WORDS BY ISOBEL WHITCOMB
The Salton Sea has long been regarded as an apocalyptic wasteland, but it’s much more. The Frontline explores the future of the lake threatened by drought and pollution—and what it means for the people who live nearby.
California’s largest body of water is a collision of life and death. In the middle of the desert, past Palm Springs’s manicured lawns and Joshua Tree’s tumbling boulders, white flocks of pelicans explode from a lake so large and blue that where it meets the horizon, it appears to merge with the sky.
When I first visited the Salton Sea in 2015, the pelicans were the first thing I noticed. Hundreds of bird species—scarlet-crowned sandhill cranes, ibis adorned with metallic feathers, and 33% of the entire North American population of white pelicans—stop here on their journeys between Alaska and South America. The second thing I noticed was the pile of fishbones that crunched underfoot as I approached the shoreline. Up close, the water doesn’t appear so inviting—it’s murky and brown and stinks of rotten eggs. We were lucky to visit on a still day. In windier conditions, you should wear an N95 mask to protect your lungs from the toxic dust left behind by the rapidly evaporating and heavily polluted water.
In my experience, very few people have heard of the Salton Sea. When I mention my obsession with the place—its vibrancy in the face of extraction—I usually get questioning looks. For those who have heard of it, the pollution and hazardous air usually come to mind. Almost as soon as its formation just over a century ago, the Salton Sea has been drying up. The remaining water is an increasingly concentrated slough of salt and agricultural runoff from the massive farms nearby.
The cocktail is deadly to most fish and increasingly hazardous to bird populations, which have been dropping in massive die-offs. In 2019, an estimated 7,000 migratory birds— 7% of the sea’s daily bird population—were killed in an outbreak of avian cholera brought on by shrinking habitat and poor environmental conditions. Dust from newly exposed playas mingles with fumes from the algae and bacteria that thrive in the fertilizer-enriched environment. Asthma rates among children in the communities here—overwhelmingly poor with crumbling or non-existent infrastructure—are twice as high as the rest of the state.
At a time when devastating drought is parching lakes, rivers, and wetlands across the U.S. and pushing climate migrants northward, the Salton Sea acts as a microcosm for the collision of climate change, resource extraction, and settler colonialism that we’re seeing on both a regional and global scale.
“It has everything: energy issues, water issues, environmental justice issues,” said Joan Taylor, the vice chair of the Sierra Club’s California/Nevada Desert Committee, which works to protect arid lands throughout the Southwest.
For decades, the state of California has agonized over what to do with the lake—but a long and complicated history makes that process less than intuitive. On Monday, the U.S. government finally announced a $250 million plan made possible by the recent passing of the Inflation Reduction Act to clean up the lake over four years.
For me and others who love the place, the Salton Sea is an unlikely bastion of hope: it offers an opportunity to recognize and love a vibrant ecosystem despite inevitable loss and transformation.
The Salton Sea should not exist—not in this century, at least. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white settlers began to farm the deserts east of Los Angeles, relying on canals that diverted water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley. Land was plentiful and cheap, and as populations grew, demand for water did, too.
In 1905, the private California Development Company began an ambitious attempt to irrigate the desert, cutting into the banks of the Colorado River to create a new waterway. The idea failed when floodwaters breached the cut, diverting the entire river into a basin called the Salton Sink. The result: a lake the size of New York City.
At first, this engineering fumble didn’t dissuade developers from attempts to extract from the desert. The Salton Sea was briefly transformed into a vacation destination, replete with yacht clubs for Los Angeles’s high society. The lake was stocked with corvina, croaker, and sargo for sports fishermen. It was during this heyday that Taylor of the Sierra Club first moved to Palm Springs. She’d swim in what were then clear waters, salty with desert minerals but free from pollution.
“We thought that it would go on forever,” Taylor said.
Of course, it didn’t. Agricultural runoff—incidentally, the lake’s primary source of water—began to poison the lake. The Salton Sea is a terminal lake, meaning water doesn’t flow out via rivers and streams. It loses water only via evaporation. As drought pummeled the region, farmers became more efficient in their water use, leading to a decrease in the runoff feeding the lake. Evaporation began to concentrate the salt and pollutants that flowed in from the runoff. By around the 1970s, the lake was starting to become too salty for riparian life. The Sierra Club’s Taylor began noticing dead fish washed up on its shores.
Slowly, the vacationers disappeared.
“It’s an impossible landscape to categorize, and because of that, we feel uncomfortable with it.”
There’s a popular narrative about what happened from this point on: California’s premier resort town turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Indeed, if you drive along the shore of the Salton Sea, you’ll pass along dirt roads with names like Yacht Club Drive that are lined only with empty lots and junk. Today, the Salton Sea gets disparaged in public discourse. One travel blog described the nearby town of Bombay Beach, whose population has fallen from 400 to 200 in just 20 years, as “whittled, rotted, and abandoned.” A Slate article referred to the Salton Sea as a “skeleton-filled wasteland.” Myths of the supernatural abound—from run-of-the-mill UFO sightings to fantastical tales of military experiments that spawned snail monsters and zombie plagues.
It’s a romantic narrative of human hubris and paradise lost. But despite the fishbones, my impression of the lake wasn’t of a “wasteland.” I saw expansive skies, creosote bushes, and pockets of shade beneath mesquite trees. Cliffs jutted up from the San Andreas fault line, and volcanoes of mud bubbled with unseen life: bacteria adapted to the extremes of this environment. The lake filled me with a strange sense of hope for life in the Anthropocene.
Despite extinction and ecosystem collapse, plants, animals, and people find new ways of assembling and thriving in unexpected places. Life somehow goes on. What remains can still be beautiful—if you look through the right lens.
Todd Luce, an environmental historian at the University of California, Riverside, agrees that the popular narrative is reductive: “The post-apocalyptic thing, frankly, it just makes good copy,” he said.
Here’s the more complicated narrative: the Salton Sea existed long before the California Development Company’s blunder. Over thousands of years, the Colorado River repeatedly flooded the basin where the sea is located today—without the encouragement of shoddy engineering projects. Countless times, the resulting body of water, Lake Cahuilla, formed and dried up again and formed once more. Native people who called the Coachella Valley home adapted to this dynamic environment. When Lake Cahuilla appeared, they retreated to high ground and fished from the lake. When it dried, they were nourished by the rich plant and animal life of salt marshes and deserts.
Luce himself grew up fishing at the lake we now know as the Salton Sea and fell in love with its expansive skies and mountains. “You need to have a double vision when you look at this landscape,” he said. “On the one hand, it’s the creation of the Anthropocene and capital.” On the other hand, he added, it’s also a place that has flooded myriad times over thousands of years.
In her book The Settler Sea, Traci Brynne Voyles, a professor and chair of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oklahoma, refers to the predominant narrative about the Salton Sea as an example of “wastelanding.” She argues that we categorize things as “wastelands” based on who occupies them and whether those people deserve our respect and protection. In other words, the “post-apocalyptic” picture of the Salton Sea also ignores the thousands of people—primarily Latine—who build their livelihoods around the sea. As broken as its ecosystem is, the sea is still vital to and beloved by these people.
Aydee Palomino, environmental justice project manager at the Coachella Valley-based community advocacy nonprofit Alianza, grew up a 30-minute drive from the Salton Sea in the town of La Quinta. After leaving for college in Flagstaff, Arizona, she returned.
“The desert is home for me,” Palomino said.
She loves the dry heat, the flashes of lightning against the red mountains, and the torrential downpours. As a kid, she and her friends would go out dressed in bathing suits just to stand in the warm rain. Palomino is a Latina and second-generation American whose parents came to Southern California from Mexico. Her heritage and culture make the Coachella Valley—and its tight-knit Latine communities—feel all the more like home.
“I’m surrounded by a lot of people of the same culture, similar stories of immigration,” she said.
Palomino’s childhood home was the only one in her extended family that had a pool, and she remembers swimming with cousins, aunts, and uncles until four in the morning. “Those memories never leave you,” she said.
Lately, Palomino frequently catches whiffs of sulfuric fumes wafting off the Salton Sea. The dust storms that drift west occasionally cloud the air. She knows that if things get worse—as they’re poised to do with current inaction on the lake—she could always move as painful as that would be. But not everyone has that privilege. These are communities whose roads are made of dust and whose power grids regularly fail. Many livelihoods are tied to agriculture in the nearby Imperial Valley. Some moved into the region with their entire extended families.
“If one family unit moves away,” Palomino said, “you’re breaking that community or bond.”
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that activists became aware that the Salton Sea was starting to die, the Sierra Club’s Taylor said. When singer and Republican California Congressman Sonny Bono caught wind of the bird die-offs in 1996, he successfully brought millions of dollars to the sea’s nearly 38,000-acre wildlife refuge and to scientists conducting research there.
“All of a sudden, lots of organizations became interested in it,” Taylor said.
Since then, an array of solutions has been proposed, including an elaborate plan to pump seawater across the U.S.-Mexico border and 160 miles of desert into the Salton Sea. Still, in the intervening decades, the situation has only worsened. The Imperial Valley only receives its water from the Colorado River. As states and stakeholders negotiate that dwindling water supply, advocates for the Salton Sea find themselves having to fight for its right to exist.
Part of the challenge of preserving the Salton Sea? It’s not clear to everyone what preservation means. As a lake that is simultaneously a century old and millennia old, human-made and an ancient feature of the landscape, the Salton Sea resists classification as natural or unnatural.
The American preservation ethos has long rested on the idea of maintaining things as they were without human intervention. But with the Salton Sea, there’s no clear vignette of unspoiled nature to return to. “It’s an impossible landscape to categorize, and because of that, we feel uncomfortable with it,” Luce said. The “wasteland” narrative has also harmed these efforts, Luce added. “It’s a lot harder to care about a place if it’s totally ruined already.”
But the Salton Sea isn’t an anomaly in its precarious position between “natural” and “man-made.” It was humans who, over thousands of years, nurtured old-growth forests with strategically set fires—and humans who helped drive ancient megafauna to extinction, creating modern ecosystems that are decisively free of woolly mammoths. And in a planet where nothing is untouched by the effects of colonization and extraction—from climbing greenhouse gas concentrations to suffocating non-native species—the ideal of a pristine landscape has never been more of an illusion.
Part of the challenge of preserving the Salton Sea? It’s not clear to everyone what preservation means.
On the Hawaiian islands, native plant species now rely on human-introduced birds to disperse their seeds. In suburban back gardens, non-native plants provide vital habitat for insects. In this way, the dilemma of saving the Salton Sea is a universal one: what does it mean to tend to a broken planet when turning back the clock isn’t an option?
Some advocates for the Salton Sea believe that our role isn’t to preserve the landscape as it is now or as it was hundreds of years ago, but to preserve its ecosystem function, the role it serves to birds and wildlife. One plan the state of California is considering involves tending to a much smaller, carefully landscaped Salton Sea. Levis and catchments would divide the water into what water policy and environmental resources expert Michael Cohen described as “habitat cells” with varying salinity—for instance, one to capture fresh inflows and another to act as a receptacle for brine. This would provide a variety of food resources to birds while mitigating dust emissions, said Cohen, who works as a senior researcher at nonprofit environmental research organization the Pacific Institute.
“We’re basically saying we can’t preserve the Salton Sea as a full body of water,” Cohen said. “It’s going to be a heavily managed system. That’s very different from what’s currently there or what has existed, I guess, probably ever.”
Whatever authorities decide on, they may finally have some money to help resource their plans if the local irrigation district approves the $250 million funding proposal the federal government put forth earlier this week.
In their poem For the Feral Splendor That Remains, American poet CAConrad contemplates our relationship to these heavily altered ecosystems: “history of life on / earth might be / interesting to a / visitor one day / … / in a future life / would we like to / fall in love with the / world as it is with / no recollection / of the beauty / we destroy / today”
Conrad’s poem captures the soaring optimism I experienced when I first encountered the Salton Sea. It was 2015, and I was at a point of despair. The West Coast was four years into a catastrophic drought, and I was burnt out from a year of climate activism. I ached for a different world, but white pelican wings beating against a desert sky made me believe I could love this one—the feral splendor that has formed perhaps over millennia, perhaps because of a failed effort to reign in nature.