Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Before coming out to California this year, Jenny Bilec sent me a short film entitled: The Accidental Sea. Now, Jen always sends me interesting things, but this video in particular really piqued my curiosity.

This is the story of the Salton Sea. An accidental sea re-created by agricultural runoff from the Colorado River in the early 20th Century. I use the word re-created, because "Milions of years ago, during the Pilocene epoch, the area of today's Salton Sea was salt water and formed the northern tip of the Gulf of California. The Colorado River emptied into the east side of the Salton Sink, a north-south rift valley formed by the pulling and separating action of a web of fault lines including the San Andreas Fault. Eventually, the tons of silt carried by the Colorado created an alluvial plain that built up across the gulf and pinched off the northern end, creating a freshwater lake in what had been the tip of the Gulf of California.

Over the millennia, the watercourse of the Colorado River fluctuated, sometimes flowing south of the alluvial plain and straight into the Gulf of California, sometimes flowing north and replenishing the Salton Sink with fresh water. At its highest levels, water in the sink lay 44-feet above present lake levels. The waterline of what is referred to as Lake Cahuilla is still visible on the rocks around the Salton Sea. Yet, often evaporation exceeded inflow and the entire area was dry.

In the early 1900s, man meddled in nature's process and began to divert the waters of the Colorado for agricultural irrigation in the Imperial Valley, with runoff flowing into the Salton Sea. Shortly thereafter, [a] canal breach occurred that led to the most recent incarnation of the Salton Sea" (Snodgrass, National Geographic).

The flood destroyed farms, communities and the mainline of the Southern Pacific Railroad, but created a sea, California's largest inland body of water, in the desert. 35-miles long, 15-miles wide and 51-feet deep.

With sport fishing first promoted in 1907, the freshwater sea started to gain popularity in the 1920s as both a tourist and fisherman's paradise. With yacht clubs, restaurants and a golf course, the area attracted such celebrities as Jerry Lewis and the Marx brothers as frequent vacationers.

During WWII*, the Salton Sea harvested most of Southern California's fish, due to German submarines making ocean fishing grounds dangerous. Not surprisingly, developers in the 1950s saw the Salton Sea's commercial potential, declaring it "America's Riviera" and "California's French Riviera".

However, by the 1970s, with increasing levels of salinity (from salt-heavy soil of the prehistoric ocean), toxic run-off from Mexicali and pesticides from the Imperial Valley, the Salton Sea was becoming less of a dream town and more of a wasteland. Flooding during the middle of the decade left homes and businesses caked in salty mud, with very little reason for return.

As levels of toxins, algae, salt and bacteria continued to rise, the number of massive fish and bird die-offs due to selenium and botulism poisoning also increased. With the sea now 25% saltier than the ocean and the stench of thousands and thousands of dead fish in desert heat, the 1980s brought a mass exodus of the area, beginning its current era as a post-apocalyptic ghost-town.

While the communities of the Salton Sea are still inhabited, you find places like Salton City to have a strange energy about them. There are streets with names, but no developments. There are houses that look inhabited, but no people. There is a high school, but no students. There is a sea, but no swimmers, fisherman or boaters. There is a beach, but it's made of the bones and rotting carcasses of dead fish and waterfowl.

And yet, it clearly maintains attraction to a strange group of people. I would imagine anyone who visits these rogue communities has a particular interest in science fiction, or really, science in general. Having been there twice in the past month, I know there are so many more pieces to put together. I haven't been able to come to many conclusions, but I do know that the people don't say much. And if they do, it's friendly, casual and sometimes quite helpful, all the while, not seeming too bothered by their unusual, and technically toxic homeland.

So basically, either the Salton Sea mishap is not as big of a deal as outsiders make of it... or the residents are zombies. If the latter is the truth, I conclude that the undead are quite endearing and I should like to visit them again.

*FUN ALERT! Also during WWII: "dummy" versions of a new bomb are regularly and secretly dropped over the Salton Sea by B-29s of the U.S. Army's 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets. In August of 1945, Tibbets commands the mission to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

If you've properly followed the asterisk, you may have noticed that its source was about the Salton Sea as a food source during the war as well... Nothing like a little A-Bomb with your tilapia...


FRANKO said...

Nice. Bilec sends you that...and IIIIIII...I send you Bodega cats.

Alli Harvey said...

Ohhh M, you have different friends for different reasons..