Friday, February 12, 2021

The Salton Sea Gets Nothing

Brenda - February, 2021

I don’t know what kind of funding, if any, the area around the Salton Sea gets.  But from the look of it, the answer is, “nothing.”  

What exactly is the Salton Sea, you ask?  It’s a depression in the earth, a sort of giant seismic slough, in
the Imperial Valley, almost all of which is contained within Imperial County, and where sits a shallow lake, about forty-three feet at its deepest, and that is about thirty-five miles by fifteen miles long and wide respectively.  It was once an enormous lake, about 2,200 square miles in size, and has filled, emptied, and refilled again over vast amounts of time as the Colorado River has spilled over its banks for various reasons.  

When people see it for the first time, they either hate it or they love it.  I’m the latter.  I discovered it by accident in about many years ago when I was coming back from San Diego, and having stopped in Oceanside, decided that and I wanted to see a town called Julian, where a cousin of mine had done a short film.  The little town nestled in the hills was known for its apple pies.  

Calipatria Inn
I took a gander at the town, downed a slice of apple pie, and then, for some reason, probably having something to do with having nothing to do, I kept driving west on State Route 78, crossed down into the dry vastness of the Anza-Borrego Desert, and then after some hours, slammed head on into the Salton Sea.  I ended up staying in Calipatria that night, having realized that I needed the rest of the weekend to figure out exactly what I had just found.  

Right now, and for the past two and a half decades that I have known the inland sea, it’s been receding.  I
Huts at Desert Shores
would estimate that it’s gone down at least fifteen to twenty feet in the time that I’ve known it.  That may not sound like a lot, but the lake, as I said, is very shallow, and so a drop of the water level means that the shoreline has receded by as much as a quarter mile from where it was in many places.  Also, the fish that used to be in it are mostly dead.  The lake is much too saline to support fish populations nowadays.  And you can smell it along the shorelines when it’s hot.

So what!  No one knows of the lake and no one goes there.  

Well, not true.  There is a long history of many people, famous people, the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers, and Desi Arnez, to name a few, who often went to the Salton Sea for water skiing, fishing, motor boating, golfing, and lots of other activities on, in, and around the lake.  

Picnic Table at Desert Shores

Old Interstate 99
, which ran from the border of Mexico in El Centro, up through Imperial, Brawley, Westmoreland and on to Indio and Palm Springs all the way up to the Canadian border, tangented up the southern side of the Salton Sea.  The old 99 is the current State Route 86S in that area.  So, this area was once a major thoroughfare before Interstate 5 was built a few hours to the west.  

But pretty much all of that is gone now, and those who live there live in mostly disheveled homes and trailers.  There are several communities around the lake including Salton City, Desert Shores and the Marina on the south side of the lake, and North Shore, Desert Beach, and Bombay Beach on the north side of the lake.  

And then there are also the peripheral communities just east of the lake including Niland, Calipatria,
Brenda in her Cabaret Get Up

Westmorland, and Brawley.  There are some really interesting things and people to see in these areas.  They live the way they want to out here with little interference from regulations.  These people like to live out away from the business and chaos of the big cities.

It takes a kind of rugged, leathered individual to live out in those parts for any real length of time.  It means making trips to one of the larger towns for groceries every once in a while, and it means that the people you see in the local bar or eatery, with the exception of the weekend tourist, are the only people you see regularly at all.  I know that I couldn't do it.  I'm probably not secure enough in my solitude for that long, though I wouldn't mind trying for a month and getting through an enormous number of books while doing so.

On the east side of the lake is a town called Niland.  Just east of there and past various irrigation canals that meander between the various agricultural parcels, and then yet further over several sets of railroad tracks, and a bit more of desert, there is an area called, Slab City.  

Slab City
This is a place where people just kind of live out in the desert in structures that they build and decorate in artistic ways.  It was once a government owned parcel of land, which was just left to the state and was abandoned beyond that point.  The people there are very solitary souls.

You’ll also find Salvation Mountain there.  A guy built a religious mountain out of stucco, hay and clay,

Salvation Mountain

which is vivid in pastel colors that always reminds me of the thick frosting that covers many cookies.  

As you pass through the town of Calipatria, you can drive just west out of the town to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. This area has a large, raised platform from which you can look all around at the wildlife and wetlands east of the Salton Sea.  It’s a very peaceful spot.  It’s on Sinclair and Gentry Roads.  

View from Sonny Bono Preserve

You can then head in a southerly direction to Brawley where they have such good Mexican Food.  Try Las Californias Foods, which is a Mexican restaurant that has the most authentic Mexican food I’ve ever had. I also like another spot in Brawley called, Inferno. They have a variety of dishes and they have a great outdoor patio where they often offer live music. 

Going further south to Holtville, there is a very old haunt called Barbara Worth Country Club. It is
Ski Bar Elev -236 ft

now owned by Ramada.  This place has a full golf course and facilities for banquets such as weddings.  And they also have a dining area and bar.  Friday and Saturday nights are busy there.  The steak is great, and their carne asada tacos and burgers are delicious because they are made from the same steak meat used for the more expensive dishes.  And inside the old lobby sits an old baby grand piano and large tables. You can just imagine the old time hob-nobbing and chit chat that used to go on amongst the old time travelers and vacationers.

This is an old watering hole.  When you look at the hallways adjacent to the bar, you will find the autographed and framed photos of famous celebrities of all kinds from all decades that have cooled their brakes and wet their lips here.  

The associated motel is old and is in need of some upkeep.  But there is something very quaint and peaceful about it all.  

Bombay Beach
And then down, just slightly south and west in El Centro, just south of Interstate 8, is a strip of food and shopping places on a street called Dogwood, where you can find all of the more contemporary department stores and restaurant chains.

Going further eastward towards the aptly named Chocolate Mountains because of their dark brown color and their milk chocolate taste, are the Imperial Dunes.  These are sands that over time have been blown from the Salton Sea eastward and have butted up against the Chocolate Mountains.  This is a major recreation area for RV and ATV activity.  
Imperial Dunes

There are various recreation sites, such as Glamis, which is one of several now defunct towns along an old Southern Pacific Railroad line supplying transportation to miners and their goods that included other towns such as Ogilby, Acolita, Clyde, and Ruthven, as well as another recreation area along the south side of Interstate 8.  People really enjoy getting out of town and nestling themselves into the dunes.  

Imperial Dunes
In the mornings, you’ll hear the crackle of bacon being cooked in aluminum pans, and then the gunning up of all terrain vehicles and motorcycles to hit the dunes.  These dunes are really big and long.  Only a portion of the dunes are set aside for ATV’ing.  But the dunes, really called the Algodones Dunes, of which the Imperial Dunes Recreation area is only a very small portion, stretches six miles deep and forty-five miles in length in a northwest to southeast direction.  

Then, near the Imperial Dunes if you hunt it down is the “Old Plank
Old Plank Road

.”  This was a road constructed of wood back in 1915 in order to move Model-T touring car era traffic over the Imperial Dunes from Yuma to San Diego and back.  There are such strange things to find around Imperial Valley!  

This isn’t Lake Tahoe, Bass Lake, or Crater Lake, surrounded by green pines and rugged terrain.  The areas around the Salton Sea are definitely desert, and nothing but desert, with the contrasting mixture of lands that have been watered, tilled, and made into farmland.  

So, why do I even spend the time writing about the Salton Sea?  It’s because I personally think that it is such a fascinating area of our great state of California, and it's really the center point of everything I have described here.  It’s a place where you get a kind of light that doesn’t exist in the larger metropolitan areas, nor smack in the middle of other deserts.  

Magic of Salton Sea
The water of the Salton Sea is mostly calm.  It’s stillness, combined with the uniformity of its gentle blue hue and the sky above, creates a kind of diffused light that makes for incredible picture taking, and because the lake has such a large footprint, it is accessible from many of areas around it.  

And when you go to the Salton Sea, you don’t feel like you are in any other area of California.  There are places nearby where palm trees line roads and there is deep green lushness, and yet, just nearby is some of the driest rock formations you'll ever see protruding out from the hillsides to the south of the lake.

On some of these southern rock outcrops next to State Route 86S, if you look carefully, you will see several old waterlines way up above you, say at seventy or so feet higher than the current water level, indicating how huge this and deep this lake has been at times.  

If you picture in your mind the higher altitude shorelines of the water level and extrapolate them out

Old Salton Sea Jetty
laterally, you can understand how the inland sea used to cover areas like Indio and Palm Springs in the way back times. The surface of the Salton Sea is about two-hundred and thirty-six feet below sea level.  And the depression’s bottom is actually lower than Badwater, California, which is considered the lowest natural flatland point in the United States.  

The tragedy in my opinion is that no one who has any power cares about it.  The state legislature couldn’t give a hoot about the Salton Sea, a place where millions of migratory birds land and rest, and where, if there were more water, several species
Ms. Magic Herself, Brenda

of fish could live and multiply.  It’s just not anywhere on their agenda.  The areas around the Salton Sea, including the residential homes, have been left to just kind of wither away.  If you walk around the various communities on either the north or south sides of the sea, it’s easy to see where there had been a lot more infrastructure back in the day.

There are remnants of old marinas, hotels, convention halls, bars, restaurants, most of which are structures that have been left to rot in the wind, or are simply cement foundations with maybe a part of a barely standing wall crumbling away.  And there are also homes built
Old Canal Homes
in and around the fingers of the Desert Shores canals, reminiscent of the Venice Canals in the L.A. area.  However, the water level is so low that none of the canals have much or any water in them.  So these houses sit on either side of the canals looking into what are now just huge grooves in the earth.  

There have been attempts over the years to try to get some funding and some programs to kind of give the area a restart, but nothing ever seems to take root.  

Desert Shores
One could argue that the Salton Sea’s increase and decrease in water level has gone on for millions of years, and that we’re just in one of those decreasing cycles.  And on top of that, the economy of the area from the 1950’s has moved further westward, along with the main driving arteries of California.  It’s just all in a given area’s natural life.  The fact is, though, that in not too much time for now, this lake will be gone.  The water evaporates quickly because of it’s lack of depth and due to the high summer temperatures that occurs there.  

And let me stop right here in case that last sentenced slipped by you.  It gets hot in the Imperial Valley
Chocolate Mountains

during the summertime.  Hot like you may have never experienced before.  I mean, for goodness’ sake, the closest weather reading center to the Salton Sea is called "Thermal," of all names.  Go head, take a look at it on your iPhone weather app.  If it’s winter when you’re reading this, then the temps will be maybe slightly higher than where you are now.  But when it’s summertime, temperatures of 119 are not that out of the normal here.  

The Artistry of Salton Sea

And in addition, it gets extremely humid around the Salton Sea when it’s hot.  This is because the Salton Sea evaporates constantly during the heat, and because there is so much farmland, some to the west, but a lot to the east and south of the Salton Sea, that all of that agricultural irrigation and evaporation creates a kind of humid air full of bugs that is probably not unlike Alabama in the summers.  I mean, think about that.  Say, 119 degrees at 10:00pm with extremely high humidity and buggy-boo's flying around.  It makes me laugh.  

I can’t explain why, but I just love that oppressive, humid heat at night in areas such as Calipatria,
Irrigation Locks by Niland

Brawley, and Holtville.  I really think that most people wouldn’t like it and would want to get inside. But something about it makes me feel so alive and invigorated that all I want to do is to drive around in this hot, night air.  It’s inexplicable and a little strange, I admit.  But I think it's because this area is so completely different from where I grew up.

The only refilling of the the Salton Sea occurs from the three rivers that supply water to it, the New River and the Alamo River, both on the eastern side, and the Whitewater River on the west side of it.  The Whitewater River, by the way, by the time it gets to even Palm Desert and Indio from the San Bernardino Mountains, is almost always bone dry.  

Slab City home...uh, okay
And the New River and Alamo River both supply the Salton Sea with just a very little amount of agricultural runoff, and are, by the way, somewhat polluted at times because they both have portions that run through Mexico where some of their industrial waste is thrown into the river before they enter the United States; a country that is not known for a strict EPA program.  

The problem, as I see it, is that there is no consistent supply of clean water that is sent into the Salton Sea.  I am aware that California’s State Water Project and the California
Imperial Dunes

combined series of aqueducts are generally leaned on heavily for other needs in California, such as for agriculture in the Central Valley, and for human drinking water consumption in the many large cities that comprise Southern California.  

But what I would like to see would be for an aqueduct to be built directly to the Salton Sea for the purpose of intermittently filling it up a bit.  This doesn’t have to be something that is always turned on.  But really folks, how long would it take to add, say, fifteen or twenty feet of water to the Salton Sea?  Would it take month or two?  

Imperial Dunes
This way, if say, every couple of years, water is sent via this new aqueduct to the Salton Sea, the salinity of the water would go down greatly, nearby communities would benefit as more people would visit the lake to swim, fish, water ski, boat, jet ski, and lounge around in the warmth of the California sunshine.  And an additional effect would be that the proportion of dirtier from the New and the Alamo Rivers would be greatly reduced as new waters would increase the concentration of clean water in the lake.  

I have a photo of myself standing by my blue Corvette next to the Salton Sea in about 2004.  The water is
sitting almost right next to my car, and my car is simply on a dirt road next to the lake.  The water level at this spot is now so far out from where I was standing that you’d have to see it to believe it.  
Me with my Corvette - Desert Shores

There are so many ways to move water around the United States using aqueducts.  I wrote an article a while back called, "The Great Lakes' Waterways," in which I propose that a Federal “New Deal” style project be commenced in order to construct some aqueducts from the Great Lakes to parts of the country that are in need of water.  There is a seemingly endless supply of water up there, and yet, here at the Salton Sea, there is nearly none available.

Very Far East of Calipatria
I just hope that the Salton Sea isn’t left by Californians to dry out and die.  It would be too bad, especially because we have the capacity to avoid it.  

In the mean time, I’ll always make my occasional visits to the Salton Sea and surrounding areas.  I’ll relish on the best Mexican food that there is in this state.  

I’ll enjoy the quietness and tranquility that seems to permeate the beautiful

Bombay Beach
loneliness of the Sonoran Desert, as if a placid veil somehow enshrouds this special, overlooked part of California and it’s history, and whispers to me, "You are in your home away from home, Fred.  Enjoy!" ; the silence broken only by the yellow and red Union Pacific freight trains that skate up and down the nearby tracks moving the nation’s cargo from coast to coast several times a day.  

Ahhh, I am already there in my mind!

My Quiet Place - The Salton Sea