A toxic lake with a glamorous past

One good way to procrastinate about writing is to do research.

Yesterday I was working on a ghost story set at the Salton Sea. My husband and I had been to the Salton Sea a few times. Twice we rode along the length of the giant saltwater lake with the HOGs (Harley Owners Group). Once we stayed at a nearby RV park with friends and went Jeeping along the north shore.

To a Californian accustomed to seeing hundreds of boats and jet skis on any body of water, it was amazing to see an empty lake with only birds flying above it. From a distance, the water looked bright blue, the blue of a calm ocean. It seemed out of place in the middle of a rocky, sandy desert surrounded by mountains.

After doing my research, now I understand the Salton Sea is an unfortunate and poisonous ditch.

The Salton Sea first appeared after man’s interference with the Colorado River. A canal broke in 1905, causing water to escape into a dry lakebed at the southern end of the San Andreas fault. At first, it was considered a lucky accident, and developers rushed in to build resorts. The state stocked it with saltwater fish to lure fishermen. The desert’s quiet was broken by the sound of ski boats and laughing families on vacation.

In the 1950’s, celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and Bing Cosby, came down from Palm Springs to hang out at The Ski Inn bar and The Waterfront. A state park was established near Bombay Beach, a small community at the water’s edge. People began to buy property in the area. It became an oasis in the desert.

However, as local farmers pumped out water and desalinated it for their date palm and citrus groves, the remaining water in the Salton Sea became more salty and polluted with pesticides. By the 1970s, fish started dying and people started having health problems. With only trickles of water entering the lake and no outlet, the Salton Sea became toxic to animal and plant life. Not exactly where you would want to spend your vacation.

When the Salton Sea flooded in the 1970s, it took away part of the small community of Bombay Beach. Small homes and trailers were stranded in the salty water. As they sank into the water, a white crust formed around them, making them appear to be melting. Looters took valuable copper wire and the rest was abandoned. A dike was built around the remainder of Bombay Beach to preserve what was left.

Then the artists came. They took the post-apocalyptic ruins and made them into art installations. A retro drive-in sign points to a group of rusted, broken down cars set up in rows, pointing toward a white semi-trailer representing a outdoor movie screen. A small fighter plane was set up as a sculpture. A ruined house was decorated with bright-colored children’s toys.

An accident. A tourist destination. A toxic ruin. An artistic statement. The Salton Sea is all those things and yet more. Perhaps it reveals the limitations of man’s control over nature. Maybe it reminds us that we don’t know it all.

That was how I spent my Sunday afternoon. Looking at photos and watching videos. Did I finish the short story I was working on? Not yet. But it was fun digging into the past life of the Salton Sea.

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