildlife. During the last decade, the Salton Sea has become known more as a death trap:

  • In 1992, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials found 150,000 dead eared grebes and ruddy ducks; most had perished from an epidemic of avian cholera.
  • In 1994, 20,000 birds at the sea died from undetermined causes.
  • In 1996, avian botulism struck, killing 14,000 birds, including 1,400 brown pelicans. The disease was traced to contamination in thousands of dead tilapia.
  • In 1997, more tilapia, grebes and cormorants died. Newcastle's virus was identified as the pathogen.
  • In April of this year, a colony of 7,000 cormorants perished. The cause is not known, though Newcastle's is suspected.

Federal officials are trying to figure out why so many birds have died and whether the die-offs are tied to the overall health of the lake. They believe that many of the diseases are natural and are being spread by birds arriving from other parts of the western United States.

Clark Bloom, superintendent of the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, has picked up thousands of dead birds along the shoreline. Earlier this year, he put in an order for a new incinerator to dispose of the bodies. The existing pet-sized oven wasn't big enough. He wanted one built to handle humans.

Despite the problems, Bloom thinks the sea is worth saving. His dogged optimism reflects that of many Salton Sea visitors and its residents.

"When you don't have a lot of birds dying," he said, "it's really a tremendous place."



See Part II

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