What does man seek? Whatever it is, it may have died in the Salton Sea.
December 16, 2014 9:30 PM   Subscribe

KQED has been posting its Truly CA documentary videos on YouTube, including Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a touching look at the rise and fall of the accidental ocean that is less than 100 years old in its current form, narrated by John Waters and featuring interviews from residents who have seen its better times.

Though the documentary is a decade old, the related website is still up and active, but some of the outbound links are dead, which seems oddly fitting.

The region has been well documented, in photographs (etc., etc.) and film, to the point that a Vice correspondant was asked if he was filming a documentary when he went out to visit the inland ocean, apparently just because he was an outsider with a camera. The Salton Sea even got a gonzo-type write-up in National Geographic. Some depictions might make you wonder if anyone still lives there, but Virginia Wilcox captured a few people who live in Bombay Beach, the lowest community in the United States at 223 feet below sea level.

The other two communities captured in Plagues & Pleasures are Niland and Salton City. The former is better known for its proximity to Salvation Mountain (previously, and again for Leonard Knight's passing), while the latter is in the unique position of having a growing population, though the threat of the Salton Sea actually disappearing has residents worried. The Salton Sea Authority is the governmental body in charge of "overseeing the comprehensive restoration of the Salton Sea," but the task before them is daunting. This past September, the non-profit Pacific Institute released their report on the costs of inaction regarding the maintenance of the Salton Sea, stating
The consequences of continued inaction at the Salton Sea will be felt most directly by the 650,000 people who live in harm’s way of the Salton Sea's dust, as well as by the birds and other life that depend on the lake.
If you'd like to visit the large saltwater basin while it still exists, Greetings from the Salton Sea has a map and description of more locations around the sea, and Desert USA has a (dated?) description of camping locations.
posted by filthy light thief (12 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I visited the area for the first about a year ago. If you ever go, and you should, don't miss the International Banana Museum. Have the best banana milkshake ever and listen to the guy behind the counter. Admittance to the museum is free with the purchase of a milkshake. Also don't miss Salvation Mountain, that is pretty special too.
posted by Long Way To Go at 10:13 PM on December 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

We were driving through a couple years ago along the western shore and at Salton Sea Beach I decided to drive in and check out what things are like, see some cool abandoned stuff, and find a place with a bathroom I could use. There was actually a store that had an open sign. I went in and immediately got a weird feeling like I was trespassing in somebody's house. I asked to use the bathroom, and once that was done, I felt like I had to buy something. I looked around desperately. You could tell they hadn't restocked in years and all they had left was the stuff nobody wanted. I eventually found a can of off brand root beer, paid, and left. Once back in the car, the one sip I took was flat and odd tasting.

I went expecting some interesting scenes of abandonment but those scenes were real and real people still live there trying to make things work. I felt awful for gawking.
posted by zsazsa at 10:28 PM on December 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

The asthma rates downwind of that are shocking.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:59 AM on December 17, 2014

The Salton Sea alwys reminds me of The Monster That Challenged the World, which was set there. Nothing's better that watching Hans Conreid try to convince the audience that we're in peril due to an attack by giant snails.
posted by unreason at 3:20 AM on December 17, 2014

Huh. Interesting ecological experiment: a brand new inland sea with no drainage, fluctuating water levels, and rapidly-increasing salinity that already is higher than the ocean. You wouldn't expect anything to live there but apparently tilapia can hack it, as well as desert pupfish (which are endangered), and it's one of the biggest avian hotshots in the continental US. Plus, of course, whatever smaller things the aforementioned fish and birds are living off of. It's kind of an inverted island, and so new (and isolated, and inhospitable) that it's ecology is hardly stable—yet it has an ecology, and a valuable one from a conservation standpoint as it provides habitat for endangered species and a valuable food source and migration stop for many birds.

I'd really be interested to learn about what the trophic networks in the Salton Sea look like, and what the succession process has looked like since the sea was formed. Really cool, from an ecology standpoint. Also a great example of the unexpected and equivocal ways in which human activities affect the rest of the biosphere and are affected by it in turn. I had no idea.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:46 AM on December 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The, a few comments - this isn't the first time the Salton Sink has become the Salton Sea. A key reason that there's still water in the Salton Sea now is the irrigation run-off from agriculture in the Imperil Valley. And part of the reason for the flurry of bird activity is the reduction in wetlands elsewhere in southern California, due to increased development.

Unintended consequences, all around.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:17 AM on December 17, 2014

The documentary is truly worth watching. I purchased a copy of the DVD back in 2007, I think maybe a pre-purchase in the time-before-Kickstarter. It's well done, sympathetic and personal. The John Waters narrative is a bit of an odd choice, I think he just read the words in front of him and had no connection to the project. But it gives the documentary a little star power and he's a good narrator.

The main takeaway I got other than "kooky place" was the poverty of folks living there. Particularly some recent immigrants, arbitraging relatively large welfare checks from LA to live in relatively cheap nowhere.
posted by Nelson at 9:58 AM on December 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Great post. But you can't mention the Salton Sea without mentioning William Vollmann's trek(s) there (expanded into the book Imperial, all 1306 pages of it). There's a great Wired write-up from 2012 too, and another great piece from 2008 by Terry Greene Sterling. And there's Salt Dreams, by William deBuys, with photos by Joan Myers -- great book. Matters involving the Salton Sea and its residents aren't really helped, unfortunately, by tourists and snide "journalists" who come there scratching their heads at and asking stupid questions of the people living there, looking for "roadside attractions" to gawk at, facile "Candy Land meets Vacation Bible School" comparisons to make, and smarmy exposés of the "fetid bouillabaisse" (Vice's words) to hatch.

What's even scarier is that the population of Imperial County, which by most measures is the poorest and most resource-starved part of California, is expected to double by 2060. There are few places left in California that are cheap to live anymore, and Imperial County fits the bill. For now.
posted by blucevalo at 10:06 AM on December 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nelson, good summary of the documentary. At first, it comes off as a bit of drive-by grief-documenting (a term from the Vice article), but then there are more comments from the people who live there, and it's a very sympathetic telling of their plight. People stranded there because they bought the land before Hurricane Kathleen in 1976, which was the last disaster to really wreck any hopes of the Salton Sea supporting any resort development, or because it's cheaper (and safer!) than El Centro.

blucevalo, cheap land and housing are the hopes for The Landman, Manny Diaz, and the few other real estate agents in the area.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:00 AM on December 17, 2014

The Lady Fez and I made the trip out to the Salton Sea when we last visited LA. I've got a thing for urban ruins and the area has that in spades. Except it's still also somewhat inhabited. Once we realized that, it was a lot less enjoyable and felt more like disaster porn. Bombay Beach was straight-up dystopian.

There had been a recent (recurring?) tilapia kill on the east shore and when we got out at the park to walk around a bit without being all up in someone's poverty, the fly swarm was something out of a horror show. We stopped by the museum and bought up a bunch of books--history and bird watching--and got some great photos. There is some really cool stuff out there.

It was a unique experience and if I could convince my employer to allow me to telecommute and I could find a decent broadband connection, I'd buy one of those fancy houses for $10K and relocate. But not in Bombay Beach. Way too Mad Max, that place.
posted by Fezboy! at 12:51 PM on December 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

BTW this is only tangentially related, but I really like Ed Freeman's Desert Realty photos. I don't know how many of them are specifically from the Salton Sea area but they are definitely in the SoCal ruin vibe.
posted by Nelson at 3:55 PM on December 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was a selection of the late, lamented Ironweed Film Club - I haven't watched it again since it came in the mail one month from Ironweed, but I remember it as being enjoyable. It was a lot like Vernon, Florida without so much of Errol Morris laid over the top.
posted by jkosmicki at 5:50 AM on December 18, 2014

« Older It's All About That Neis (...and those Latkes)   |   There must be something ghostly in the air of... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments