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for people who care about the West

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.

 

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.

"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.)

The Audubon Society and other environmental groups oppose the Chrisman plan, saying the outrageously expensive recreational lake is just designed to appease developers.

Mike Cohen, a senior analyst with the Pacific Institute, favors a plan that would cost 75 percent less and focus more on wetlands development and dust control. It would also call for a 10,000-acre recreational lake fed by runoff from the Coachella Valley.

Given the elaborate uncertainties of the Chrisman plan, Cliff Dove and Bob Emmett don't think their own idea is all that quixotic.

"We're looking into the future," says Emmett. "It's already getting dusty."

 

In 1984, a drifter named Leonard Knight camped in the desert outside Niland, a little town on the eastern side of the Salton Sea that called itself the tomato capital of the world. Knight was 53, a Vermonter who'd come to the desert to fly his handmade parachute. He never could get the parachute to work; it eventually rotted.

Knight was stranded near a former World War II Marine training camp. Not much was left of old Camp Dunlap, just dozens of concrete slabs where buildings once stood. The land belonged to the state of California, which didn't object to squatters camping on the slabs.

A drifter could live like a king in Slab City. You didn't have to pay rent, you could bathe in nearby hot springs, you could dig your own latrine and buy food a few miles down the road in Niland. Best of all, no one asked about your past.

Leonard Knight stayed and built a mountain. For 24 years, he hauled water to his campsite in his old fire truck and mixed it with sand and straw donated by farmers. Today, the mountain is two stories tall and slathered with 150,000 gallons of gaudy Crayola-bright paint. A giant white cross stands at the top, with GOD IS LOVE painted below it in red and pink. Underneath this, Knight has painted a red heart and white lettering that says: JESUS I'M A SINNER PLEASE COME UPON MY BODY AND INTO MY HEART.

He calls this work in progress Salvation Mountain.

Knight is now 76 and a little hard of hearing. He's rail-thin, white-haired. Compared to many other Slab City area residents, Knight looks as if he just stepped out of the shower. (He uses the bathroom at a friend's place in Niland.) Knight wears immaculate thrift-shop outfits - today it's a striped shirt, gray jacket, black trousers, white sneakers.

A few years ago, California environmental officials sought to tear down Salvation Mountain, saying lead from the paint might be poisoning the soil. They changed their minds after locals and folk-art lovers protested.

If the Salton Sea dies, Knight and his mountain will be left in the middle of a dusty wasteland. On the other hand, if the Sea is restored and begins attracting a more upscale crowd of birders, golfers and boaters, it's hard to imagine Knight's universe surviving. Would habitues of waterfront suburbia tolerate Knight and his possibly lead-infested mountain, or Slab City residents with their hand-dug latrines?

Whatever happens, the future looks bleak for the hundreds of offbeat characters who, like the birds, have sought refuge here. If the Sea shrivels into a briny, fly-infested puddle, the communities that surround it may become ghost towns. But if it's restored, the area could boom, making it too pricey for the current inhabitants of Bombay Beach and Slab City.

It's already becoming expensive for Tugboat Willy. This is his 24th winter on the slabs, and he could barely afford the $300 gas bill to drive his Dodge van down from his digs in Klamath, Calif.

Willy is 62 and retired, the former owner of a group home for boys, he says. Like many others at the slabs, he doesn't give his last name. A self-described "bona fide Haight-Ashbury hippie" with a disease that causes brittle bones, Willy is drawn to "a free warm place in the wintertime."

The lifestyle suits him just fine. At Slab City, he parks where he wants and if he doesn't like his neighbors, he moves to another spot. He estimates that today Slab City is home to several hundred people. Some, like Willy, sleep in their vehicles, some in RVs, some sleep outside. They decorate their homesteads with American flags, furnish them with junkyard couches. Some scavenge the desert. The community is littered with old mattresses, tires, car parts, metal junk discarded by the Marines during World War II drills. You can find whatever you want in Slab City, as long as you don't want much. One slabber even runs a library, where Willy checks out Christian fiction.

Slab City also has a nightclub/community center of sorts - the Range. Guests can lounge on school-bus seats, discarded couches and La-Z-Boys and watch the activities on a stage sandwiched between two bus carcasses. Here, slabbers can square-dance or rave, and no one cares.

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.