"It's the same old shit all the time, it's been the same story for 35 years," says Wacko. "They'll just let the Sea go. They are going to let it dry up."

Only Sonny Bono could have saved the Sea, Wacko believes. The '60s-crooner-turned-Republican-congressman had long advocated for its restoration, He died in a 1998 skiing accident, however, and his widow, Mary, was elected to his seat. Last year, she supported a $10 million federal appropriation to restore the Sea - a fraction of the estimated multibillion-dollar cost of restoration. Although Sonny remains a Bombay Beach icon, most locals feel disappointed by Mary. (Mary Bono did not respond to a request made through her press office for an interview.)

Wacko looks at it this way: Both he and the Sea will die, and he hopes he dies first.

 

Cliff Dove was crippled by a work-related spinal injury in 1973, when he was a 43-year-old So-Cal electronics contractor. He sold his business and embarked with his wife, Kathy, on an offbeat life of travel. The Doves now winter in a vintage Silver Streak trailer at Bashford's Hot Mineral Spa, just a few miles southeast of Bombay Beach.

The spa's warm thermal baths soothe the aches and pains of many of the septuagenarian snowbirds who winter here. The RV park sits beneath the Chocolate Mountains, sparsely vegetated umber-hued hills that from a distance resemble soft Play-Doh shaped and imprinted by a child's fingers.

One of several micro-communities that rim the Sea, Bashford's Hot Mineral Spa is a beacon of post-war 1950s white suburban Ozzie-and-Harriet joie de vivre.

The snowbirds seem hell-bent on being happy. Drawn to the area because it's cheap, and reasonably close to good docs in the LA vicinity, they have plenty to gripe about; many suffer chronic pain and the dollar isn't what it used to be. But instead, they tool around in their golf carts to potlucks, exercise classes, swap meets, cocktail parties, barbecues and dances in the multipurpose room. They decorate their RV spaces with cheery miniature windmills, watermelon-pink plastic flamingoes, green shamrocks and brown saguaros. Yet behind their carefree, kitschy front yards, the retirees at Bashford's Hot Mineral Spa are aware of the plight of the Sea. On a winter afternoon, "fashion show" participants line up outside the multipurpose room. Plastic measuring cups dangle from the head of Jim Smith, a 67-year-old retired truck driver dressed in a turquoise-blue pajama top and shiny gold pants. He stands in front of a golf cart that says I brake for boiled peanuts and worries that classism will turn the Sea into a "mud hole." The government won't "get off its butt and do something," Smith says, because the demise of the Sea "won't directly affect the right people."

Three elderly fashion show "can-can girls" wearing skirts made of clanging beer cans fret that a neglected Sea will render the world a less hospitable place for their grandkids.

Willis Thomas, a 67-year-old retired school custodian from Oregon who came to Bashford's to "find his tribe," is convinced profiteering corporations are behind the Sea's impending demise. It all fits in with his vision of the future, which includes the end of the world in 2012.

Cliff Dove and his neighbor, Bob Emmett, a retired chemical engineer, are the only Bashford's snowbirds to turn into actual environmental activists. This morning, the two friends are sipping coffee in Dove's trailer. The radio plays "The Way You Look Tonight," and Dove sits at a small table covered with maps, calculations, tidal charts. He has thinning white hair, direct blue eyes, a substantial moustache. Emmett, a thin, intense man with a full head of gray hair, wears a golf shirt and jeans.

The two 77-year-olds have no idea if they'll even be alive in 2018, when an untreated Sea would start shrinking dramatically. Nevertheless, they care deeply about the damage a dry sea would wreak on future generations. They've come up with a restoration plan that amounts to uber dialysis: transporting Salton Sea water via canals into Mexico's Laguna Salada, less than 100 miles to the south, and replenishing the Sea with water from the Gulf of California.

State and federal officials said their plan was too costly, was diplomatically unfeasible, and would damage Mexico's delicate Colorado River Delta. But Dove and Emmett believe their idea was too hastily dismissed.

Neither of them holds out hope that the state of California will restore the Sea. In May 2007, Mike Chrisman, California's secretary of resources, proposed an $8.9 billion, 75-year restoration plan. Chrisman suggested reconfiguring the Sea into a 45,000-acre horseshoe-shaped lake held in place by massive, expensive rock walls. "Brine sinks" would collect the salts that would need to be leached out of both the new lake and the proposed 62,000 acres of wetlands. Dust from the newly exposed bed of the former Sea would be controlled by creating bird habitat, planting salt-loving plants and, ironically, irrigating. The water would come from two agricultural drainage canals at the lake's south end.

(One of these canals, the so-called "New River," originates 60 miles south in Mexico and carries industrial waste and sewage into the United States. Although residents on the U.S. side of the border are hopping mad about this, officials say the water is safely diluted with agricultural runoff by the time it gets to the Sea.)