Imagine a crystal-clear lake nestled into beautiful mountains in Southern California, where the sun shines all year and Americans flock to play. Boats, palm trees, umbrellas, high-end hotels, new homes, and the finest restaurants surround the water. Music plays from beachside transistor radios and the best acts perform at clubs scattered along the coast. The bikini is becoming mainstream. In a time of fast cars, professional boat racing is also popular. Families have money to spend while every single guy drives a new car and fast boat. This land of paradise is the Salton Sea in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s.
Then, everything began to change.
Over most of the last hundred-thousand years, the Salton Sea was a dried-up salt flat, sitting hundreds of feet below sea level in the deserts of Western California. In 1905, winter storms and an engineering mistake caused the entire flow of the Colorado River to redirect into the Salton Basin. Millions of gallons poured nonstop out of the Colorado’s banks which took 18 months to correct. When the Colorado resumed its previous flow, the Salton Sea was left behind, the largest lake in California.
Inflows of water from nearby valleys kept the lake’s level steady and people slowly began moving in. It became an oasis in the desert, a miracle lake. Being 150 miles from Los Angeles and a half day drive from Phoenix or San Diego, the sea was a perfect distance for many to retreat on weekends.
Marinas, vacation developments, hotels and restaurants started popping up along the coast. Artists like Sony Bono, The Beach Boys, and even Frank Sinatra frequented the sea. Vacationers poured onto the beaches on weekends and boats zipped around the smooth water.
While the Indianapolis 500 was the most popular car race in America, the Salton City 500 became the biggest boat race. Being 200+ feet below sea level, oxygen levels were high which helped engines run better. Labeled “World’s Richest Power Boat Race,” the calm waters of Salton Sea provided perfect racing conditions.
Salton Sea reached its peak of popularity in the 1950s and 60s as the middle class had money to spend and weekends to play. Around a half million boats would be on the lake per year. Recreational fishermen would quickly catch their limit, reeling in some of the largest lake fish in the country. Real estate was sold with the promise that property value would double every 5 years. Money poured into the lake. One of the most extravagant yacht clubs was built on the North Shore where boats, cars, and airplanes came and went.
In the mid 1970s, a series of unfortunate events began driving people away. The water level of Salton Sea cannot be controlled and a flood wiped out many of the waterfront homes and businesses. Salt levels then crossed a threshold which triggered massive fish die-offs, leading to unbearable smells. As birds ate the fish, many began to die as well. The real estate bubble burst and property values plummeted.
While many hung on through the 1980s, the popularity of Salton Sea fell significantly. Rebuilding projects often went unfinished and developer money dried up. Streets which were meant to support thriving neighborhoods went unused and beaches fell silent. As inflows dried up, water levels also began to recede.
Over the next 2 decades, salt levels continued to rise as water evaporated. Fish die-offs continued and squatters descended on abandoned houses.
Today, Salton Sea appears desolate, almost post-apocalyptic. The beaches are quiet, aside from the crunch under your feet where crushed fish and bird bones have accumulated over the last 40 years. Most houses are deserted and businesses are sparse. Irrigation is necessary to grow crops in the Coachella Valley, Salton’s drainage basin, and the agricultural runoff is full of salt and chemicals. There is no outflow so Salton Sea is essentially a sump. It is 25% more salty than the Pacific Ocean and salinity level continues to rise.
The burning regional question is, who owns the rights to the Colorado River water? This hot button issue hangs intense as we visit during one of the worst droughts on record. Farmers in Southeast California currently sell enough water to San Diego County to satisfy the needs of 2 million people each year. While the need for water intensifies with population growth, the needs of the Salton Sea continue to disappear. As more water is diverted, less flows into the basin. Lake bed will continue to be exposed as water levels lower in coming decades.
While we entered the sea expecting the wasteland, beautiful pieces become more prominent when surrounded by the backdrop of dry desert and dusty ruins. Half of all bird species in North America can be found at the Salton Sea, a pit stop as they migrate north and south. The sun rises over the glasslike water then sets behind colorful mountains. Today, the current locals have the most legitimate claim to be called “salt of the earth.” Those we met were some of the most honest, wholesome and interesting folks up to this point in our journey. They may stay because this has always been their home, to get away from society, for the quiet life, or because their most happy memories are here. Each individual seems to have a certain level of contentedness and is comfortable being their own, unique person.
We skip from deserted beach to deserted beach, finding a crushed piano, the roof of an RV, and frames of destroyed houses. Piers which previously held a dock now protrude from the water, encased in salt deposits. Boats are scattered around the dry landscape, cracking and decaying along with their surroundings while the water sadly retreats further away every year.
The temperature reaches 100 during our exploring so we stop at the Ski Inn for a refreshment. As we sit down, the friendly bartender says, “Hey, they finally changed the song playing in my head.”
He didn’t tell us the song but if I were to guess, the Beach Boys are no longer on the radio.