Formerly Famous Desert Oasis Now A Toxic Wasteland
Sixty miles from luxurious Palm Springs, California, is an abandoned town called Salton City. It wasn’t always abandoned, though. At one time, it was called “the miracle in the desert” with fancy vacation homes and yacht clubs.
Now it is empty and reeks of toxic fumes. Let’s find out what happened.
The “Next Palm Springs”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Salton Sea, California, lured thousands of famous Hollywood stars and well-to-do families for yachting, swimming, casinos, and more. Guests included Rock Hudson and Frank Sinatra, Guy Lombardo, and even President Eisenhower, just to name a few.
The town was booming with hotels, motels, casinos, and yacht clubs. The 116-mile shoreline was perfect for building vacation homes. In those days, people called it the “miracle in the desert,” and residents as well as developers were benefiting from its riches.
A Magical Beach Resort
Salton Sea had everything a vacationer would want and much more. Tourists came to watch hot rod races, swim, boat, water ski, and go to the casinos. It vied with Palm Springs for the most popular resort and lured thousands of visitors each summer.
There was also an annual beauty pageant, amusement parks, and professional fishing. By the late 1950s the Salton Sea was the most productive fishery in California. Fishermen from all over the state and elsewhere flocked to the resort each year.
Better Entertainment than Palm Springs
The Salton Sea resort had an excellent reputation, so good that it drew celebrities from Hollywood who wanted a little bit of rest and relaxation. Since it was a smaller resort and less well-known, they could relax without being hounded by the press.
One unusual attraction was the Salton Sea 500 Boat Race which took place every year. The race was billed as “the Indianapolis 500 of endurance boat racing.” An amphibious helicopter monitored the race, and hundreds of spectators attended.
How the Salton Sea Came to Be
The Salton Sea is geographically odd. Actually, it was created by accident when, in 1905, the Colorado River overflowed and flooded into the Salton Sink desert valley. For an amazingly long period of time – over two years – water flowed into the valley, creating the Salton Sea.
The “Sea” was huge, 15 miles by 35 miles, and became a vacationer’s paradise. Thousands of tourists came on the weekends, and over 15,000 homes were built in the area. By 1907, the flooding had stopped, but the sea and the resort remained.
The Salton Sea’s Problems in the Early 1970s
All of that changed during the early 1970s. Because of the way the Sea was created, it happened to lack a sufficient drainage system. It also had no ecosystem of its own, which would have helped the water stay clean.
Since there was no way for the lake to drain, water contaminated with pesticides from nearby farms flowed into it. Soon the salt levels and other toxic elements in the Sea increased, and thousands of fish died, washing onto the shore and shriveling up in the extreme heat.
The Salton Sea’s Problems in the Late 1970s
During the late 1970s, there was a series of tropical storms which caused the level of the Salton Sea to rise and flood its banks. This created floods in Bombay Beach, Salton City, and other surrounding towns. Many businesses and attractions were ruined.
With the businesses and attractions in tatters from the rain and floods, tourism started to slow down, and residents began to move away. The picture above shows how the shore receded due to the storms and floods.
More Damage in the 1980s and 90s
With Bombay Beach and Salton City flooded, and businesses,as well as attractions, ruined, the entire area, began to decline. Then, in the 1980s and 90s, the Sea, which is not more than 60 feet at its deepest, started to recede.
When the sea receded, it became clear to the authorities that the entire area was suffering from serious problems. The coastline got wider and wider, while the Sea became much less of an attraction. It was time to figure out what was going on.
Understanding How Things Got so Bad: A Little Science
To understand the situation better, let’s learn a little science. There were farms near the Salton Sea, which of course, used fertilizer to treat their soil. The runoff from these farms, filled with fertilizer, flowed into the Sea and caused the growth of algae, which is usually healthy in a normal water ecosystem. But the Salton Sea was not a normal Sea with a drainage system.
That meant that when the algae died, it did not flow away but floated to the bottom. There it created a thick layer and choked off oxygen. Without oxygen, a bacteria grew that ate the dead algae; this subsequently created hydrogen sulfide gas. Hydrogen sulfide is deadly; it killed the fish.
It Gets Worse
In addition to the toxicity of the water and the dead fish littering the beach, the stench of sulfur permeated the area. That odor could be detected as far as Los Angeles, 150 miles away. Residents even started to report smelling gas in the air.
Those changes spelled the end of this vacation retreat. Guests canceled reservations and sold their vacation homes. The hotels that had been packed to capacity, the yachts at the dock, and the casinos emptied out. The Salton Sea became a no-man’s land.
The Fish are Gone
During the summer of 1999, as many as 8 million tilapia fish died in one day. The fish washed up on the shore in a three-mile-wide band that was 10 miles long. The toxicity of the lake killed many species of fish.
The salt levels got so high that salt became encrusted on structures near the shoreline. The image above shows a pier whose posts are covered with salt. It’s clear that with salt levels so elevated, very little could exist in the Sea.
The Sea Shrinks
Aside from the toxicity in the area, the Salton Sea began to shrink. This was caused by the area’s normal high temperatures and had actually begun after a years-long drought in the early 1970s. In the image below, you can see how the borders of the Sea changed.
The image shows the expanding beach around the Sea from 2003-2018 and projected shrinkage up until the year 2028. With the waters receding, the homes built around the beaches lost their property value, and tourism dropped off.
A Toxic Site
The very factors that once kept the Salton Sea a healthy environment for fish made it become saltier and saltier each year. This didn’t just affect the fish. In 1996, about 20% of the white pelicans in the area had died, along with over one hundred thousand other local wildlife.
Another problem came in 2018, which marked the end of an agreement between the management teams of both the Salton Sea and the Colorado River. This agreement had kept the Salton Sea less toxic, but after 2018 things got worse.
The News Gets Even Worse
Dr. Tim Krantz, a well-known authority on the Salton Sea, reported that the odor and ecological issues in the Salton Sea are not the worst problems. Even more dangerous for the residents in the area is the threat of toxic dust flowing from the dry lakebed.
That dust contains dangerous pesticides and fine particles that can cause asthma, respiratory illnesses, and even cancer. What was once the bustling seaside resort with thousands of tourists has become a serious, even deadly, health hazard.
The Drive-In is Closed
Sadly, the Salton Sea area has now become only a place of interest to people studying ecosystems, as well as to photographers and resort lovers. To see the once-famous resort in such bad shape is an emotional experience.
One of the more striking images of the run-down resort is the drive-in movie lot, with the screen still standing, the fence fallen down, and the cars rusting. The toxic dust can be seen on the ground as well, a reminder of the health dangers that lurk in the resort.
“It’s Going to Be a Disaster”
The dust has had a dramatic effect on children in the area. In Imperial County, one in five children suffer from asthma, compared to the statewide average of one in eight and a national average of one in twelve.
The Pacific Institute adds that the result of the toxic dust blowing in the area may have disastrous effects on public health, including causing lung cancer and cardiac disease. That’s why many people in the area are trying to sell their land.
Value of Homes and Land Plummeting
Because the lakebed blows as much as 100 tons of dust into the air every day, property values have taken a deep dive. Many people living in the area are poverty-stricken and are desperate to move elsewhere.
The image above shows several waterfront houses that are still occupied near the Salton Sea. Water used to be as high as the piers, but so much has evaporated that the piers are fully exposed, and water continues to evaporate quickly.
Plans for Rebuilding while Costs Rise
In 2017, then-Governor Jerry Brown put out an ambitious $410 million plan for building ponds and wetlands near the Salton Sea. But even that plan will only deal with about half of the 60,000 acres of land that is causing serious health problems.
There have also been plans for building housing for as many as 40,000 people. This plan was approved, disregarding the environmental issues, and it has yet to be acted upon. In the meantime, the area continues to deteriorate.
Trying to Save Salton Sea
Unless something is done and people can move out of the area, the Pacific Institute estimates that the healthcare costs of residents and diving property values could rise to as much as $70 billion. Some restoration efforts have borne fruit, such as the visitor center pictured here.
Yet visitors are not flocking back to the area – simply getting out of one’s car is enough to turn people away after being hit with the strong rotten-egg smell. In addition, the seawater is so salty that, although some promotional videos in the visitor center claim the opposite, the water can be dangerous for many people.
Controlling the Dust
As Dr. Krantz states, ‘Millions of will be affected by the toxic dust when strong winds blow, especially if they already suffer from asthma. This is a public health disaster if nothing is done to fix it.’ Recently, voters in California voted for an expenditure of over $200 million to initiate a plan to control the dust in the area.
The plan would involve creating wetlands and ponds which would cover part of the beach area. The question remains as to what happens to the remainder of the land, as there are over 60,000 acres involved.
Those Who Remain
There is a small community of Salton Sea residents who have remained in the area. Some cannot afford to move. The 2016 census showed that 23% of the county’s residents live in poverty, and California real estate is very expensive.
Several small communities have taken shape since the downturn of the resort. Whether due to poverty or devotion to the area, these residents have stayed put. They spend much effort on petitioning the government for funds to restore the land.
Devoted to the Area
The stalwart residents who still live in the area often hold rallies to ask for government help in solving the many problems plaguing the area. They are convinced that if they continue to make their case, the authorities will help restore the land to health.
There have been several votes, plans, and bills proposed for restoration, but so far nothing has been done to improve the conditions. Considering the health risks this area poses to residents within and miles away from the Salton Sea region, it would seem that at some point the authorities need to act.
There has been some interest in the deterioration of the Salton Sea community as an illustration of environmental decay. Images of dead fish and toxic dust show what can happen when a natural resource is not properly managed.
Additionally, photographers have been drawn to the area to shoot dramatic scenes of collapsing structures, which can be very poignant. The photographs document the decay of a beach resort from the 1950s and 1960s and its continual decline until today.
What Will Be the Future?
Like many current residents of the Salton Sea area, Dale Johnson believes the biggest problem in the area at this point is dust control. He fears the dust will get worse and will travel further and further away, causing serious health problems.
Johnson and others promise to keep pleading with the authorities to save the area before the dust causes more health problems. Aside from the fear of more people becoming ill, there is a real cost to care for the medical needs of stricken residents, and those needs can be avoided. The solution has to come from the authorities; meanwhile, the residents wait and hope for the best.