The People of the Sea

California's Salton Sea could dry up and die, or be fixed and developed. Either way, its renegades, recluses, ruffians and retirees will lose.

  • Salton City, California

  • “Rat’s Nest” in Slab City on the Salton

  • Salton Sea eccentrics include Willis Thomas, who says he's

  • "Can-can girls" at a fashion show

  • The Rev. Leonard Knight and his Salvation

  • Abandoned trailer in an unnatural-looking pool in Bombay

  • Instead of sand, the shores of the Salton Sea are deep in

  • Rick Davis does his part by adding a gallon of fresh water


The village of Bombay Beach, Calif., is quiet, save for the occasional screams of gulls on the nearby Salton Sea. It's 10:30 a.m. on a winter morning. Gusts of wind flecked with sand and salt whip for-sale signs in front of broken-down mobile homes and boarded-up bungalows. Front yards and empty lots are strewn with the relics of lost hope - an abandoned green motorboat tagged with graffiti, lifeless sedans, rotting camper shells, piles of used clothing, filthy couches, broken bottles, plastic garbage bags.

Eight years ago, census takers counted 366 residents in Bombay Beach; it's unclear how many live here now. Bombay Beach does not attract many newcomers. The current townies tend to stick to themselves, gathering for entertainment at the town's popular bar, the Ski Inn, where Mayor Wacko holds court.

On this particular morning, Wacko sits on a barstool, sipping a pink drink. His real name is Wayne Graham, but he prefers his nickname, which someone gave him years ago for reasons he can't remember. He is not really the mayor, either; his bar friends gave him the title and it stuck. He is 70, thick-set, with a gray walrus moustache and sad blue eyes. He struggles to compete with a TV tuned to a World War II movie with lots of explosions and a woman at the end of the bar who's bellowing that she's thinner than most of the old cows in Bombay Beach.

Wacko has been enchanted with the Salton Sea for 35 years, ever since he worked for the telephone company in Long Beach. He remembers the waning heyday of the Sea, back in the 1970s, when it was still known as California's Riviera. Cars lined up for miles to get a beachside camping spot. Tourists came to fish for orange-mouthed corvina, to race speedboats and water-ski, to spot celebs like Sonny Bono and Frank Sinatra. They came to escape the frenzy of Los Angeles, just 180 miles or so to the west.

Mayor Wacko escaped to the Sea practically every weekend. He drank until Sunday evening and somehow got himself back to the city in time for work, swearing never to drink again. Then he'd return to the Sea the next weekend and repeat the cycle.

He loved the isolation, the fishing, the beauty of the silver lake encircled by stark mountains. Eventually, he retired to Bombay Beach and leased a bar there. Things went OK until a deluge of irrigation water from Imperial Valley farms raised the sea's water level and flooded Wacko's bar and just about every other building on the Bombay Beach shore. When the Sea retreated, it left a wasteland of rotted buildings and vehicles resting on salt-white barnacle shells and fish bones.

This bizarre body of water isn't really a sea at all; it's a land-locked agricultural drainage sump 35 miles long and 15 miles wide and up to 50 feet deep in places. It sits in the Salton Sink, a below-sea-level trough embedded in one of the hottest deserts in North America. For thousands of years, the dry Salton Sink periodically morphed into a lake whenever the flooding Colorado River silted its own channel, jumped its banks, and careened crazily into the Sink. Because the Salton Sink has no outlet, the floodwater eventually evaporated, and the Sink reverted to a dry lakebed.

Then man stepped in.

In 1905, when engineers diverted the waters of the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River crashed through a canal bank and roared into its old digs at the Salton Sink. It took over a year to coax the Colorado back into its natural channel, and by then the Salton Sea had been created. This time, it wasn't allowed to dry up.

For a century now, the Sea has been sustained by irrigation waters that drain from the nearby Imperial Valley and Mexico. This water replaced the roughly 1.3 million acre-feet of water that was lost through evaporation. It also dumps tens of thousands of tons of fertilizer and four million tons of salt into the Sea every year, according to the Pacific Institute, an independent think tank that studies, among other things, environmental and sustainability issues. Today the Sea is saltier than the ocean. Its nutrient-rich waters periodically belch up pockets of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia that kill off thousands of tilapia, one of the few fish that can survive the salty swill.

The increasing salinity and pollution, combined with a long-term water transfer from Imperial Valley farmers to thirsty Southern California coastal cities, threaten to destroy the Sea and the creatures - and culture - that rely on it.

The Sea's elevation has dropped over one foot in the past five years, the Pacific Institute says, and exposed about 3,500 acres of lakebed. Once the water transfers take full effect in 2018, it's expected to shrink by about 40 percent.

Here's the problem: If the Sea is allowed to dry without treatment, it will generate 17 tons of unhealthy dust a day, according to the Pacific Institute. Winds pebbled with stinking salty sand will sicken asthmatics, children and the elderly. Crops in the nation's winter salad bowl - the Imperial Valley - will be harmed. In short, if nothing is done to restore the Salton Sea by 2018, we'll all feel the fallout.

First to suffer will be Imperial County residents in the path of prevailing southeast winds, who already suffer from a high childhood asthma rate. Tony resort communities like Palm Springs, some 80 miles to the west, would also be hurt. And the millions of birds on the Pacific Flyway that rely on the Sea as a substitute wetlands, now that California has destroyed almost 95 percent of its natural wetlands, would have no place to go.

But so far, little has been done to save the Sea. In January, the federal Bureau of Reclamation proposed a restoration plan so ponderous and slow-moving that it essentially puts the onus of fixing the mess onto the state, which is legally bound by water agreements to restore the Sea.

Even so, the California Legislature has yet to formally adopt a restoration plan or choose an agency to lead the restoration. Nor has it found the dollars to do the work. That's due to a budget crisis, and perhaps to the fact that birds - and the smattering of retirees, renegades, ruffians and recluses who live at the Sea - have little voice in the Sacramento Statehouse.