Dvd extras

Not-So-Great Salt Lake

Why have even the environmentalists given up on the Salton Sea?

The documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea does not look or feel like a serious film about the environment. In place of sumptuous photos of killer whales or polar bears, the jacket of the recently released DVD features a kitschy collage of dead flies, cracked and sunken earth, and a large woman wearing a pink muumuu and holding a fish whose eyes have been cartoonishly x-ed out. In place of the usual concerned baritone, John Waters does the honors as narrator, tying the film to his classic body of cinematic work on American kookery. Instead of classy strings and haunting woodwinds, the melancholy Austin lounge band Friends of Dean Martinez provides the soundtrack. The closest thing you’ll find to an earnest celebrity cameo is a brief appearance by the late Sonny Bono.

But Plagues and Pleasures has a different style for a reason: It’s a movie about the environment that isn’t content with the good-bad dynamic of your average gloomy enviropic. And its subject is hardly some pristine Alaskan wilderness. The Salton Sea was made by man, and it can be rather grotesque. To the extent it shows up in the news these days, it’s when there’s a development in the plan to use its water to quench the famously thirsty cities of Southern California. Directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, documentarians with a taste for the offbeat who spent four off-and-on years filming in the area, walk a fine line between reveling in post-apocalyptic images of a dying sea (piles of dead fish do make for dramatic images) and suggesting reasons why, despite its accidental origins and ongoing problems, we should consider the sea a place worth saving.

The Salton Sea was created when the Colorado River was diverted for irrigation purposes. In 1905, a flood breached the walls of a temporary diversion, spilling water into a valley called the Salton Sink. The breach was finally closed in 1907, but in the meantime, a 376-square mile sea—a body of water bigger than Lake Tahoe—was born. As John Waters puts it in his inimitable style, the sea was “an engineering screwup”—a byproduct of the grand schemes of those who would make the desert bloom. 

From the beginning, boosters tried to get sport fishermen to come to the sea, which, thanks to the natural salinity of the Colorado and the salty soil of the desert floor, is saltier even than the ocean. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the sea enjoyed a major real estate boom, as waterfront property was hocked in kitschy promotional reels like “Miracle in the Desert,” included as an extra on the Plagues and Pleasures DVD. A cheery narrator reminds his audience that in nearby Palm Springs, real estate was once worth almost nothing. “If anyone had told you three decades ago that this vast, nearly deserted land would be worth $2,000 to $3,000 a front foot, you would have probably laughed at such a fantastic idea,” he says. The people of Palm Springs had faith in the human ability to make bad land into good. Why not believe the same is possible for the Salton Sea?

People took the bait in droves. Visitors came from the rapidly expanding Southern California metroplex to fish, swim, and (as the locals interviewed frequently remind us) drink cocktails at the yacht clubs that sprung up around the sea. The area even had its own golf course. Photographs from that era show crowded beaches and marinas, filled with postwar Californians living the good life. For a while, the sea saw more visitors than Yosemite National Park.

But Salton’s golden age was short-lived. In 1976 and 1977, due to above-average rainfall, increased runoff from the surrounding agricultural fields, and two tropical storms, the sea flooded, swamping hotels, bars, and entire neighborhoods, now remembered only by the telephone poles that still poke out over the water. The sea never quite recovered. The runoff, laden with the Green Revolution’s miraculous fertilizers, was heavy in nitrogen and phosphorus, and created water with very little oxygen. Algae flourishes under these conditions, but fish do not, and the sea’s stocks—wildlife managers had successfully imported orange mouth corvina in the ‘50s—began dying off in huge numbers, their carcasses heaping up as far as the eye could see.

Perhaps even more damning for its reputation, the sea also developed what could be kindly described as a distinctive smell, caused by the death of the algae blooms that feed on those nutrient imbalances. On the DVD’s commentary track, Steve Horwitz, the superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, the state-run park on the northeast shore of the Sea, recalls that a lawyer from Palm Springs once called him and threatened to sue him if he didn’t somehow “stop” the smell. “Get in line,” Horvitz jokes ruefully.

The Salton Sea depicted in Plagues and Pleasures is very different than the one in those midcentury promotional reels. There are shots of the dead fish, of the oversalinated shoreline, and of the rusted-out trailers and vacant lots of Bombay Beach, once a promising place to buy a retirement home. But while the film doesn’t shy away from the degradations the sea has suffered, it also makes it seem worth saving—if for no other reason than for the sake of its colorful denizens. There’s the Hungarian ex-freedom fighter, Hunky Daddy, who can’t understand why his adopted country won’t “fix” the sea: “It’s a shame for America, special California have a big-ass lake in the USA, and let ‘um go like that.” And there are the impoverished residents of Bombay Beach, which these days is so blighted that the shots of children playing soccer in a dusty vacant lot are reminiscent of scenes from City of God.

But there are environmental reasons for saving the sea, too. As the documentary explains, migratory birds, robbed of their erstwhile stopover feeding grounds in the wetlands that once made up San Diego and Los Angeles, have adopted the sea as a new pit stop. If it is allowed to die, the birds will once again be out of luck. The sea, its advocates say, is also eminently savable. As Horvitz is fond of pointing out, it isn’t polluted, as is commonly thought; it’s just suffering from man-made ecological imbalances.

Horvitz has authored a Web page describing the ecological challenges facing the sea, most of which he chalks up to its ever-increasing saltiness and excessive nutrient loads from the fertilizer that continues to run off into the sea. The Salton Sea Authority, the state commission that coordinates groups working on Salton issues, has its own Web page with proposals for how to reverse the sea’s decline, including plans to pump water into the Pacific or the Gulf of California and exchange it with less salty ocean water; harvesting nutrients from the runoff before it hits the sea; and the creation of desalinization plants.

The biggest obstacle the sea faces may not be finding solutions to its problems but finding allies. Given its history, the sea has never been a popular cause among environmentalists. Instead, it’s had to rely on the efforts of residents like Norm Niver, interviewed near the end of the documentary. Niver looks like he’d rather be mowing his lawn or dandling grandchildren on his knee, but he spends his days advocating on behalf of the sea. Shaking a finger at the spiritual sons and daughters of John Muir, he issues what sounds like a challenge: “It’s the environmentalists who will never join us. … They call it a mistake, unnatural. They would rather see it fall apart.” Niver, and Plagues and Pleasures, are somewhat strange messengers, but their message is an important one. An environmentalism that concerns itself only with the pristine is one that gives up far too much ground.