Lately, though, Willy's noticed tension between the law-abiding slabbers and certain others, who "lean towards heavy alcohol and meth, and act like it's the Wild West."

"Their lives are at the lowest end of the low," says Willy. "Outside of where the next can of beer comes from and where their water comes from for the next day, they don't have much to do. There are a lot of damaged people here, physically or mentally." (Neither the Imperial County Sheriff's Office nor the chief of the volunteer Niland Fire Department, which is occasionally called out for emergencies, returned calls seeking comment on crime rates at Slab City.)

Willy doesn't go down to the Sea as much as he used to; it stinks sometimes, and mummified tilapia dot the beaches. Once, Willy's poodle fell in, and even though Willy shampooed the dog repeatedly, it took months for the green-brown stain to wear off. "The Salton Sea could be a real gem," he says, "but it would cost a few billion dollars."

And at Slab City, that much money is impossible to imagine.

 

California State Highway 111 runs north and south along the east shore of the Salton Sea. Once the road passes Niland heading south, old school buses filled with lettuce pickers begin to whiz past, towing portable toilets on their way to Imperial Valley farms. "No Trespassing" signs are tacked onto bales of hay in front of farmhouses, sheep graze in fallow fields, yearling calves nosh alfalfa. On the Sea's south end, six CalEnergy geothermal power plants shoot up fat geysers of steam as tens of thousands of migratory birds swoop down into the small and crowded Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Birds are everywhere. Some compete with crop dusters for airspace. Others dive for fish in ditches full of khaki-colored agricultural runoff destined for the Sea. Biologists worry about the effects of those agricultural fertilizers, which can cause the die-offs of pile worms and fish, two key food sources for the Salton Sea's birds.

If the Sea is not restored, the Pacific Flyway's birds will be in big trouble. But so far, state and federal governments have set aside only about $87 million, which would just about cover permitting procedures and the beginnings of the critical "early start" bird habitat restoration.

"Early start habitat will cost at least $120 million," says Dale Hoffman-Floerke, who works on the Salton Sea restoration for the California Department of Water Resources. Clearly, more money is needed.

"Things could be better, but they aren't dire at this point," she says bravely. "We're still actively pushing solutions."

Hoffman-Floerke has withstood the wrath of locals in public meetings and knows that "whatever happens to the Sea" will impact the people living on its shore, and some "may never be happy with what we do." "People bought their homes believing a body of water would always be near it," she says.

"That might not be the case."

State Highway 111 intersects with State Highway 86 near Brawley, which is directly downwind of the Sea and gets a considerable share of its reek and dust. It's no coincidence that Imperial County has the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rates in the state.

As Highway 86 travels north up the western shore of the Sea, agribusiness gives way to yet another landscape of broken dreams and destroyed communities. Marina Drive leads into Salton City, a once-bustling tourist town now fringed with half-finished housing developments. Dozens of homes are advertised for rent or for sale, and signs along the road ask: Credit less than perfect?

 

The motel near the town's dead marina, Johnson's Landing, is for sale. A sign on the boat ramp recalls the glory days of sports fishing, boasting that the Salton Sea is stocked with gulf croaker, corvina, and sargo. Today, those fish are long gone, as are the queues of boats that once formed at the ramp.

"I haven't seen a boat in the water in over three years now," says Rick Davis, a longtime Salton City resident who helped build the boat ramp decades ago.

Davis stands by the ramp late on a winter afternoon. The sun casts honey-colored light on the desert mountains, and the Sea is silver and still. The sight comforts him, for he regards the Salton as an old, old friend.

He has lived at the Sea most of his life. His family moved here in 1963; his father, who had been in the military, suffered respiratory problems, and the family was told the Sea would soothe his lungs. As a teenager, Davis bused tables at the busy Salton City Yacht Club and worked at the golf course near the Holly House restaurant. He met Sonny and Cher once, when they came to Salton City to perform and hang out.

By the time his own three kids were teens, Salton City was dead. The few youngsters remaining in the area had little to do. Davis organized hikes and trips, taught the kids to love the desert.

Davis is now 54 years old, and has a receding hairline and grey moustache. A ring tattoo wraps around one finger. He walks stiffly due to injuries he got on the job - he's a heavy equipment operator.

The mere sight of the Sea fuels what he calls his 1960s-style activism, which involves publicizing the Sea's plight and persuading people to sign petitions to restore it to its former glory. Thanks to the Internet, and the few German tourists who stop at the Sea en route to Death Valley, he says his petition drive is taking off. He hopes to organize all the communities that ring the Sea to push for its full restoration.

"The government broke the Sea," he says. "The government can fix it."

The way he sees it, restoring the Sea would restore tourism, which would bring jobs to the economically depressed area. And if a suddenly booming economy were to drive out the drifters and the renegades who don't want to work and couldn't afford to live there, he says, "It's unfortunate, it's sad, but that's the way life is."

To bring attention to the Sea's plight, he organized a New Year's Day event. Locals poured gallons of fresh water into the Salton to reduce its growing salinity. Davis has vowed to pour seven gallons of fresh water each week into the Sea's foul waters.

It's just a symbolic act, he knows, but it's also an act of hope.

 

Terry Greene Sterling is an award winning Arizona journalist whose work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post, Newsweek.com, salon.com and Phoenix New Times. This is her first piece for High Country News.