Salton Sea

Instant Paradise:
A Story of Failure and Accidental Beauty

Text by Steven Bosmans and Michael Langeder
As published in San Rocco 03: Mistakes

“You can go up a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west . . . And with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

“Losing faith is a complicated business and takes time.”

Thomas Pynchon, V.

In Roman Polanski’s movie Chinatown, Jack Nicholson plays the role of a private investigator carrying out matrimonial surveillance of the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The plot narrates the detective’s slow unfurling of clues and events as he is faced with a situation he cannot fully comprehend. Chinatown becomes a metaphor for that which is unfathomable – a place (or state of mind) in which codes of conduct cannot truly apply and events may occur for no apparent reason.

In 1905, with Los Angeles embroiled in its Water Wars, the southern Californian area around Imperial Valley had to face quite a contrary situation. The Salton Sea, California’s largest inland body of water, was formed when a combination of heavy rainfall and engineering mistakes led the Colorado River to flood just below the US–Mexico border. For over two years, the Colorado River gradually filled the natural depression previously known as the Salton Sink, suddenly creating an oasis where previously there had been mere desert.

Initially the event was regarded as a colossal embarrassment. However, when the breach was finally stopped, the seductive force of this refreshing body of water in the California desert proved irresistable, and real estate developers immediately grasped the economic opportunities it represented. During the following decades numerous attempts at urban exploitation were undertaken; California had once again struck gold. Holiday resorts and an extensive entertainment programme along the shores of the Salton Sea attracted hordes of people from the surrounding area. Tourism flourished; Frank Sinatra, President Eisenhower, Jerry Lewis and the Beach Boys all frequented the miraculous lake. In fact, in the 1960s the Salton Sea rivalled neighbouring Palm Springs as the main desert resort for the Hollywood jet set. The new town of Salton City was laid out from scratch as the main resort, dividing the desert into small parcels ready for future development and a vast network of streets was created in happy anticipation of the future arrival of holiday homeowners.

Predictably, and almost literally, the Salton Sea proved to be a Fata Morgana. By the 1980s, with the lake being fed only by agricultural run-off, the unpleasant side effects of its environmentally overburdened system resulted in the near abandonment of the area. The lack of fresh water and the ever-rising saline levels in combination with high water temperatures led to a cycle of massive fish die-offs, thus turning the former paradise into a morbid wasteland. Today, the retreating shores are covered in a thick layer of fish skeletons, and a penetrating stench lingers in the air.
The settlements around the sea, which bear exotic names like “Bombay Beach”, “Desert Shores” and even “Mecca”, underwent a fate comparable to that of the towns that sprang up during the Gold Rush: they were deserted almost as suddenly as they were created. Now the neat infrastructural grid around the lake largely remains empty Today’s visitors encounter the aftermath of the American dream in the run-down trailers and the empty plots along the shoreline, and the geometrically arranged streets are home to eccentrics and desert nomads. The lake itself, for its part, is as revolting as it is attractive. Due to the constant heat, a haze hangs over its sky-blue waters, generating sublime and otherworldly vistas, while cockroaches crunch their way through the strata of fish carcasses that lie along the shore of the lake.

Today the lake serves three purposes:
1. as a convenient repository for agricultural wastewater;
2. as a resource for fisheries and outdoor recreation (although to a far lesser extent than in its golden age);
3. as an ecological wildlife reserve, especially for birds.

All three of these purposes are basically artificial, trapped in a curious stalemate. Left to its own devices, the lake’s salinity will continue to increase gradually, eventually impairing its other uses. The fish will disappear, thereby affecting the local wildlife. In this scenario, only the first of the lake’s three purposes will endure: that of serving as a dump for agricultural waste. Cutting off the agricultural inflow, however, would make the lake disappear completely, and thus make life in the area impossible. Returning the “sea” to the initial phase of its accidental birth by achieving a stable water/salinity balance would be technologically complex and , in any case, cost billions of dollars. The lake’s situation continues to be complicated, and none of the proposed restoration strategies is without its pitfalls *.

Whatever the future holds, the once-imagined urbanization of the Salton Sea may have failed, but it did successfully generate another kind of beauty. The Salton Sea is a window in time, an apocalyptic glimpse of what the world might look like after its occupation by mankind. Driving along its shores one encounters infrastructure without purpose and unfinished cities – the visible traces of something that almost happened but in the end wasn’t meant to be.

The occupation of the Salton Sea proved to be a mistake, one that can now be neither fixed nor ignored after the collective expectations and ambitions that were invested in it. The story is a truly human one and, though perhaps only to the eyes of an outsider, a Californian one. The lake’s birth was merely an accident; the real mistake was in seeing its potential, a first step in an unavoidable cascade of future errors. Meanwhile, the Salton Sea remains, dancing inside its own ethereal bubble. And although the natural depression in which the Salton Sea was formed had probably already flooded and dried up a thousand times before in the history of the planet, this time it will have to last.

* The proposed interventions include digging a canal to the Gulf of Mexico as well as the more subtle and potentially interesting idea of accumulating the agricultural waste in smaller, dyked portions of the sea in order to create an inverse archipelago of “themed” lakes: the nature reserve, the recreational lake and the agricultural dump.