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Toxic Pollution is Souring the
Salton Sea's Economy

By Gary Polakovic
The Press-Enterprise

Growing problems are turning off both visitors and residents

Measured strictly in dollars and cents the Salton Sea is a money-making workhorse providing much-needed revenue and jobs for one of California's most isolated and chronically unemployed areas.

Gavin Ardolino, co-owner of the North Shore Motel, looks toward the Sea
Steve Medd / The Press-Enterprise

What is the sea worth? Consider:

Those were among the findings contained in a study the state Department of Fish and Game commissioned five years ago.

Also, farming, which provides seven of every 10 jobs in the Imperial and Coachella valleys and produces $1.1 billion worth of food, would disappear without the sea as a wastewater sump, though there is no threat of that now.

Yet the sea is fast losing its luster. For all its value, and the untapped potential, its worth is melting away like a creamy dessert in the desert's blazing sun.

Tourism is declining. Seaside towns are flooded, skeletal buildings stand abandoned and pockets of disrepair are obvious all along the shore. Wildlife is dying. The Salton Sea today is a waste of precious water and that has local folks angry.

Mobile homes and other structures are swamped on the sea side of the dike at Bombay beach on the northeast shore of the Salton Sea.

Steve Medd/ The Press-Enterprise  

Locals' Laments

It's a muggy afternoon and the regular crowd shuffles into the Ski Inn for beer, darts and shelter from a summer thunderstorm rumbling over the jagged Chocolate Mountains toward Bombay beach on the sea's north shore.

Talk, as usual, is about the demise of "the great Salton Sea," as Ski Inn employee Jack Iverson calls it. The crowd is elderly and amiable, but not as big as it once was.

"We don't have a tenth of the fishermen we used to have," Iverson said. "We used to get 250 boats a day. There'd be so many boats you could walk deck to deck down a mile or so of shoreline and never touch the water."

Bombay Beach, one of the sea's more popular recreational spots, used to support five bars, including three dinner houses. Now just the Ski Inn remains. Campgrounds once stuffed to capacity are largely empty, even during peak vacation season.

Bitterness, like the cigarette smoke, hangs thick in the air. Bar patrons used to organize swims and T-shirt sales to raise money for Salton Sea pollution studies. But the environment, like the area economy, just keeps getting worse.

"They haven't done anything about the sea," complains Roger Strickland of Corona who spends three months of the year at Bombay Beach. "The whole sea has suffered."

From one end of the sea to the other, the story is the same.

A short drive up Highway 111 from Bombay beach is the Salton Sea State recreation Area. Annual attendance at the 18,000-acre park is 147,000, down from about 220,000 in 1984. "We've seen a pretty steady decline of 10 to 15 percent the last three years," said chief ranger Dennis Imhoff.

Across the sea's wide, blue waters, seven well-stocked marinas once dotted the west shore. Today, there are three. Bill Dungey moved to the Salton Sea from South Gate in 1977 to run the Salton Sea Beach Marina, one of the last that remain. But the crowds of tourists he expected did not follow. "My business has dropped off about 50-60 percent in the last 10 years or so," Dungey said.

Richard Shade, owner of the Riviera RV Park at wind-swept Salton City, is mad as hell. Not long ago carloads of vacationers clogged the streets waiting to grab one of his 51 shorefront trailer spaces. But people don't come anymore. "The Salton Sea is being raped," he said uncorking his anger.

Recession alone does not account for the downturn. Misfortune has blown through the Salton Sea like biblical plagues.

Salt in the sea has accumulated to critical levels and has begun to short circuit fish reproduction. As the fishery declines, fishermen stay away, and that's an economic groin kick for local merchants.

Half the visitors to the Salton Sea are anglers. They no longer line up to hook corvina, croaker or tilapia, species state health officials warn contain too much selenium and have advised people to limit their consumption.

"The fishery is not as good ass it was years ago," said Ray Garnett, a Salton Sea Beach fishing guide since 1966. "They're not surviving as good as they did before. They used to have a nine (fish) limit and now they have a five limit now, so the fishing is about half as good as it used to be."

Rotten-egg odors, which emanate from the sea when winds stir up gases from decaying biological matter, subtract from its ambiance. Once popular shore front destinations are flooded, the result of a rise in lake level since 1978.

The New River dumps tons of raw sewage and toxic pollutants into the sea and that scares away water skiers. About 150,000 eared grebes washed up dead on the shore one year ago, prompting concerns that selenium pollution or disease is ravaging wildlife.

"The water quality is the primary problem," Imhoff said. "...If they clean up the sea, and do something about the water, there's no reason that we can't get back to the way it used to be."

'It could be a giant'

Gavin Ardolino is bullish on the Salton Sea.

He and his partners bought the 48-room North Shore Motel for $1.2 million last summer. Never mind that nearly 100 acres of the property and the marina are underwater, tourism is off and the building needs a $600,000 face-lift. They're turning adversity into profit.

First, they decided not to cater to country clubbers and yachters that frequented the hotel in the 1970s. Instead, they offered discount package deals: one room, three beds and a boat for $55, designed to promote the sea as the local getaway for low- to middle-income people in nearby Indio and Coachella.

Result: summer rooms were booked, 20 more boats are on order, and the owners plan to build a fresh water fishing pond and campground on 160 acres adjacent to the motel.

"It's blue-collar recreation. People with not a lot of money want to come out here," Ardolino said.

Mary Brown, owner of the Town Pump restaurant and bar in Westmorland, six miles from the Salton Sea. She is not concerned with its condition.

Steve Medd/The Press Enterprise  

Lots of people think the Salton Sea's best years lie ahead. Hints of hope are evident.

For example, a 30,000-acre industrial growth center to lure jobs to the desert from the Los Angeles basin was established two years ago in Indio, Thermal and Mecca immediately north of the sea. As many as 23,000 people are expected to follow the jobs, and local officials envision the sea as a natural backyard swimming pool.

"A good, healthy sea would be a very great boost to the east end of the Coachella Valley. It could be a giant economically," said Lester Cleveland, executive director for the Coachella Valley Associated Governments.

Many ingredients for success are already in place.

In a match seemingly made in heaven, the sea is the state's largest lake and is located in the hottest part of California. It is a two-hour drive from San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino.

Seaside towns are already subdivided fitted with sewers and paved streets. Land is cheap. Charming houses cost less than $100,000.

Furthermore, Southern California's population is expected to explode from its current 15.5 million to 21 million by 2010. Given that beaches, reservoirs, even distant Colorado River destinations are often jam-packed with vacationers, the sea looms large as the region's most underutilized playground.

"We don't have a tenth of the fishermen we used to have. We used to get 250 boats a day. There'd be so many boats you could walk deck to deck down a mile or so of shoreline and nver touch the water."

Ski Inn employee Jack Iverson  

"Of the growth that's anticipated, the majority is in the inland area. The Salton Sea could be a major recreational resource for the people living out there," said Mark Pisano, executive director for the Southern California Association of Governments.

Finally, one of the key missing components may fall into place this year. After years of no communication, officials in Riverside and Imperial counties have begun discussing a plan to join forces to create an entity to take charge of the sea's environmental and economic restoration.

"The sea has a marvelous recreational value and all sorts of possibilities. But left as it is it's just going downhill and that seems a shame," said Riverside County Supervisor Patricia "Corky" Larson, whose district includes the northern third of the sea.

"It just has unlimited possibilities. We are only limited by our imagination," Larson said.

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