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.
In the late 1850s, the area once again looked like a wasteland. But some folks saw the promise of agricultural bounty in the valley's rich sedimentary deposits, if only water could be brought there. For more than 40 years, various schemes foundered; then in 1900 a former U.S. Reclamation Service engineer formed a partnership with a civil engineer and irrigation expert named George Chaffey. Chaffey had built several successful projects near Los Angeles and in Australia, and less than 14 months after he signed on to the project, the water began to flow westward through a cut in the river near Yuma.
Chaffey turned to the next challenge: getting people to buy and farm the land. He incorporated the Imperial Land Company and began advertising. "[I]n order not to scare off settlers and small investors by using the ominous word 'desert' and 'Sink,' they changed the name of the basin that they proposed to irrigate, calling it 'The Imperial Valley,' " according to a Salton Sea history published by the Coachella Valley Historical Society. The strategy worked. By 1902, some 400 miles of irrigation ditches were in place, delivering enough water to irrigate 100,000 acres. By 1904, 10,000 pioneers had flocked to the valley. Under their cultivation, the land began yielding marvels. "Grapes, melons and garden vegetables matured in the Valley earlier than in any other part of California; barley was a profitable crop; alfalfa could be cut five or six times a year; and the finest quality of long-staple Egyptian cotton yielded more than a bale (500 pounds) to the acre," the history states. "Experiments proved also that the climate and soil were well-adapted to the culture of grapes, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, olives, figs, dates, apricots, pomegranates, peaches, and pears."
The man who had engineered this miracle fared less well. Mired in financial and legal quarrels with other members of the California Development Company, Chaffey by 1902 had sold his stock and left the enterprise. He thus wasn't on hand two years later when the young water company needed an engineering wizard's decisive leadership. Silt from the Colorado River -- the source of the Imperial Valley's fertility -- began clogging the irrigation canals and restricting the flow of water. Farmers' crops began to fail. Dredging the canals might have solved the problem, but the cash-strapped water company opted for a cheaper fix, cutting a new channel from the river four miles south of the Mexican border. The fact that they lacked permission from the Mexican government to do this didn't stop the company's directors.
It was the worst possible time to weaken the western bank of the Colorado River. The rainy season that followed unleashed two floods in February 1905, and an unprecedented third flood in March made the water company uneasy about the river's growing height. Still more inundations obliterated a couple of dams made of timber pilings, brush, and sandbags that the company had hastily thrown across the southern channel, and by mid-June, the 60-foot channel had almost tripled in width. Through this breach, the mighty Colorado thundered -- 90,000 cubic feet of water per second racing across the valley to collect in the Salton Sink.
The inflow drowned hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland, and the water kept rising. Several attempts in 1905 to return the river to its original course failed, and another flood the following year sent a ten-mile-wide deluge toward Calexico and Mexicali. When the Southern Pacific Railroad's main line east from Los Angeles was threatened, the transportation giant added its muscle to the fight, but even this was almost no match for the power of the river. Toward the end of 1906, the railroad, which by then had already spent well over $2 million, mounted a final desperate effort. It sent 2057 carloads of rock, 221 carloads of gravel, and 203 carloads of clay to the riverside, dumping the materials from two trestles that had been built across the breach. Although the river ripped away the trestle pilings three times, the bank was finally restored, and the river once more began flowing to the Gulf of California.
In the valley was left behind a 76-foot-deep body of water that covered an area 45 miles long by 20 miles wide -- California's newest lake, and by far its biggest. The waters subsided by about 7 feet in 1907, but they dropped less and less in the ensuing years, and by the early 1920s, it was clear that this sea was not about to vanish, as its ancient predecessors had. In addition to the sporadic runoff from the surrounding mountains, the newly created Salton Sea enjoyed a source of aquatic bounty the valley had never seen before: the water that drained from the farmers' fields. Today that drainage amounts to approximately 1.3 million acre-feet per year. That's enough to offset the water evaporated by the broiling desert sun.
The sea's chemistry has always been fickle. Salts in the seabed began dissolving in the water almost immediately, and by 1913, the salinity was high enough to kill the fat freshwater carp and bass that had ridden in with the raging Colorado. The California Department of Fish and Game nonetheless believed that the sea could become a recreational resource, and in the late 1920s and early '30s, fishery managers began stocking it with saltwater fish and something to nourish them -- pile worms imported from San Diego Bay. The fish died, but the invertebrates thrived, and a renewed effort to jumpstart the sea as a sport fishery took place in the early 1950s. This time dozens of species were trucked in from the Gulf of California. Gulf croaker, corvina, and sargo seemed to love the place; in the years that followed, their populations exploded, and fish reached amazing proportions. Some corvina weighed more than 30 pounds.
The fishing was one reason people flocked to the Salton Sea in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Power boating was another. As early as 1929, speed records had been set in competitions there, and the sea's boosters claimed that the combination of the dense salty water and high barometric pressure made it possible to go faster than on any other body of water in America. When water-skiers joined the boaters zooming under the desert skies, a host of developers and promoters went on a spree. A dozen marinas were operating on the shores by 1963, and a $2 million yacht club constructed at North Shore Beach counted the Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, and the Marx Brothers among its patrons. On the western side of the sea, Desi Arnaz, Harry James, and Johnny Weissmuller practiced their swings at a championship golf course.
Hammers and saws and the jingling of cash registers weren't the only sounds to be heard at the Salton Sea in those halcyon days. The first talk of impending doom was also being voiced. Eyeing the sea's climbing salinity levels, the California Department of Fish and Game in 1961 predicted that the fish might disappear by as early as 1980. Saltwater fish can tolerate only a certain level of saltiness, and the salt in the Salton Sea was threatening to exceed that limit because of a simple equation: the water that evaporates leaves salt behind, while the runoff that replaces the water brings in more salt -- an estimated 400 million tons a year. That's because the salts in the Colorado River water, which are high to begin with, become even more concentrated in their passage over the fields as water evaporates off the ground and additional salts in the soil dissolve and are carried along.
The fish got a reprieve in the 1970s, a decade in which the Imperial Irrigation District dumped a lot of excess irrigation water into the sea. This coincided with a wet weather cycle that brought two back-to-back "100-year" storms, Kathleen (1976) and Doreen (1977), to the Imperial Valley. The additional water raised the height of the sea so much that it drowned numerous shoreside businesses and dwellings, a catastrophe from which many developers and property owners never recovered. Some sued the water district for its part in their losses, and when they won in court, the water district changed its practices to control the drainage more tightly. The rainfall levels returned to normal, and the sea's shoreline more or less stabilized. But its salinity levels began their inexorable rise again. Today the sea contains between 46 and 47 grams of salt per liter -- making it more than 30 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.
Along with the salt, the drainage brings to the sea fertilizers and municipal wastewater containing nitrates and phosphates. All those nutrients constitute the bottom of an intricate food chain. Phosphorus and nitrogen feed algae that in turn are consumed by filter-feeding rotifers; a tiny, fast-swimming crustacean; barnacle and pile worm larvae; and other minuscule creatures. Fish eat the planktonic algae and animals and the bottom-dwelling pile worms. A dozen or so species of birds feed on the fish. Alas, when it comes to nutrients, there can be too much of a good thing. When algae die, decomposition and other microbial processes release hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that under normal conditions quickly combines with oxygen and turns into a harmless ion (sulfate). But in the oxygen-free bottom waters of the Salton Sea, hydrogen sulfide can build up to very high levels. When a windy spell stirs up the bottom, a death wave of sulfide rises, killing the fish and plankton it encounters and robbing oxygen from even the surface waters. The chemical reactions produce tiny crystals of gypsum that make the water appear bright green; the air reeks of sulfur, and huge numbers of dead fish soon wash up on shore.
Periodic fish die-offs have been a part of the Salton Sea's history almost since its inception, but the ones recorded during recent years rank among the worst ever. Tilapia had a terrible time in 1999. An African species that invaded the sea in the 1960s or 1970s, this fish became so abundant by the late 1970s that park rangers joked about being able to walk across the water on their backs. In February 1999, however, more than 2 million tilapia died in one episode; six months later an estimated 7.6 million more turned belly-up. More than 14 million Salton Sea fish perished in 2000, followed by 21 million in 2001. Among some of the birds, the picture has been equally depressing. More than 8 million eared grebes were estimated to have visited the sea in the late '80s, but in recent years the number has plummeted to about 20,000.
Standing on the jetty in Salton City, Steve and I could see the crumbling skeletons of little fish on the beach. They didn't stink; their decomposition was too far advanced for that. When we climbed back into the car, though, and drove through more of the town, we got whiffs of something else: a building boom in progress. We hadn't noticed it at first; the expanses of undeveloped property, interlaced with roads and street signs, had grabbed our attention. But now we spotted a construction site here, another one four blocks along, another across the way. We jotted down the phone numbers on the realtors' placards. Out near the highway again, a larger sign pointed to "LOTS FOR SALE -- Model Homes," and after a lunch of chicken quesadillas at the Alamo Mexican Restaurant, we set off in that direction.
Garish posters and flags signaled the presence of the "Salton Sea Estates" model home, one modest story on a corner lot with a two-car garage protruding from its front. A thin strip of turf had been laid down in the front yard, and the sidewalk stopped well short of the street that ran up one side of the property. The rest of the lot looked scraped, denuded but for a few dusty weeds.
Inside the carpeted living room, a half-dozen builders and realtors congregated. A tall, middle-aged woman with shoulder-length brown hair whose name was Marlin took charge of us. Of the models she had for sale, the cheapest was the three-bedroom, two-bath, 1300-square-foot "Sea Gull." At $216,000, it would include "Alpine cabinets," granite countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms, bull-nosed corners on the walls, a mirrored sliding closet door in one of the bedrooms, an automatic garage-door opener, and a front sprinkler system. The "Otter" (four bedrooms, three baths) cost $244,000, she informed us, and a "Jack Rabbit" (four bedrooms, three and a half baths, 2390 square feet) topped the price list at $369,000.
Even Marlin seemed to think $369,000 was pushing the limits of financial prudence. "I'll be honest with you," she confided. "I'm surprised that I'm selling homes at $369,000. I was, like, 'Wow!' I tell people, 'It might be a good investment.' " She looked dubious. "But I wouldn't spend that kind of money myself right now. I'd just stay in the twos."
Marlin lived in Palm Springs, she disclosed. She had started making the commute to Salton City in February 2005 and had already bought two houses for herself in the seaside community. When she'd first arrived, she recalled, the waterfront lots had tantalized her. "At that time, I could have picked one up for $50,000. Now it's $80,000 to $120,000."
"For a lot?" I gasped.
She nodded. "But everyone said, 'Don't do it, Marlin! You don't know if the water's gonna end up covering it or not. And when the wind blows, it's gonna blow into your house so bad you're gonna wish you're not there.' " It gave her pause, she admitted. "I changed my mind about being right on the water, even though I hope I don't regret that one day." But she also wasn't one to be brainwashed, she continued, so she had put her money on two properties east of the highway (the sea side), even though her fellow realtors didn't consider that to be "the prestige area." She'd bought a four-bedroom place just a few blocks from the high school. "There's a lot of big families here. I thought it'd be good to rent." Her other purchase was a three-bedroom house in the part of Salton City known as Vista Del Mar. That was a gamble, she admitted. If the sea is revitalized "and things do good, I will have made it," she predicted. She said nothing about the alternative, so we blurted it out: what if the sea is allowed to dry up?
"There's no way!" the realtor declared. Just the previous week it had "come out" that "Citicorp" would be funding a billion-dollar cleanup effort, she informed us.
Steve and I exchanged glances. On the drive over, I had read him a recent article from the Los Angeles Times. It reported on the latest plan announced by the Salton Sea Authority, a joint-powers agency formed in 1993 to revitalize the sea. The article said that the authority's billion-dollar vision for saving the sea would be funded in part by the construction of up to 200,000 new homes on the southwestern shore. For the scheme to work, the federal government would first have to give the authority up to 15,000 acres of federal land (including a 7800-acre former atomic weapons testing site) to be used for the home building. And Congress would have to guarantee the construction funding. If all that happened, Citigroup had indicated it would underwrite more than $600 million in bonds to finance the homes, according to the article.
That didn't sound to me like a billion-dollar cleanup effort. But I wasn't there to argue with Marlin, who was rattling off more rosy tidings. "Stater Brothers is also coming out here," she continued. "I don't know if there's a Stater Brothers in San Diego. They're a grocery chain. They're gonna be right on the corner of South Marina. Rite Aid has bought property to come out there too. And also Marriott's gonna put in a Residence Inn because the casino's coming in."
"Is the casino a sure thing?" I asked. Steve and I had seen a big billboard on the other side of the highway announcing the casino. It said, "Coming Soon."
"People say maybe, maybe not," Marlin admitted, adding that she didn't expect to see it open "for at least two years." But she expressed confidence it would be built sooner or later. "If you come in before all these people," she said, "you know you're gonna do well."
She said she had another model home she could show us -- a three-bedroom, three-bath 1700-square-foot place that was "one of the most popular models I've ever sold." It was across the highway. We followed the SALT C2 license plates on her Mercedes-Benz sedan and stopped on a street just a few blocks from the high school, one of the only two-story structures in town.
This house had a larger kitchen and a bigger back yard. "You know how much the owner paid for it? One hundred seventy-nine thousand dollars. In February ," the realtor declared. Now, in November, the same model (at other building sites) was commanding a price tag of $269,000, she said. When we wondered why the house we were standing in was still empty, Marlin said the owner was renting it for $1300 a month to Coldwell Banker to be used as a sales office.
She was an independent contractor for Coldwell Banker, she explained, one of four agents who were selling the houses of a group of local builders. "We started off in February with two. Now we're up to nine," she said. All the real-estate agents working with those builders had themselves bought property in Salton City, she claimed. "We believe in it. That's what it takes. You have to believe in it."
A few of the builders were "very, very adamant" about not selling to speculators, she said. "People do come in. They're, like, 'We'll take ten.' And I'm, like, 'I'm not gonna give you ten.' Because then I'd be fighting against myself. There'd be For Sale signs everywhere, and it'd be bad, and there'd be no comps, and it wouldn't work out." She'd sell one or two to an investor. "But I won't sell, like, ten to one guy in one street. We scatter them around."
She also handled the occasional listing for a resale, Marlin told us. Just the other day, a resident with a double-wide mobile home had told her he wanted to list it for $205,000. "I was, like, 'Okay. You want 205? Fine. I'll try.' " But why would anyone spend $205,000 for an old mobile home when they could get a brand-new Sea Gull for $216,000? "I told the guy that," she said.
The agent offered to take us past one more new home, this one in the Vista Del Mar neighborhood where she had bought her second investment home. Priced at $289,000, the model she led us to had a double garage with a ceiling fan over the workbench and fancier floor tiling than any of the other models. "I'll be honest with you. I honestly think this is the nicest home out here," she exclaimed as we stood on its front porch, peering through the windows.
From the porch, we could see the sea, a thin strip of blue a half mile distant. "That's why I bought on this side," she commented. The sight of that blue in the desert was refreshing, while the view across the street reassured her: another cluster of half-framed boxes. "I like the idea of a lot of neighbors," she told us. She particularly enjoyed hanging out with some of the longtime Salton City residents. "You have people here from, like, 1940 or whatever it was, when there used to be all the boating and all the action was happening." Some of them still fished in the sea, they told her. "They go bathing and sunbathing there. They still use it." She wouldn't, Marlin divulged. "But realistically -- it's Southern California. It's the desert, and you've got the sea. Even if I can only look at it, that's good enough for me."
She sped off, and Steve and I climbed back into our car. A few blocks away we came upon another model home bedecked with flags fluttering in welcome. Inside, a slim young man with a high-wattage smile was attending to a Hispanic family. The heavyset matriarch looked worried. She seemed to be fretting over whether the $206,000 price tag of the 1090-square-foot model -- the "Salton" -- would rise if the family failed to put down a deposit immediately. With some reluctance, she and her brood withdrew, promising to return soon.
The realtor stuck out his hand and told us his name was Jered; his business cards were still being printed. After selling Palm Springs real estate for a couple of years, he had just opened the Salton City office two weeks earlier. "It's amazing how much foot traffic I'm getting!"
Jered launched into a capsule history of Salton City, recounting how the infrastructure had been built 45 years ago and the lots sold, but then the houses hadn't materialized. "This ghostly neighborhood just sat here," he said. Now, "With all the bills that were passed to revitalize the area, and all the stuff that's finally moving forward, the builders came in, and it's all set up."
"What turned things around?" I asked. He reflected for a long moment and declared that it was Sonny Bono. "You know he started the Palm Springs film festival to raise money to save the sea. He got the ball rolling, and Mary Bono [the singer-turned-politician's fourth wife, who succeeded him to the U.S. House of Representatives after his untimely 1998 death from a skiing accident] has been really active with it. And then all these things have been passing at the federal level lately, and Citigroup is backing this $1 billion revitalization effort. And all these birds were classified as endangered species, which is gonna necessitate a lot of federal funding. It's good stuff!" He beamed. "They even have this idea that they want to dredge a canal from here to the Gulf of California. That's far-fetched, but it'd be really cool! I mean, imagine cruise ships! But they'll go to any length to prevent the sea from drying up," Jered said. "Because if it dried up, all this toxic stuff would blow over Palm Springs, Indio -- we can't have that happen! They would never allow that to happen."
Jered told us 350 families would be living in the Vista Del Mar neighborhood by the end of 2005. "It's cool beans!" Most of the homes were being bought by people working in the string of desert communities extending from Palm Springs to Brawley, though some of the buyers came from farther afield. "I just sold two Saltons to a couple from L.A. who came in looking for lots."
We asked if the real-estate action at the other communities located around the Salton Sea was as hot as it was in Salton City. The town of North Shore had potential, he replied. "That was kind of the social hub, when Frank Sinatra was here and everyone. There was this big card room/bar that's now closed down and taped off, and there are some nice, big homes. But new construction hasn't started happening yet." As for Bombay Beach, located almost directly across the sea from Salton City, Jered confessed that he needed to get over there and find out "the particulars."
The large Hispanic family reappeared at the door looking anxious, so we released Jered to attend to them. Although the sun was sinking, we decided to drive north on Highway 86. It's an empty stretch of road, relieved only by signs that announce where water pours off the Santa Rosa Mountains during storms: Virgo Wash, Aster Wash, Godetia Ditch, Zanthe Ditch, Calyx Ditch. I wondered who had cared enough to name them all. About seven miles north of Salton City, we passed the "Travel Center" built by the Torres Martinez Indian tribe -- gas station, truck stop, convenience store, Subway. (We saw no indication of where the future Indian casino might take shape.) A little way farther, we turned off the highway at the sign for Salton Sea Beach.
Unlike Salton City, with its eerie open space, Salton Sea Beach feels only a bit less crowded than a trailer park. Its few dozen streets are arranged in a grid next to the water, and they're filled with mobile homes that haven't moved in decades. Makeshift sun shades, sheds, ladders, and other trappings have overgrown them. Flagpoles and antennas rise from the sprawl, poking up at the cobalt sky.
On the shore, we found a line of ratty, palm-thatched windbreaks, each sheltering a decrepit picnic table. We parked next to one, stripped off our shoes, and headed for the water. The stuff that had looked from a distance like sand turned out to be crumbled seashells that pressed into our feet like tiny shards of broken glass. Stepping into the lukewarm water felt better, but we didn't wade far. Blue in the distance, the sea up close was the color of iodine.
The community of Desert Shores, which lies just north of Salton Sea Beach, is the oldest town on the sea. Here Steve and I found at least a hint of onetime aspirations for elegance. A few canals long ago had been dredged next to the waterfront, and two or three houses overlooking the canals intrigued us: substantial two-story structures surrounded by trees and equipped with boat docks. But none of the houses looked new, and many of the neighboring canal-side lots were empty. Away from the water, the jumble of trailers on the town's side streets seemed indistinguishable from what we'd found in Salton Sea Beach. If there was a real-estate boom in either town, we couldn't find it.
After spending the night at the only lodgings in Salton City (the tiny but cheerful Ray and Carol's Motel by the Sea), we struck out for the far side of the sea the following morning. No road runs along the northernmost shore. You have to drive several miles beyond it, then double back and go south on 111, a two-lane highway that meets up after a while with the eastern shore. The narrowness of the road makes the landscape feel more forlorn. We saw few other cars on the highway, but hundreds and hundreds of double-decker freight cars rumbled alongside us on the old Southern Pacific rail line. Most of the cars bore Chinese-sounding names. "There's the federal trade deficit in action," Steve muttered.
"Bienvenidos a North hore," a sign greeted us after the highway approached the water. A few signs announced lots for sale, but even more eye-catching was the garbage strewn everywhere: soiled paper plates and plastic grocery bags, fast-food wrappers, abandoned furniture, broken toys, busted beer bottles, worn-out tires. We wondered if North Shore residents had opted to forgo a central garbage dump in favor of dispersing their trash. It seemed possible: North Shore residents could be creative. We saw at least one home where wet laundry had been pinned to the chain-link fence rather than a clothesline. In North Shore we also found what we assumed was the abandoned nightclub Jered had mentioned the day before. On the water, it stood at the end of a wide driveway lined with palm trees, several of which were dead, their fronds missing, their trunks leaning drunkenly. "Aces & Spades" had been painted in nautical blue script on the façade of the building, which bore a slight resemblance to an ocean liner. Like so many restaurants, nightspots, and hotels around the Salton Sea, the Aces & Spades had long ago shuttered its windows, and rust had eaten into its doors.
The next attraction on the road leading south is the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. We were happy to find a friendly park ranger at the front gate, but she informed us that the visitors' center was closed. The volunteer who ran it had the day off, the ranger explained. She waved us past her without charging admittance and urged us to look around.
In contrast to greater North Shore, the enormous parking lot inside the grounds was immaculate and deserted except for three motor homes, each parked at some distance from the others. What we could see through the windows of the visitors' center looked modern and well-maintained. "What's That Smell?" asked one educational poster in prominent letters posted over a discourse on the algae. We found an even more compelling display of the phenomenon in the little harbor behind the visitors' center. At first glance, the basin appeared to be paved in beautiful moss-green and gray stepping stones. Up close, we realized they were blobs of algae, floating in a charcoal broth. They gave off a pungent, sulfurous odor that drove us back to the car.
On our way out, we commented to the ranger that we hadn't seen a single fishing boat on the water. "Fishing hasn't been great this year," she agreed. The population of tilapia was "way down," she added. "But they're coming back. I call them the rabbits of the sea."
The smell of decaying algae had faded when we reached Bombay Beach, the last major outpost on the sea's eastern shore. The strangest thing about Bombay Beach is that part of the town lies below the level of the Salton Sea -- which itself is 227 feet below the level of the Pacific Ocean. An earthen dike holds back the water. We wondered what the point was. Bombay Beach had "a different style of squalor," Steve observed. The mobile homes looked even older and shabbier than their counterparts in Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shores; many lacked even the flimsiest of sun shields. Snarling dogs barked as we drove by. If we wanted to start a meth lab, Bombay Beach would be our neighborhood of choice, we concurred.
But again, we'd judged too soon. Across the street from the Seaside Baptist Church, we spotted a For Sale sign on a tidy homestead that would have fit right into one of the nicer blocks in Clairemont. Freshly painted yellow and white stripes brightened the exterior of the house, while in the front yard a wooden seagull roosted on a fake wishing well. "Yoo-hoo! Are you looking for something?" a stout blonde woman called to us. She bustled through her front gate, smiling. We asked if she'd sold her place yet.
"I had a buyer for it, but I turned it down," she replied, talking fast. She was 81, she explained, and her husband had died recently. She'd been asking $150,000, and when someone offered her $100,000, she'd said okay. "I had six months to get out. But I have so much stuff!" When she thought about the work of packing it all up, "I just panicked," she confessed, and she'd backed out of the deal. Still, she was leaving up her For Sale sign in case the right buyer came along and offered her the right price.
Her name was Mary Rogers. Over the course of the next half hour, she talked nonstop. More than 35 years ago, she and her husband had come to Bombay Beach from Orange County, where in the postwar years they'd bought their first home for only $13,200. Surrounded by orange groves, it sold for 30-some thousand dollars in the late 1960s, when Mary's husband had decided to retire from his work as a construction superintendent. "Can you imagine? After we'd lived there all those years! And today that same house is selling for $450,000!"
"But we didn't want to rent it," she rushed on. "We didn't want to worry about somebody tearing up the plumbing and all that." Besides, the couple had a boat, and they'd fallen in love with Bombay Beach. "The fishing was tremendous then," Rogers enthused. "Oh, honey! The corvina! They didn't even smell like fish! They're like a white sea bass and absolutely delicious!" Rogers and her husband had a boat that they kept at the local marina, and on weekends they would come out to build their house. They'd work all day, fueled by Cokes and candy bars. "Then I would take one of those old racks that come out of the refrigerator, and I'd build a fire and barbecue baked potato and a piece of top sirloin. We'd have a salad, and that was our only real meal of the day!"
Rogers couldn't believe the way people were now buying up property at Bombay Beach again. "You'd be surprised at the people who buy property here from Oregon and all over. They use it as a winter home." She pointed to the place behind hers. It was being remodeled by a fellow who worked as a chef in a big French restaurant in Hollywood, she claimed. "He makes real good money! He's a single guy, and he loves hunting. He wanted him a place down here, 'cause the hunters like it. He's getting ready to stucco his place. Oh, he's put a lot of money into it!"
If we were looking for a little fixer-upper, we'd have lots of choices, she encouraged us. "I'll tell you about a mobile home that's for sale now. It's one of the cottage types, and it's got a big, beautiful screened-in porch onto it. They've put a little garage onto it. It's real nice." The owners were moving to "Beaumont or Banning or something -- because he wants to be close to a doctor's," and they had confided to her that they would let their place go for $75,000. Utilities cost almost nothing, she added. Even with all her palms and oleanders and other trees, her highest monthly water and sewer bill had never exceeded $30. Her highest-ever electric bill was $130 in the summertime. But winters ran her less than $40.
"Now, when you come here, don't think about" -- Rogers lowered her voice -- "all the junk." She darted a glance at some of the properties around her. "Don't even think about that! I love it here! I've been on cruise ships and everything. I don't have to live here. But I love it! I like to look at the sky at night. I went out and sat on my patio the other night for two hours, looking at the sky and what God has put here. And the peace. You could hear a pin drop at night!"
Rogers told us we shouldn't miss the "spas" fed by the hot springs about five miles down the road from Bombay Beach. We took a quick look at a few of them, but we're not sun-worshipers, so we didn't tarry. We're not bird-watchers either, so we didn't search for the entrance to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge at the south end of the sea.
Instead, we finished our circumnavigation, and back in Salton City, we walked into the office of the Salton Community Service District, where two helpful ladies behind the counter explained that because Salton City wasn't really a city, there are no city taxes. Residents do pay county property taxes that help support the schools. School enrollments have doubled over the last two years, the ladies told us. When we asked if it were true that Rite Aid and Stater Brothers were on the verge of transforming Salton City into a commercial hub, the ladies rolled their eyes. "We've heard rumors for months and months," one said. But they knew of no definite plans.
We asked what they thought had caused the local real-estate boom, and one mentioned the expansion of Highway 86 from two to four lanes. That was completed in 2001, she said. "It's the NAFTA Highway -- between Mexico and L.A." It made it much easier for someone to consider commuting from Salton City to places like Palm Desert. Beyond that, she added, "They're building so fast and furious at either end of the valley. We're the last place to develop. And some of the developers were able to pick up Salton City lots at tax auctions for as little as $500." The word around town was that similar lots were now selling for $35,000.
Driving back to San Diego, Steve and I talked about investing in Salton Sea property. We couldn't live there ourselves; we're city folks. But for all the garbage and rust and abandoned buildings, we'd been impressed with the vistas of desert and water. If it were possible to boat on the sea, pull huge fish from it, and watch thousands of birds every morning -- and if the dreadful odors could be quelled -- we could imagine local property values continuing to climb.
To get some insight into the prospects for the sea overcoming its ecological problems, I talked with Stuart Hurlbert, a professor of biology at San Diego State University. No one knows more about the ecology of the Salton Sea than Hurlbert. He first began teaching students about it in 1978, as part of a field course on the Colorado River delta region. Then, after becoming an expert on salt lakes in the South American altiplano region, he turned his attention to studying the local salt lake. In 1996, he and graduate students began visiting the sea regularly to monitor its various populations. Today Hurlbert's office is crammed with the master's theses that have resulted from these efforts.
Hurlbert told me that he can be "sort of a loose cannon" when he thinks bad decisions are about to be made. At the time that we spoke, he'd been giving grief to the directors of the Salton Sea Authority for their talk of spending $12 million or more to equip the sea with about 300 "SolarBees" -- solar-powered machines designed to circulate the water column by sucking water up a tube and then dispersing it on the surface. "These things will work fine if you've got a small pond," Hurlbert said. But the company that makes them had not offered "even back-of-the-envelope calculations or tests" to show that the gadgets would work on a body of water the size of the Salton Sea, he complained. "Even to a layman, when you are scaling across that many orders of magnitude, you know intuitively that things are not going to work the same. You get waves that are six feet tall in the Salton Sea when you get a windstorm." Hurlbert questioned how long the toxic coating on the SolarBees would prevent barnacles from forming (and sinking the units). He wondered how the sea's currents would affect the machines' operation. "And if you need one for every 50 or 100 acres to make it work, then the amount of money you'll be spending will just be tremendous" -- not to mention the impact of transforming the sea into a slalom course.
He sounded more sanguine about the likelihood of the sea's most pressing problems being solved. "I think there are the outlines of good solutions out there," he said. The Salton Sea Authority for some years has been pushing a plan that would divide the existing sea into halves by means of an eight-mile-wide rocky barrier. Under the plan's current iteration, the inflows of water would be directed into the northern half and a section of the southern half along the southernmost shore. The salinity in those areas could thus be reduced to the range of seawater or less, while most of the southern half of the lake would become a combination of salt flats and salt marsh, with salt-tolerant vegetation. Hurlbert approved of this basic concept, although he pointed out some of the serious problems likely to result from such a change. Someone will have to figure out a way to prevent any exposed areas of lakebed from spawning dust storms. Otherwise the air quality in the Imperial Valley, already bad, could become intolerable. Selenium levels in the fish, already high, may grow higher, endangering both the birds and the people who eat the fish. He thought rechanneling the inflow is likely to cause a tremendous increase in vegetation that will have to be controlled. Mosquito populations may skyrocket, posing subsequent human health risks.
Hurlbert seemed to think these problems were soluble. He sounded more concerned about the political struggles over the sea's future. The 2003 deal that allowed the San Diego County Water Authority to acquire water from the Imperial Irrigation District named the California Department of Water Resources as the agency that will select the best plan for how the sea should be revitalized, a choice the water-resources department is supposed to make by the end of 2006. The water deal also envisioned that the revitalization efforts would be funded by a $300 million state fund (see sidebar). It gave the Salton Sea Authority no control over that money. But the authority has nonetheless continued to lobby for its plan for saving the sea (the double-sea approach, whose cost is now projected to be almost $1.3 billion). This would be mainly funded, in the authority's current vision, by profits generated from the sale of adjoining federal lands and tax-increment bonds. Another group based in Imperial County was pushing for another approach to reconfiguring the lake.
Because of the rivalry between the competing power interests, "There's no open process going on," Hurlbert complained. "There's nobody saying, 'Look, let's get the scientists and the agencies and the political people together and have some sort of open process for designing something that could be good for the wildlife, good for the regional economy, good for agriculture, good for recreation...' "
The other San Diego State faculty member who's most familiar with the Salton Sea is Rick Gersberg. A professor of environmental health who specializes in water-quality research, Gersberg has spent less time studying the sea than Hurlbert, but he's a more diplomatic fellow, and he was invited to sit on a Salton Sea scientific review panel assembled by an office of the U.S. Geological Survey. That group met almost every month from the spring of 2005 through last December. The scientists weren't asked to formulate or even review any sea-revitalization plans, Gersberg said. Instead, they were responding to questions about salinity, selenium, wildlife habitat, and other issues.
Based on that experience, Gersberg told me he couldn't predict which plan for revitalizing the sea would ultimately be selected, though most of the proposals he'd heard seemed reasonable. Most recognized that the Salton Sea would probably shrink anywhere from 25 to 50 percent as agricultural water was diverted to the cities. Given that, "They're trying to maximize the habitat and minimize the problems," the professor said. "There's no single proposal that answers all the questions and gets rid of all the problems. I think they'll have to do some combination."
Gersberg pointed out that the ecological engineering that will have to take place at the Salton Sea is on a scale that's never been tried before. "The sea is not natural to begin with, but it's been around 100 years, and it's large, so it has come to some sort of a natural state. And when you change something on this scale, it's hard to predict all the ramifications." It will never be mistaken for Lake Tahoe -- "a big blue lake, perfectly clean, and the same size or shape as the current Salton Sea. That's not going to happen," he said.
Gersberg did think the sea would wind up being preserved as a wildlife habitat, and I asked if he were tempted to buy land out there, to get in on the boom. But he shook his head no. "It's hot," he said. I couldn't argue with that.