I've flown over the Salton Sea many times. From the air, it doesn't look real. The blue expanse and the green fields of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys that butt up against the sea's northern and southern banks are anomalies in the desert tan. The sea looks clean and inviting from the air, but that is illusory too. I've also been drinking the Salton Sea, in a manner of speaking. So have most of us who live in San Diego County. In December 2003, the first of the Colorado River water that would once have wound up in the Salton Sea was diverted to San Diego. During 2006 the flow will be a relative trickle, only 40,000 acre-feet out of the total 650,000 to 700,000 acre-feet that San Diegans will consume. But the annual supply will increase in the coming years. By 2021 it will amount to 200,000 acre-feet — enough water to supply 400,000 families of four for a year. The political deal that brought that water to San Diego had huge implications for the Salton Sea. Among other things, it created a $300 million fund to help rescue the sea from the ecological catastrophe that's been threatening it for decades. The money hasn't been spent yet; competing resuscitative plans are still being devised. But in the hearts of some of those who love the sea, there's now a glimmer of hope it could once again become a vibrant aquatic playground. That's earned the Salton Sea recent media coverage, as has the fact that it celebrated its 100th birthday in 2005. Amid the publicity, mention has been made that the cheapest land in Southern California surrounds the Salton Sea. Although I'd never visited the sea, this caught my attention. It made me want to go there at last, to wiggle my toes in the super-salty water and look for property bargains. "Maybe we should sell our house, buy a place there, and live off the proceeds of our obscene profits," I suggested to my husband. Steve was skeptical. Unlike me, he'd been to the Salton Sea once, as a teenager in the 1960s, the glory years for the sea, a decade when its visitors at times exceeded the number at Yosemite. Streets and sewers and electrical utilities had been installed in Salton City by then and thousands of lots laid out. Steve has hazy memories of a ditzy realtor burbling to his parents about the doctors and lawyers who had already bought pieces of the action. In the end his parents resisted the allure of a waterfront seat on the new Lake Tahoe, a decision that struck Steve as sensible. Still, he agreed to accompany me, and on a cold, drizzly morning in November, we headed east.
We drove through Poway, Ramona, Santa Ysabel, and Julian, then down the Banner Grade. The clouds disappeared. In the desert, we continued east on 78 in the direction of Ocotillo Wells. Two hours and 20 minutes after leaving our house in Pacific Beach, we crossed the Imperial County line. I stuck my head out the window and sniffed. We were close to the sea, I knew, and friends had warned about the putrid odors it sometimes emits. All I smelled was a subtle ripeness suggesting that fertilized farmland might be near.
The two-lane road dead-ended at Highway 86. Across it, far in the distance, we could make out a line of trees, probably the shoreline, we guessed. A dirt road led in that direction, but it soon became mucky enough that we worried about bogging down. So we drove north on 86, squinting to our right through hazy air, trying to make out a telltale band of blue.
We still hadn't glimpsed the water 12 miles later when we turned off the road at Salton City. The billboard erected next to the highway sends a message of hospitality -- "Welcome to West Shores of the Salton Sea" -- mixed with despair, the white paint of its background diseased and peeling. A small cluster of commercial buildings -- a burger joint, a Mexican restaurant, a tiny market, the office of the Salton Community Service District -- showed signs of life, but we drove past them, following Marina Drive, the community's main artery. Dozens of smaller streets branch off Marina, their green signs displaying names like Shore Manor Street, Sea Gem Avenue, and Rainbow Drive. For the most part, these streets wind through shrubby desert plants and sand. Here and there we passed double-wide trailers or unadorned single-story stucco boxes. But it was the open spaces that impressed us. "Just think," Steve reflected, "Pacific Beach looked like this once upon a time."
The road curved, and the vista we'd been seeking opened up: water that almost matched the blue of the sky; so much water, under air so misty, we could barely make out the Chocolate Mountains, looming beyond the distant shore. We found a boat-launch ramp and drove to the end of the long jetty next to it. Not a single craft was in sight, nor were any other visitors. Ripples played across the water's surface, along with a suggestion of wavelets, products of the cool, fresh breeze.
Taking in the grand landscape, it was hard to imagine the colossal blunder that created it. The catastrophe has its origins in the mid-1800s, when people first began to understand the geological legacy of the Colorado Desert. Millions of years ago, the Gulf of California extended 150 miles farther northwest than it currently does. Over time, rising mountains on both sides helped to lift the area, and eventually the delta of the Colorado River cut off the northern reaches of the gulf and transformed it into a salt lake roughly 100 miles long by 50 miles wide. This later evaporated, leaving behind a lowland today known as the Salton Sink. At various times over the millennia, the Colorado River would change its course and refill this depression, delivering vast quantities of silt in the process.