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March | April 2012


Sea Sick

A California dream disappears $7 U.S. / $7 Canada

orion nature/culture/place


Joel Prince

EDITORIAL BOARD Matt Adams Mitch Casey

Cayce Clifford Terry Eiler

Samantha Goresh Madeline Gray

Heather Haynes Darcy Holdorf

Wendy Junru-Huang Jim McAuley

Maddie McGarvey Rebecca Miller Patrick Oden Becca Quint

Bryan Thomas

Priscilla Thomas Wayne Thomas Patrick Traylor

Anita Vizireanu

Emine Ziyatdinova


March | April 2012 02

Sea Sick | A California dream disappears

FROM THE EDITOR Economics and the environment are inextricably bound to

Sea is essentially a man-made lake, many environmentalists

their mutual benefit, but more often they have an inverse

allow nature to take its course. We believe that this view

one another. Ideally, they can coexist, working together for

relationship where one gains and the other loses. Nowhere is

this more evident, than in California’s Salton Sea. Where the pursuit of wealth has led to an environmental catastrophe. We are definitely not the first publication to approach

this topic. Many have preceded us in efforts to reveal the calamities that have occurred there. Yet, despite the media

pressure, California state legislature has failed to react to the

environmental needs of the sea. In addition, because the Salton

refuse to take action, urging others not to intervene and to may be short-sighted. In this issue we aim to assess the various circumstances – economical and environmental – of

the Salton Sea’s current condition in order to provide our readers with the necessary information to make a decision for themselves and to take action accordingly. One thing is certain, we must decide before it is too late.

~ Joel Prince

Sea Sick

A California dream disappears text and photographs by Joel Prince

The Salton Sea as seen from Bombay Beach, California. Like the remnants of this pier, salt encrusts almost everything along the water’s edge.

A photograph of a mother and her children playing along the beach of the Salton Sea (circa 1945) depicts a time when the sea still appealed to tourists.

Taking in the view of a deep blue sea surrounded by the vast California desert valley, I sip my coffee watching the sunrise paint the landscape in hues of pink, red, and gold, when my morning moment is interrupted by an overwhelming stench. I was warned that the Salton Sea might smell, but its noxious medley of sulfur, sewage, and dead fish still shocked my senses and awakened me much faster than any cup of coffee ever could.


orion March | April 2012

Dead fish commonly cover the shoreline of the Salton Sea. In February, 2012 things were no different along the edge of the one-time resort, Salton Sea Beach.

What remains of a fishing boat sits a half mile from the northeast bank of the sea, bringing to mind the days when recreation was prominent in the area. As salinity has increased, the sustainability of the Salton Sea’s fish populations have deteriorated.


orion March | April 2012

Sea Sick | California’s Mistake of a Lake


Hundreds of White Pelicans congregate on a small island within the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge along the southern edge of the Salton Sea. In 1996, an avian botulism outbreak killed 9,000 White Pelicans.

A report issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation in 2007 led the California Secretary of Resources office to recommend an $8.9 billion restoration plan for the Salton Sea.


orion March | April 2012

From afar the sea is a place of beauty, but up close it’s just a big, brown, smelly lake. Once hailed as a premium vacation resort hosting celebrities, statesman, and outdoor lovers, today the Salton Sea hosts a variety of environmental and economical disasters. A domino effect of raw sewage, agricultural runoff, algae blooms, selenium, botulism, dead fish, dead birds, unemployment, foreclosures, and lost hope led to the current conditions of the sea. A report issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation in 2007 led the California Secretary of Resources office to recommend an $8.9 billion restoration plan for the Salton Sea. The costly effort needed for fixing it has caused a decision-making standstill in California legislation. Five years later the bureaucratic grid lock remains. If California does not make a decision, the conditions of the environment and the economy in the Imperial Valley region will continue to deteriorate. One question remains to be answered, is the Salton Sea worth saving?

Biologist, Tom Anderson, left, and biological technician, Megan Creegan , take a fan boat to survey the birds nesting along the southern shore of the Salton Sea. Due to past occurrences of massive bird die-offs, they take an active approach to sustaining the avian populations.

A SEA TO REMEMBER Frantically arranging historical photographs, artifacts, and signs, Jennie Kelly, historian, director and founder of the Salton Sea History Museum, is hard at work. Like many historians she has an acute attention to detail, which at the moment seems to be impeding her delegation of responsibility to the volunteer staff that is waiting at hand. They are preparing for the grand re-opening of the museum at its new location within the Desert Cahuilla Wetlands, in Mecca, California. Only four days left before the ribbon cutting and still a lot to do. Though her deadline stress seems to be growing, she stays cheerful and positive. “The history is absolutely fascinating and it is so rewarding to be a part of preserving the history here,” explains Kelly. To her the museum’s purpose is greater than just documenting history – it is also about establishing a sense of pride in the various cultures that surround it and overcoming the stigma attached to the Salton Sea. Her ambition to change others’ perception of the sea presents

a real challenge. Just type the Salton Sea into your internet browser. You’ll find countless accounts of negative opinions. Known for its environmental problems – the millions of dead fish, poor water quality, and avian botulism, just to name a few – it’s reasonable to be a little pessimistic. But Kelly doesn’t necessarily agree. “They say ‘well the water’s all polluted, look at the dead fish.’ That's not why the fish die,” she clarifies. And she is right. It is not the pollution. tilapia, a tropical freshwater fish with a remarkable adaptability to saltwater, account for the majority of the fish die-offs visible along the shore. The salinity of the Salton Sea water keeps them under major physiological strain. Any shifts in the water’s temperature or oxygen level sends them belly up, often killing millions at a time. It is hard for people to see past the despair. Although Kelly argues that there is much more to appreciate, “the sea and the desert, they’re both beautiful and unique, put them together and it’s amazing. People can’t imagine that there is this huge 33-milelong lake that’s called a sea in the middle of the desert. It really

Sea Sick | California’s Mistake of a Lake


Tilapia were unintentionally introduced to the sea from nearby fish farms. Originally a freshwater fish, this species is more vulnerable to the ill effects of the Salton Sea and suffer from mass die-offs often by the millions.

is amazing. It can’t stay in its current form,” she admits, “but I think if given enough freshwater inflow, the place could be a mecca again for recreational users.” Believing that the sea can be restored, she hopes that the Salton Sea’s future will be as good as the history she is trying to preserve. THE MISTAKE OF A LAKE Before 1905, there was no Salton Sea. Only a dry lake bed, known as the Salton Sink existed at the valley’s lowest point. Surrounded by dry nutrient rich soil, developers saw potential for an agriculture industry in the middle of the low California desert. They named it the Imperial Valley. The only thing they needed was water. The answer to their need, across the Chocolate Mountain Range, was the Colorado River. Construction of the Alamo Canal by the California Development Company began in 1901. The canal stretched 14 miles to connect the Colorado River to the irrigation systems in the Imperial Valley. Crops began to flourish. The rich soils and the


orion March | April 2012

continuous warm climate proved extremely profitable for agriculture developers. But the farming boom did not last long. Within a few years, the Alamo Canal began to fail as sediment build-up from the Colorado River blocked its flow. Farming began to suffer. In a desperate move to maintain the water flow, three uncontrolled channels, connecting the Colorado River directly to the Alamo Canal were created in 1904. This worked until heavy spring rains caused severe flooding on the Colorado River breaking through the channels and washing over the Imperial Valley crops. The water that created these farms was now threatening to destroy them. Also threatened was the Southern Pacific railroad. Working with Federal government funding, Southern Pacific spent 16 months diverting the Colorado River back onto its original course, saving the railway route and the Imperial Valley farms. By then, the Salton Sink had accumulated so much flood water that an enormous lake, 15-miles wide and 35-miles long, remained at the sink. Although engineers expected the water to evaporate

in the desert heat, it remained. Continuous flow of salty irrigation run-off sustained the newly formed lake, giving birth to California’s mistake of a lake – the Salton Sea. THE RISE AND THE FALL Initially the Salton Sea’s water was relatively fresh, only containing a small amount of salt derived from the Colorado River water. As water evaporated and salty irrigation runoff continued to flow into the sea, the salinity of the water increased. This sparked California’s development interest. The idea of an ocean in the middle of the desert sounded like a promising tourism draw. In the 1930s, the California Department of Fish and Game had the grand idea of introducing ocean fish into the sea to create a tourist destination for fishing enthusiasts. Over the next 20 years, more than 30 marine fish species were introduced into the Salton Sea. Only three of those species established populations – sargo, gulf croaker, and orangemouth corvine. When the fish

began to bite, enthusiasm grew. The Salton Sea quickly became the true tourism mecca that developers had hoped for, drawing more than a half million visitors each year during the 1950s and 1960s. Not only fishing enthusiasts, but boaters, water skiers, celebrities, politicians, and other fun-loving types flocked to the sea. A by-product of the agricultural boom, the sea was now having a boom of its own – tourism. Developers and entrepreneurs moved fast, hastily establishing infrastructure and roadways for communities and resorts. Promotional films hailed the sea as the, “French Riviera of the California desert,” and, “an investment in the future.” According to developers, there was not a moment to lose. It was time to buy, buy, buy! Meanwhile, in the midst of all the moneymaking fun in the sun, a fourth species of fish was unintentionally introduced to the Sea in the mid 1960s. Yep, that's right –tilapia. Nearby fish farms, used water from the irrigation canals, raising tilapia for export across the country. Somehow, nature had its way and the non-native species found a new home in the Salton Sea. At

Sea Sick | California’s Mistake of a Lake


The Salton Sea’s primary source of incoming water is from the agricultural runoff of corporate farms like this one along the nothwest quadrant of the sea. Over 600,000 acres of agricultural farmland exists in the valley surrounding the sea.


orion March | April 2012

“Water is very valuable, and is going to become increasingly more and more valuable as we get population increases.” the time no one knew what the ramifications of this occurrence would be, and its full effect would not be seen for decades. Today, there are countless millions of tilapia in the Salton Sea. As for the sargo, gulf croaker, and orangemouth corvine, the future is uncertain. Experts suspect the ocean fish are dying off. According to the Salton Sea Authority, all the fish populations are under great threat if the salinity continues to rise. Before the tilapia problem could be realized, a more pressing issue brought the tourism from boom to bust – flooding. In 1976 and 1977 two tropical storms reached the Imperial Valley dumping more water than the agriculture could absorb. Much like the flood that created the Salton Sea in 1905, the water had nowhere else to go but the Salton Sink. As the sea level rose water crept into the towns and resorts that developers had built. It devastated the tourism industry and halted any further development. The general public was no longer interested. Property values sunk. It was the end of a very short-lived era. THE THIRST FOR WATER The floods around the Salton Sea took time to recede because the rate of water entering the sea was greater than or equal to the rate of evaporation. But today things are different. “Water is very valuable, and is going to become increasingly more and more valuable as we get population increases,” explains Doug Barnum, of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Biological Resources Division. Barnum is a veteran biologist with an appreciation for objectivity – a true believer in science. His office is dedicated to examining the Salton Sea. Sitting at a table amongst complicated charts, maps, and graphs he laid out the facts so that I could understand them. I learned that California is in a tough spot. They are scrambling to provide water for a rapidly growing population in the southern counties – Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura. Their thirsty cities have led them to take water from Imperial County, who holds the

Sea Sick | California’s Mistake of a Lake


largest allocation of Colorado River water for its irrigation use. As a result of this water transfer “agreement,” farmers and agriculture companies in the Imperial Valley are using water more efficiently. Sounds good, right? What can be bad about more efficient water usage, about less agricultural runoff? Because the primary source of water to the Salton Sea is agricultural runoff, no agricultural runoff, means no Salton Sea, which means new problems for California. FOR THE BIRDS One foreseeable problem is the sustainability of the avian wildlife at the Salton Sea. It is centrally located in the Pacific Flyway, a migratory bird route that runs as far north as Alaska down to South America. In order to survive, birds must have places along their journey to stop and refuel. Some species, like the Double-crested Cormorant, use the Salton Sea as their nesting ground in order to maintain their population. Some have argued that if the sea disappears the birds will just go elsewhere. Just imagine having your favorite Cracker Barrel

disappear off the map of your road trip route. What would you do? Barnum, offers a much more legitimate argument. “In California we’ve lost more than 90% of our historic wetlands. If the Salton Sink were eliminated 150 years ago, it might have not been a big deal. But today it’s one of the last vestiges of wetlands of any kind, good or bad in terms of water quality, for these migratory birds,” argues Barnum, “so its kind of a factitious argument to say they can go some place else.” There is no comparable body of water, no Cracker Barrel, no rest stop, no refuge within hundreds of miles of the sea for birds flying north and south on the Pacific Flyway. “Over 400 species of birds have been identified at the Salton Sea,” says Tom Anderson, a biologist at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (SBSSNWR). We skim across shallow waters near the edge of the Salton Sea on a fan boat like you would see traversing the Florida swamp. The open engine roars loudly behind us – ear protection is mandatory – limiting our conversation to moments when we slow down and idle. “Those are Sea Gulls. There’s the double-crested

Mexican migrant workers, employed by the HMS Agriculture Corporation, dig holes in preparation for planting a grove of peach trees on a plot of land just west of the Salton Sea.

cormorants, and some white pelicans flying away just there,” leaning down to my eye level, he points out the various flocks along the horizon. “Are those ducks?” I ask, showing the extent of my knowledge. “Yeah, those are wood ducks, and over there is a snowy egret,” he added. The diversity of avian wildlife is amazing. Any qualified birder could easily identify dozens of species without taking a single step. Like Barnum, Anderson shares many of the same concerns for the sea, but due to the nature of his position, he takes a more hands on approach. We aren’t just joyriding. Anderson is surveying the bird populations, essentially checking the pulse of the overall bird population. Staring through binoculars he notes bird activity and looks for signs of problems. Historically, they have had problems with avian botulism. The effects have been catastrophic, nearly killing their whole Brown Pelican population at a time when they were endangered. In addition, Selenium, a naturally occurring semimetallic element, that is toxic at higher than normal levels, has caused fatal birth defects among many bird species nesting

at the Salton Sea. These problems are so prevalent, that the SBSSNWR facility is equipped with a large crematorium to help dispose the multitude of dead birds. It may not sound like the best wildlife refuge in the world, but it is a refuge nonetheless. And because of the water transfer agreement, the wetlands are going to continue to disappear, making the situation worse. “There is going to be a huge decrease in the quality of the habitat. It can’t support the same diversity of wildlife that it has now,” explains Anderson. DUST IN THE WIND The fate of the fish, birds, and other wildlife is not the only issue pending a disappearing sea. According to a report issued by Michael J. Cohen and Karen H. Hyun for the Pacific Institute, “Exposing 134 square miles of salty lake bed could increase the amount of blowing dust in the basin by a third, harming tens of thousands of children, the elderly, and others with breathing problems.” The Imperial Valley, which experiences minor dust storms already, has the highest rate of child asthma hospital

Date Palms dot the landscape of the Coachella Valley on the northwestern end of the of the Salton Sea. Producing 23,700 tons of dates in 2010, California remains the largest commercial producer of dates in the United States.

Winds blow dust across the Coachella Valley outside Mecca, California at the northern end of the Salton Sea. If the sea’s water level continues to recede, dust storms are expected to occur more frequently.

Just an hour drive from some of California’s most prestigous golf courses, [From left] Don Decker, Walter Malakoff, and Alvin Buehler make their final putts on the 9th “green” as they wrap up their round on a course made entirely of sand and gravel at the Fountain of Youth Spa and RV Resort.


orion March | April 2012

“Is there going to be a dust problem? Yes, there is going to be a dust problem. How big? We don’t have a clue.” admissions in the state of California. According to the Barnum, the USGS is concerned too. “Its not just dust like people think of, this stuff has a dozen different chemicals in it that are toxic,” he explains, “it has salt embedded in it. Salt all by itself, is toxic to plants. So, we are also concerned that this dust deposition will harm agricultural productivity. That's another element to the whole dust issue that is outside the realm of human health.” Barnum added that they anticipate the southeast region of the Salton Sea’s shoreline to have the greatest vulnerability to dust storms because of the particulate sizes of the soil and consistency of wind activity. “Is there going to be a dust problem?” says Barnum rhetorically, “Yes, there is going to be a dust problem. How big? We don’t have a clue.” LIFE’S A BEACH Despite all its flaws, people still live along the shores of the Salton Sea. On the southeast shoreline, where dust storms are expected to occur in the future, rests the former resort town, Bombay Beach. The town population is approximately 300 people. It has two bars, a firehouse, a small general store, and a single postal box. In its heyday it was one of the many recreational getaways along the sea. Known for its parties, the small town boasted having six bars. Of the two bars that still exist, I chose to go to the Ski Inn in search of a beer, a burger, and some conversation. I found all three. The people of Bombay Beach are a unique – part beach bum and part bluecollar. Of course I am establishing this opinion base upon the bar crowd. “There is not much else to do here but drink,” said Pauline, the establishment’s evening bartender, “most the town comes in here at some point.” It seemed to be true too. At times the bar was filled with over 20 people, a large number for such a small town on a Tuesday night. Everyone was curious about me in a friendly – not skeptical way. One man, Deno Morgan, gave me his perspective on

Sea Sick | California’s Mistake of a Lake


[Above] Bombay Beach residents, from left, Michael “Patch” Vance, David Vance, and Deno Morgan share drinks and conversation at the Ski Inn.

the locals. “Everybody here is from someplace else, in case you haven’t noticed that,” he chuckled. Some of them were snowbirds, some stayed year round, but they all consider one another locals. One by one I got to know the locals and hear their stories. I learned that some of them had jobs, but most had patched together incomes from retirement, disability, social security and welfare. Bombay Beach, with its cheap cost of living, had allowed them to etch out a simple, affordable livelihood. A mutual appreciation for the area was the sense of freedom that


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the open desert landscape and seascape provided. Likewise they shared a mutual dissatisfaction for California’s neglect of the Salton Sea. “This place used to be something,” explained Michael “Patch” Vance. “It’s a shame that they’ve let it come to this. All those dead fish out there. They need to clean this place up.” Two beers, a burger, and several conversations later, I prepared to leave. Deno Morgan offered me his place to stay for the night. I was touched by his generosity, but respectfully declined, and said, “good night,” to all my new friends.

[Above right] Deno Morgan, stands before one of the many deteriorating buildings in Bombay Beach, California. The community that was once a resort along the Salton Sea has clearly seen better days. [Bottom right] Floyd Barron takes in some California sunshine poolside at the Fountain of Youth Spa and RV Resort.

WHO IS GOING TO PAY As I drove to my motel, I thought about all the conversations I had with so many amazing people. To me, they are like pioneers toughing it out on the edge of an environmental wasteland, making the best of a bad situation, carving out their little piece of the American dream. I hope for them, that they will fight for that dream, that they will fight for the restoration of the sea. If all the residents throughout Imperial County united together, their voice would only be 180,000 strong. A small group in California standards, the odds are not in favor of the residents near and around the sea.

San Diego County, with over 3 million residents, needs its water, and as history shows the majority rules. But history shows us many things. It shows us that when we do not act as responsible caretakers of nature, we suffer the consequences economically as well as environmentally. As for the future, Barnum points out, “There is still the question of who’s responsible for Salton Sea restoration. Who’s liable for what? It’s still not clear. But the water transfer is still going through. San Diego is still getting its water. The Salton Sea is still shrinking. It's a matter of who is going to pay to restore it.”

Sea Sick | California’s Mistake of a Lake


Once partially submerged in water, trees struggle to survive in the middle of a salt flat that remains since the Salton Sea has receded.


Student photographic project.