A Sea Worth its Salt

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The largest body of water in California was formed by a mistake. In 1905, the California Development Company accidentally flooded a huge salty depression in the Sonora desert, known as the Salton Sink, creating an enormous salty lake called the Salton Sea.

Emmett FitzGerald:
“And here we are at the edge of the Salton Sea. It’s incredible, you almost can’t see across, and we’re just at the… we’re at the tip. It’s pretty narrow here.”

Roman Mars:
Reporter Emmett FitzGerald recently visited the Salton Sea on a hot summer day in the desert.

Emmett FitzGerald:
“Yeah, it’s just a mile, to 107 right now.”

Roman Mars:
The water is twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean. The only fish that can live there are tilapia, and even they struggle sometimes.

Emmett FitzGerald:
“It’s just a lot of dead fish, dead tilapia, and then, oh God there’s flies everywhere.”

Roman Mars:
The ground beneath the southern end of the sea is volcanic, and boiling water bubbles to the surface in muddy pools. (sound of water bubbling)

Emmett FitzGerald:
It feels post-apocalyptic and prehistoric all at the same time, but it’s also weirdly beautiful.

Roman Mars:
And the sea isn’t dead. The water is teaming with microbial life, and the beaches are covered with sandpipers, egrets and pelicans. This sea, in this gurgling, sometimes stinky accident of a sea, is actually in danger of drying up and disappearing, and you may be thinking, good riddance, it doesn’t sound all that nice, and you wouldn’t be alone.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Over the years, it’s been hard to get people to care about saving the Salton Sea, in part because it doesn’t seem natural enough.

Roman Mars:
In general, we tend to think about places and objects as either natural or unnatural. Forest, natural; city, unnatural.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But that black and white distinction is sometimes grayer than it seems.

Roman Mars:
Today, Peregrine Falcons are nesting on skyscrapers. Coral reefs are growing on oil derricks, and some seemingly wild ecosystems are carefully managed by humans. The truth is a lot of places on earth are the messy result of a combination of natural and unnatural events.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Nowhere is messier than the Salton Sea, and it raises the question, should we protect an ecosystem that’s not purely natural?

Roman Mars:
The Salton Sink has not always been full of water, but it hasn’t always been empty either. Over centuries, the meandering Colorado River would periodically flow into the sink and fill it with water. And then over time, the water would dry up. This cycle repeated itself every 400 or 500 years or so.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But when white settlers showed up in the desert in the late 1800s, there was no sea there at all, just a parched basin – a trough – 270 feet below sea level at its deepest and filled with natural salt deposits, which companies harvested to sell in cities like San Francisco.

Roman Mars:
But frontier developers soon realized that if you brought in water, you could grow crops 12 months a year under the desert sun. So, they set about rebranding this place as an agricultural paradise and they started by getting rid of the name Salton Sink.

Pat Laflin:
Well, that’s not a very appealing name if you’re trying to sell lots. So, they thought of Imperial Valley, it sounded great.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Pat Laflin, she’s a local historian who’s lived in the area for the last 60 years.

Pat Laflin:
They established a water company, which would bring water by canal from the Colorado River.

Roman Mars:
They said, “If you start a farm here, we’ll bring you the water”.

Pat Laflin:
This water came into Imperial Valley and watered the acreage, and these real estate developers sold a lot of lots in Europe to people who wanted to come to America and get a new start. And they had a wonderful agricultural industry going down there.

Roman Mars:
For a few years anyway. In 1905, the water company cut a new canal, and before they had time to reinforce it.

Pat Laflin:
They had a very late flood upriver in the Colorado, and the water just came through and washed out that cut and flooded the valley.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Water broke through the wall of the canal and poured into the Salton Sink, destroying farms and homes.

Pat Laflin:
It was a disaster.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And it just kept pouring in. The federal government could not be bothered to help. So, the task of stopping the flow of water fell mostly to the Southern Pacific Railway, which had lost train tracks in the flood and would lose more if they did nothing.

Pat Laflin:
It was an amazing task. They built railroad tracks out to the break in the dike, and then they just took flat car loads of cement, and old cars or any junk that they could throw in, because there was just no solid bottom there to the river, it was all sandy.

Emmett FitzGerald:
They did this for an entire year until they finally managed to fill in the breach and get the river back into its channel.

Roman Mars:
But by that point the water had filled up the Salton Sink, creating a massive lake in the middle of the desert.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The Salton Sea.

Roman Mars:
And most people assumed it would just dry up like a puddle on a hot day.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Which is what it usually did, whenever the Colorado flowed into the Salton Sink.

Roman Mars:
But the sea had a new water source this time, agriculture. As irrigation flowed off the fields in the Imperial Valley, it ran downhill into the sink and sustained the Salton Sea.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And for much of the 20th century, the runoff coming into the sea was about the same as the amount of water being lost to evaporation, creating a strange balance that made the sea appear stable.

Roman Mars:
And back then, the sea was pretty different than it is now. It looked like a peaceful oasis in an otherwise hostile desert, like somewhere you might want to go on vacation. In the 1950s a new round of developers saw a chance to turn the sea into a playground for Los Angeles weekenders, they called it the California Riviera.

Ad Excerpt:
“There is truly a miracle in the desert, a whole new outlet for the crowded millions in big cities. A Palm Springs with water. Here is where you can find the good life in the sun. Today, the Salton group…”

Emmett FitzGerald:
An oil tycoon named Penn Phillips, built a plan community on the west side of the lake, called Salton City.

Pat Laflin:
He put in a yacht club over there and laid out lots and sold lots, and brought busloads of people down to see the sea and purchase lots.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Pat Laflin again. She used to take her family to the Salton Sea on weekends.

Pat Laflin:
It was really a wonderful place to go for recreation when I first came in 1950. And I have memories of many hamburger fries on the beach and swimming, but the water was great and there was water skiing and they had a lot of boat races across the sea and back.

Roman Mars:
And then there were the fish.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The California Department of Fish and Game decided to stock the sea with fish, in order to encourage more tourism.

Roman Mars:
Scientists at UCLA worked to design an ecosystem that could handle year-round sport fishing.

Pat Laflin:
And they had to establish a whole food chain to get the larger game fish to survive. But they started with the little brine shrimp, and they brought them up from the Gulf of Baja, California, and they brought in the brine fish, and then whatever ate brine fish came, and then the next thing up the chain.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The water was salty, but not too salty. And so they tried a mix of fresh water and salt water species. And a lot of this work was done by biologists, but some of it was just renegade fishermen.

Steve Horvitz:
They tried all kinds of fish. They tried harbor seals, and they survived I guess for a while, but after a while they didn’t see any of them anymore.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Steve Horvitz, a retired ranger with the California State Parks.

Steve Horvitz:
Spent about 10 years down at the Salton Sea, living in a desert.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Steve says that a few fish like tilapia, sargo and corvina thrived. And by the 1960s, the Salton Sea was one of the most popular fishing destinations in the country.

Steve Horvitz:
The marinas were full of boaters. The marinas were full of life, and the bars were full, and it was packed. They were a run of cars coming from the LA area, down to the Salton Sea every weekend.

Roman Mars:
Stars like the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra tooled around the lake in motorboats.

Steve Horvitz:
And they gave concerts and programs on the shore of the Salton Sea.

Steve Horvitz:
It was the place to go? There was a time when more people went to the Salton Sea, then went to Yosemite.

Roman Mars:
But the good life in the sun didn’t last all that long.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In the seventies and eighties, floods knocked out a lot of the infrastructure along the shoreline.

Roman Mars:
And most of owners of the marinas and the yacht clubs decided not to rebuild.

Steve Horvitz:
And then by then, people begin thinking that maybe there were more issues than they were aware of the Salton Sea.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And they were right. One of the biggest issues was salinity. The water entering the Salton Sea picks up salts from the soil, and those salts have nowhere to go.

Steve Horvitz:
Salton Sea is a closed body of water. The only way water leaves is it evaporates, and as water evaporates, the material – the solids – stay. And so, the salt concentration continues to increase and increase and increase.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Every year, the sea gets saltier and saltier, which is a natural process for lakes with no outlet.

Roman Mars:
But tourists didn’t like super salty waters, smelly fish die-offs and massive algae blooms.

Emmett FitzGerald:
By the 1990s, most of the marinas and hotels had closed their doors, and a lot of people had left town. A rugged contingent stuck it out in small seaside towns, but the dream of the California Riviera was over.

Roman Mars:
And then in the mid-nineties, the sea began to dry up.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Remember, pretty much the only water going into the sea was from agricultural runoff. But over the years, farms had become more efficient with water. They installed drip irrigation systems that reduce the runoff draining into the sea.

Roman Mars:
Then in 2003, as part of a complicated water deal, the water district in Imperial Valley sold off the rights to a lot of their water, mostly to San Diego. Some farmers in the area had to stop watering their fields, which meant less water draining into the Salton Sea.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Steve Horvitz, and many other local people, fought hard against the water transfer, which they say was done without a proper environmental review. They lobbied politicians in Sacramento and Washington, demanding a plan for saving the Salton Sea, but few lawmakers wanted to prioritize a fading tourist destination. In the nineties’, celebrity Congressman Sonny Bono, had been a champion for the sea, but he died in a ski accident in 1998. Steve Horvitz says that he even had trouble getting help from environmental groups.

Steve Horvitz:
Some environmentalists that I knew, they would discount the Salton Sea, “It’s just a wasted body of water. It’s just a man-made lake. And so, why are you so worried about it”? And I was amazed by that.

Bruce Wilcox:
Many people talk to us about, “Why restore the Salton Sea? It was an accident”.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Bruce Wilcox.

Bruce Wilcox:
I’m the assistant secretary for a natural resource agency in charge of Salton Sea policy.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And Bruce takes issue with people who call it an accidental sea.

Bruce Wilcox:
This latest version of the Salton Sea was an accident, but there’s lots of geologic history that shows that the Imperial Valley was flooded periodically by the Colorado River.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Either way, wildlife doesn’t really care whether or not the lake is an accident. Just look at all the birds.

Bruce Wilcox:
Ducks, geese, stilts and dashers, heron, brown pelican and white pelicans, a large population of white pelicans. There are about 425 different species that have been cataloged or identified at the Salton Sea.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Aside from the Texas Gulf, the Salton Sea has more bird species than any other place in the U.S.

Roman Mars:
Many of those birds migrate up and down North America, and the birds would stop at marshes in Southern California to refuel.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But those marshes aren’t there anymore.

Bruce Wilcox:
Most of the wetlands in Southern California, actually probably in all of California, have disappeared because of development of one kind or another. The Salton Sea’s one of the last stops they have, so if we lose that link, if it dries up, I’m afraid we’ll crash a lot of bird populations.

Roman Mars:
And there’s another reason not to let the sea evaporate.

Bruce Wilcox:
Probably the most compelling reason is human health.

Emmett FitzGerald:
As the sea recedes, it exposes dry lake bed called playa, and it’s made up of tiny dust particles that can get into your lungs and cause respiratory diseases like asthma.

Roman Mars:
To make matters worse, heavy metals and other toxins from all that agricultural runoff, have settled at the bottom of the lake.

Bruce Wilcox:
So there’s a tremendous health risk.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And not just for people living near the sea. Toxic dust could get blown as far away as Phoenix, Arizona.

Roman Mars:
The Pacific Institute, a water think tank in Oakland, wrote a report in 2014 saying that the cost of doing nothing at the Salton Sea could be as high as $70 billion over the next 30 years.

Emmett FitzGerald:
As part of that 2003 water transfer, California agreed to send some water to the Salton Sea for a few years, to keep the salinity in check while they figure out a solution to the dust and the birds.

Roman Mars:
That water will stop flowing after 2017.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But there is a little glimmer of hope.

Roman Mars:
This year California approved $80 million for a new Salton Sea task force, which Bruce Wilcox heads up and they’re using the funds to start designing ways to keep the dust down and the birds coming back, all using a lot less water.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The plan is basically to build artificial wetlands, with water cycling between ponds of varying salinity levels, each designed to support different bird species. And there’ll be walkways and boat launches, so people can enjoy the resource too. But there’s no blueprint for this kind of ecosystem architecture.

Roman Mars:
In planning an ecosystem runs counter to a pretty basic ecological principle that nature knows best. For a lot of environments, the best approach is to keep humans as far away as possible.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But it’s too late for that at the Salton Sea. Humans have transformed this landscape, really the entire Colorado River Basin, in such profound ways. We dammed up the river and irrigated the desert.

Bruce Wilcox:
We had dried up all the wetlands. We have made all these modifications, for better or worse, and now we’re in a position where we have to step in and manage.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Bruce Wilcox again, the Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy.

Bruce Wilcox:
And I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I was a little nervous about that, because we don’t know anywhere near as much as we think. It’s just a little bit arrogant to think we screwed it all up and then suddenly we decide we can fix it. I mean, there’s a danger in that, but we’re in a position where we don’t have a choice.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Building hundreds of acres of artificial wetlands is going to require a lot of money. Much more than the 80 million they just got, and that means California is going to have to start valuing a landscape that’s the furthest thing from pristine.

Roman Mars:
It’s easy to contrast the Salton Sea with California’s second largest body of water, Lake Tahoe. The beautiful blue mountain lake that Northern California yuppies and hippies, and yuppies who used to be hippies, flock to every weekend.

Steve Horvitz:
Tahoe’s sexy, there’s no doubt.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Former park ranger, Steve Horvitz.

Steve Horvitz:
The Salton Sea’s an ugly guy, living down there in a desert. A hot and sweaty guy, that many times just repels people. And the Salton Sea will never be a Lake Tahoe, but it’ll have its own beauty.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Everywhere you go in California, there are bumper stickers that say, ‘Keep Tahoe Blue’. It’s almost a badge of environmentalism out here. The Salton Sea might not be as beautiful or as natural as Lake Tahoe, but we need it all the same.

Roman Mars:
But if the Salton Sea is going to get saved, it’ll need to get appreciated first. We’re going to need to see some of them bumper stickers. We just got to think of a slogan and it probably can’t be, ‘Save the Hot, Sweaty Guy in the Desert’. So let’s see, ‘See you at the Salton Sea’, ‘Make the Salton Sea Great Again’, ‘Redesign the Riviera’, ‘The Salton Sea is for the Birds’, ‘We Came, We Saw the Salton Sea’, ‘Maintain the Mistake’, ‘Don’t Add Salt in the Wound’, ‘Keep God on Your Right Shoulder and Salton on Your Left’, ‘Tilapia, I Hardly Know Yah’. That’s the one.

  1. MrEricSir

    There’s a great documentary on this subject called “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea” that came out a few years ago, narrated by John Waters. It delves into the history and the lives of the somewhat odd characters who still live there.

  2. Yael McCue

    I’m trying to find a charity that specifically supports Salton Sea restoration, but I’m unable to. This episode talked about bumper stickers, but you need a nonprofit before you can make bumper stickers, right? I know Audubon Society is doing some work around this, and I’ll keep researching, but if anyone knows of a foundation to help efforts to restore the Salton Sea, or wants to help me start one if we come to find there aren’t any, let me know.

  3. Love it out there – so beautifully alien, and so toxic. At times it’s hard to bear looking at it when the stench and dust are at a peak. I’m glad I got to document some of it photographically – especially Bombay Beach – before they started sweeping it away.

  4. Jerry

    There is no money to keep this toxic mess in any kind of condition for the few people who live around there. California has cut so far back on infrastructure and school spending that if one penny is spent it is too much. With the little flow for farming drying up at the end of the year due to new water sales to habitable areas near San Diego, this “sea” will be a toxic blowing sand pit in about 15 years (or less). Those that have not yet moved from the Imperial Valey – will be forced to before you know it.

    1. John Patrick Mackey

      Permitting the Sea to dry up is myopic. Fairly often, the winds come up out of the south and will carry microscopic particles up into the noses of Palm Springs and those attending Coachella Music Festival. Not only that, but the weather will be altered south of the giant lake bed. FROST will appear in Brawley, center of a 2 Billion Dollar winter vegetable garden. Sea to Sea Solution means importing Baja seawater by dual 30″ PIPES that end up in Niland, where geothermal Desalination will take place.. Thereafter, the lake will be refreshed daily ( 24/7/365 ). The recovered salt can be mined for precious metals, then the remainder can be pressed into building bricks.

  5. Chelsea

    You guys put out this episode the DAY AFTER I visited the Salton Sea/Bombay Beach/Slab City during my trip to California. It was something I’d been wanting to do for the past few years, if I ever made it out there. Crazy coincidence! I love this, thanks, as always :)

  6. Bhargav Datta

    Salton sea bumper sticker- Salton sea: North American gate way for bird migration.

  7. mary

    I underatand that the Salton Sea is positioned on or very near the San Andreas fault…. It is believed that the past due “Big One” can be directly attributed to the trickle of water that ultimately makes it to the Saltin Sea. Water weight…. So much water is diverted when compared to history that the “Big One” forecast calculation should have been adjusted. Having said that, i cant help thinking we risk triggering the fault. Reaseach supports this! Yet there is never a mention in the articles Ive found. These mega storms and floods are another risk not addressed. I have lost confidence in the Save the __?___ Programs that are to be corrected by unpresedented / massive corporate deals that have lettle to do with dust, birds and fish…..

  8. Stephanie

    Thankyou for this information. I knew nothing about the Salton Sea (not even that it existed) until this week when seismologists began to worry about activity on the San Andreas fault from Monterey to the Salton Sea. This post is really interesting and informative. I learned something new and fascinating.

  9. Craig

    What’s the promotional audio from the 1950s/60s starting at 6:56? Is that from a video that’s on Youtube? I’d love to see/hear the entire original of that.

  10. Jason in KT

    Visited there when I first moved to San Diego. It looks inviting when all you see is the big blue spot on the map. We crested a hill coming into the village and my girlfriend gasped and said, “It looks like someplace you’d go to drink yourself to death.” It’s gotten much worse since then.

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