The Last Resort

History has not been kind to this tiny former resort town.

At 223 feet below sea level, it is the lowest community in the United States and one of the poorest. Over the last fifty years there have been many lows and not much else. Where did the highs of the 1950s go? The answer lies within the Salton Sea. Without this largest accidental lake, Bombay Beach wouldn't exist today.

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 by the engineers of the California Development Company to provide water to the Imperial Valley for farming. They dug an irrigation canal from the Colorado River (this area of the Sonoran is also known as the Colorado desert) to the Old Alamo River. When heavy silt buildup slowed the water flow down, the engineers made a series of cuts in the bank of the Colorado River. These cuts sent an overwhelming amount of water flowing into the Salton Basin for two whole years (at that point, a dry lakebed) before repairs put an end to the flood.

The result was the creation of the Salton Sea, California's largest lake. It was fed by a combination of rain (limited effect in the desert), irrigation runoff from nearby farms, and outflow from the New and Alamo rivers (both highly polluted).

Mid-century Bombay Beach boomed. Its sandy beaches and warm water attracted families during the 1950s and 60s. Celebrities like Rock Hudson water skied and Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis yachted with friends. Lured by the flocking masses, hotels, motels, casinos, yacht and golf clubs were established along the shoreline on both sides.

By the late 1970s, however, the Salton ecosystem was in serious trouble. Lacking outflow, sufficient annual rainfall, and full off toxic farm runoff, the sea was packed with pesticides and saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

Evaporation increased the salinity of the water, killing millions of fish and birds (avian cholera). Algae blooms sucked the oxygen right out of the water. Tilapia shrivelled and bleached under the relentless sun until the beach was a mass of white fish skeletons No one wants to visit an apocalyptic ghost town for a day at the beach. As soon as the Salton sea grew sick, tourists stayed away. The beachfront economy collapsed and locals left. Now as it grows sicker, it threatens the health of the locals who have nowhere to go.

Salton mud contains arsenic, selenium, chromium, zinc, lead, and DDT. As the sea evaporates and recedes, it exposes thousands of acres of toxic sediment to hot, dry winds. There’s no way to remove these toxic chemicals. The most plausible solution is to make sure they can’t travel beyond the confines of the lake itself by limiting future evaporation and shore recession.

Until recently, lake levels have been fed by Colorado River water under a 2003 agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and the San Diego County Water Authority.  This would purportedly give the state enough time to develop and fund wetlands to moisten the exposed lake bed and build a sustainable ecosystem to attract and support birds migrating along the Pacific flyway. After fifteen years, the water mitigation agreement ended in 2018 without any wetland progress whatsoever.

The Salton Sea is a political and environmental afterthought. Politicians and lawmakers have avoided remediation programs for decades. Simply put, it’s a poor, underpopulated desert wasteland too far from more politically significant urban centres like San Diego and Los Angeles. Sadly, there is little political will to protect this area from the looming environmental and public health disaster that is clearly imminent.