California Sketches: For the Salton Sea, imagining the possibilities

06/15/2014 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 12:00 PM

The North Shore Beach Yacht Club opened in the early 1960s, attracting a glamorous crowd – Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and the Beach Boys. An hour southeast of Palm Springs, California’s largest lake attracted thousands who came to fish, camp and boat. Salt water provided a perfect venue for regattas.

Today, the boats are gone and so are the stars. Choppy, steel-colored water rolls up beaches bleached with salt. Gulls hover; one white egret hunts. It appears to be a forsaken landscape. But there is hope for the rehabilitation of the Salton Sea. The yacht club, flooded and abandoned since the 1980s, was renovated in 2010 as a community center. The maritime-themed building boasts fresh exteriors in yellow, aqua, nautical blue. Flags signal bright spots of optimism, as experts race against time to save this desert lake and avoid further environmental disaster.

Long ago, locals called this place “the valley of death.” At the turn of the last century, visionaries diverted the Colorado River and transformed the south and north ends of the basin into the Imperial and Coachella valleys. Developers brought settlers who irrigated hundreds of thousands of acres, turning desert into productive farmland with long growing seasons, especially for winter fruit and vegetables.

Perpetuated by little rain, a few rivers and agricultural runoff, the Salton Sea has been out of balance since the 1980s. This fertilized soup of selenium, nitrate, phosphate, chromium and algae blooms is toxic for birds, fish and humans. Evaporation and water transfers intensify concentrations of salt.

A friend of mine visited the lake years ago, and described “the unbelievable stench … Dead fish lined the shoreline, and heading in to shore were the flopping bodies of fish in their final throes. And farther out, you could see fish jumping, as if they were trying to get the hell out of that water.”

On a cool day this spring, the Salton Sea conceals the drama of summer heat, dust, die-offs, odor and crisis. Neighboring wetlands, one of several lush habitats around the lake, shelter wildlife. Year round, millions of birds stop here – more than 400 species navigating the Pacific Flyway from the Arctic to Argentina – floating, flying, feeding and nesting.

The Salton Sea has been a place more notorious for beauty forsaken than for opportunities. Jay Lund, of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, says that “three flows are important for the Salton Sea: water, wildfowl and money.” Cleaner water, in the form of treatment facilities, salt evaporation ponds and wetland restoration, will benefit waterfowl. As for money, any strategy will cost a lot.

The rehabilitated yacht club is a symbolic step toward fixing the Salton Sea. No one solution, but a concert of collaboration may foster equilibrium. Imagine what this place could be, full of life and possibility.

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