The Salton Sea was born of an irrigation project gone terribly wrong. The Colorado river, through the irrigation canals, filled the sink with water in a series of floods that took a year and a half to stop, and by the time the flow was stemmed the projected farmland had become an inland sea, occupying four hundred square miles. This all happened more than a century ago, and for a while, California assumed that the new sea would just evaporate. However, fed by miserly agricultural runoff from nearby valleys and seeps from irrigation canals, the water persisted.
So what to do with a vast, accidental lake?
If you’re American, you try to make some money out of it.
So some enterprising folks stocked the lake with fish and built resorts. They set up marinas, and even put in a city. And it worked, at least for a while. During the 1970s, the sea flooded out the resorts and towns. With the water levels of the isolated sea proving somewhat more volatile than expected, development stopped, and the streets and buildings stood empty and abandoned. Many remain to this day, dilapidated, vandalized, and brutalized by the harsh climate.
The sea remains as well, polluted by agricultural runoff, half again as salty as the Pacific Ocean with the salinity increasing each year. Of the stocked fish, the tilapia remain, but are still the victims of massive fish die-offs. These die-offs in the past have included huge numbers of fish, including an inconceivable seven million fish washing ashore dead in one day in 1999. The nutrient pollution from agricultural fertilizers combined with near constant sunlight and temperatures in excess of 110 degrees Fahrenheit have resulted in massive algae blooms that deprive the water of oxygen and continue to kill fish. The high temperatures and the brutality of the sunlight continue to evaporate the sea’s water, while salt continues to come in via the small amount of inflow. The rate of the increasing salinity is projected to accelerate as water seeps are diverted from the sea and as the climate changes. The sea lingers, an artificial ecosystem completely out of balance, surrounded by empty resorts and modern day ghost towns.
And this is why my friend and photographer Phil Rose and I have booked a flight to Las Vegas.
Phil and I both have a deep love of the desert… the desolation and the extremity and the painfulness of it are things you just can’t find anywhere else. Within that desolation is a beauty that lays the human soul bare. I brought the existence of the Salton Sea to his attention a few years back and we have been trying to figure out a way to get there ever since. Now we have finally found the time to do it, and with Phil’s success crowdfunding a trip to Detroit (which resulted in a very beautiful book of photography) we are optimistic.
The plan is to travel by motorcar from Sin City to the Salton Sea, by way of Death Valley and Joshua Tree; to document the great tradition of the roadtrip and to capture the wealth of abandoned Americana offered by the Salton Sea and surrounding areas. The end result of this plan is a book, featuring photography, illustrations, and short prose as a tribute to this sea which was born of folly and will eventually cease to exist or be changed entirely by rehabilitation efforts.
We also plan to visit nearby Slab City and East Jesus. Slab City is the remains of Camp Dunlap, a World War II era Marines barracks. The buildings were all dismantled and removed in 1956, and the area stripped to cement slabs. There is no electricity, running water, or sewage, and the Slabs have become a haven for survivalists and weirdos. East Jesus itself is an entirely self-contained artist community, featuring solar power and composting toilets. We hope to stay there overnight, but every community has rules, so we’ll have to see how that goes.
I don’t expect it to be a comfortable trip. We’ll be camping wherever we can on the drive, since hotels are expensive and since we’ll be covering a lot of ground where hotels just don’t exist. We’ll be in one of the hottest parts of the country in late August, and if our 2009 trip to the Grand Canyon is any indication, it will be hot, filthy, exhausting work. But it’s a part of the country that I’ve always wanted to see, and it won’t be around forever.
And I am so deliciously excited that I don’t even have the words to express it. When we finally decided to go, I was delirious with it, and I’m pretty sure everyone who ran into me got very tired of listening to me talk about it.
We’re still working on the Kickstarter page, and as we get closer to the date I hope to fill you good folks in with more information, including perhaps an itinerary, and some idea of what we hope to see along the way.