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A ghost town in the making: How the Salton Sea went from bustling resort to a ‘public health disaster’

Daily Mail

With sandy beaches and warm water year-round, Salton Sea in California was the perfect family getaway of the 1950s and 60s. It attracted Hollywood’s elite – Rock Hudson water-skied there, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis visited their friend Guy Lombardo’s yacht which was moored there. The Beach Boys were members of the North Shore yacht club, Sonny Bono was a visitor and President Dwight Eisenhower golfed there.

Business was booming – hotels, motels, casinos and yacht clubs popped up along the lake’s 116-mile shoreline helping to create enclaves including Bombay Beach and Salton City. Residents and developers quickly reaped the benefits of the influx. 

Back then it was called the ‘miracle in the desert’. Today, it is described as an ‘ecological nightmare and disaster’ – a ghost town in the making.

The Salton Sea was accidentally created when in 1905 the Colorado River swelled, breached its levees and flooded into the Salton Sink desert valley. For two years the water flowed, creating the Salton Sea – a 15-mile by 35-mile freshwater lake 45miles outside of Palm Springs. By the 1970s it was in decline due to there being almost no rainfall, no way for the lake to drain and runoff water contaminated with pesticides from nearby farms flowed into it. Salt levels increased making it saltier than the Pacific Ocean, depleting oxygen levels in the water. Thousands of fish died annually and washed onto the shore where they shriveled up and decayed in the extreme heat.

Where holidaymakers once sunbathed, the sand is littered with sun-bleached fish carcasses. On hot summer days when the temperature can reach up to 120F (48.8C), a pungent sulphur odor hangs in the air that can be smelled 150 miles away in Los Angeles. In short, the Salton Sea smells of rotten eggs.

The once-bustling hotels are derelict, broken wooden frames of buildings stand in some spots as other structures are badly decaying with graffiti spray painted over the boarded-up windows and doors.

But it isn’t just the smell and the ecological impact that people are concerned about. The most pressing issue for residents near the Salton Sea is the continued threat of toxic dust that sweeps up from the dry lakebed containing harmful pesticides, heavy metals and powdery-fine particles that are linked to asthma, respiratory diseases and even cancer.

Located in southern California about 150 miles from Los Angeles, the Salton Sea is the state's largest lake, but it's an ecological nightmare. For decades the lake has been shrinking, resulting in record-high salinity levels, fish die-offs, and fewer migrating birds. But even worse than the ecological issues is the toxic dust that is predicted to become an 'air quality disaster'.  Pictured above is an aerial view of the lake showing how the water has significantly evaporated from it's shoreline

One in five children in Imperial County suffer from asthma and have lung related illnesses compared with a national average of 1 in 12, according to the latest government data. Dr. Tim Krantz, the recognized authority on the geography of the Salton Sea, said it is a ‘public health disaster’ in the making.

Krantz, who served as the Salton Sea Database Program Director, said: ‘Our real concern changed from the ecology and the loss of that which is important, but our real focus became what’s going to happen to these toxic dry lakebed sediments once they are exposed to the desert winds?

‘It will be an air quality disaster unparalleled in the world. Millions of people as far south as Mexi-Cali will be affected by this.’

But the area – though a near ghost town, is home to a band of vocal residents who are determined to effect change.

Last week voters in California approved a bond measure that will provide $200million in funding to help control the alkaline toxic dust by building wetlands on the dry lakebed. But some residents don’t think that’s enough, since even those efforts won’t cover the entire playa.

‘The miracle in the desert’: How an accidentally flooded desert valley became a tourist destination, then an ecological wasteland

The sea occupies what was once known as the Salton Sink – an ancient dry lakebed. At the beginning of the 19th century, government officials and land developers discovered that the fine-grained fertile soil in the area and hot climate would produce bountiful farmland if water could be irrigated to the region from the Colorado River.

Irrigation canals were quickly built and water began flowing in. Thousands relocated to the area to work as farmers while developers reaped the benefits of utilizing 100,000 acres of land.

The Salton Sea is located in Southern California about 150 miles from Los Angeles and 45 miles outside of Palm Springs

But extreme rains in 1905 caused the Colorado River to flood and break through the irrigation canals filling the Salton Sink for the next 18 months. It was stopped after the Southern Pacific Railroad intervened by dumping tons of debris into the water to divert its flow.

The Colorado River went back to its natural flow path of flowing into the Sea of Cortez, but what was left behind was a massive lake that covered nearly a thousand square miles of land. Just south of Palm Springs and north of the Mexican border. Officials called it the Salton Sea.

Thanks to the increasing popularity of nearby Palm Springs as a desert resort town, developers tried making the Salton Sea area the new ‘it’ place to be. Resorts were built along the lake’s shoreline in newly created towns including Salton City and Bombay Beach offering a plethora of water related activities.

Officials introduced fish to the lake to create an opportunity for fishing and by the late 1950s the Salton Sea had become the most productive fishery in the state and had established itself as a tourism destination.

As developers and officials poured money into building up the desert oasis cities, few resources were used to actually manage and maintain what was called the ‘accidental lake’.

There is no outflow for the Salton Sea and during the late 1970s, heavy rain from a series of tropical storms caused the level in sea to increase and flood its banks. Surrounding towns were instantly flooded and the businesses along the shore were severely damaged. Tourism quickly faded away, and so did the residents who called it home.

But it went from one extreme to another because by the 1980s and 90s, the lake, which is less than 60 feet at its deepest point, started to recede rapidly and it became clear that the area was in bad shape.

The water would have eventually evaporated because the region’s mean annual evaporation is 70.8 inches while its mean annual precipitation is only about 2.3 inches. But the runoff from the Imperial Valley’s large farm areas offset the usual evaporation rate. However, what once kept the Salton Sea viable actually contained high quantities of salt, fertilizer and pesticides and the water grew more saline by the year, becoming twice as salty as the ocean. Fish started to drown, the algae blooms starving the water of oxygen. The decomposing bodies of the fish fed more algae, which re-started the cycle again.

In 1996, roughly 20 per cent of the Western population of white pelicans died at the Salton Sea. About 150,000 eared grebes had died that same year, with the remaining population ‘so disoriented that they stood still while gulls tore into their flesh and began eating them on the spot,’ according to Robert H. Boyle who reported for the Smithsonian.

During the summer of 1999, more than 8million tilapia died in a single day, leaving them to wash along the shore in a band that was about three miles wide and 10 miles long. A variety of species no longer exist in the lake – only tilapia and the desert puff fish, which is an endangered species, remain, according to Krantz.

‘There are some indications that the tilapia is already hitting their salt limits and not producing anymore. So the fish that we have there are all older fish and probably in the next several years, they’re going to hit their own salt limits and we will have a massive die off of tens of millions of tilapias,’ he said. ‘And with that will go all of the ecological support for the migratory fish-eating birds – the white pelicans, the eared grebes and other birds that depend on them. It’s going to get real crazy.’

To make matters worse, a complex agreement which shares water from the Colorado River came to an end on January 1, 2018, leading to an expected further decrease in water flowing into the Sea and speeding up the evaporation rate even faster, Krantz added.

But in addition to the environmental disaster currently underway, Krantz says the problems are going to get worse.

‘Millions of will be affected by the toxic dust when strong winds blow, especially if they already suffer from asthma,’ Krantz stated. ‘This is a public health disaster if nothing is done to fix it. ‘ 

‘If nothing happens, it’s going to be a disaster’: In an area where one in five children has asthma, communities continue to rally to save their neighborhoods

The threat of health problems is all too real in the communities dotted around the Salton Sea’s 116-mile shoreline.

Over the past 15 years, the surface of the Salton Sea has declined 7.6 feet and the retreating shoreline has left about 20,000 acres of dry lakebed exposed – which is a growing surface that threatens to spew more toxic dust into communities. The dust has already started affecting the health of people living near the lake, which is split between Imperial and Riverside counties. Imperial County has the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children in California.

In Imperial County, one in five children suffer from asthma and respiratory illnesses compared with a state average of one in eight and a nationwide average of one in 12 according to the latest date from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the local schools.

For many residents, the option of packing up and moving to another city is not on the table. One in four people in Imperial County live in poverty.

Imperial County is also one of the state’s poorest. According to census data from 2016, 23 percent of the county’s 180,000 residents live in poverty with the per capita income at $16,311. With the housing demand in California increasing, middle and lower-income families are being forced to move to more urban areas in the state.

It was a hot afternoon when DailyMail.com visited with residents gathered at a lakefront home in Desert Shores for a community rally. Even though there’s a myriad of problems plaguing the area, their spirit is strong.

Seaview Elementary School teacher Heidi Pelonski was one of the two dozen people gathered for the event. The longtime resident grew up on a nearby citrus farm, moved away for college and began her teaching career out of state before returning back to the lakeside community she’s always loved.

Pelonski told DailyMail.com about how her students are being affected: ‘I’ve known known them since they were kindergartners so I’ve watched some of them develop difficulties with asthma. I know that there is a notable difference in the kids who come here from elsewhere and the kids who have been living here and their struggles with respirations.

‘There is this one ailment that’s an incessant coughing that is somewhat recurrent in my students. And they miss a lot of school for that. That one particularly is iconic of this area especially in the ratios that I’ve seen it.’

Pelonski, who teaches kindergarten, first and second graders and previously taught at schools in Nevada, Oregon and other parts of California, noted that she’s ‘never seen this volume of those respiratory related effects.’

‘So I’m looking at the health quality for the children who live here and what can be done to stabilize it,’ she stated. ‘I’m very concerned about my students who can’t afford to move anywhere else, that’s why they’re here. Just the way the cost of living is going in California, (this area is) an affordable place for them so they are here. I hate to see them suffer just because they are trying to get by.’

Sandra Ramirez – a stay-at-home mom of four children aged 15, 13, 11 and nine whose 13-year-old has asthma – is one of the many who moved to the area nearly 20 years ago because of the low cost of living. The mother-of-four, who passed out flyers about the Coachella Valley Farmer’s Group during the event, told to DailyMail.com: ‘When I came from Mexico 20 years ago, you could put your feet inside of the Salton Sea. But now it’s not okay.’

Among the residents is retiree Dale Johnson, 67, who moved to the area 13 years ago to help support his wife’s ailing mother. Sporting a sleeveless white shirt, blue jeans and dark sunglasses, he took residence of a lawn chair in his neighbor’s yard as the community gathering got underway and reminisced about the Salton Sea of yesteryear.

He said: ‘It was beautiful here, there was a lot of habitat and all of these canals were filled up, boats were out there 13 years ago when we first got here.

‘I could take my canoe and go out if I wanted to. But over the years the water has just dropped and dropped. The birds aren’t coming here anymore, the fish have gone down and there’s not a lot of food in that water.’

Besides the ecological nightmare the Salton Sea has become, Johnson said the main issue is dust control.

‘If nothing happens, it’s going to be a disaster. It’s going to be a toxic waste and it’s going to go everywhere.

‘All of Palm Springs, Los Angeles and more will be affected from the dust because of the wind,’ he said.

‘And they’re going to have to spend billions of dollars. I can’t even fathom how much they’d have to spend.’

Like Johnson, Jeni Bates moved here 14 years ago from the UK and she shares the same feelings as Johnson.

‘I understand in the Imperial Valley, this is now one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country,’ she noted.

‘So a lot more childhood asthma and a lot more people getting sick with breathing problems. Eventually, it could get so bad that everyone will have to move.’

Bates is right about the toxic levels of dust in the air. The southeastern corner of the state has some of the worst air pollution in the United States due to the dirt from farmland and open desert mixes with the windblown clouds of the toxic dust that rises from the receding shores of the lake.

For years, residents have been calling for state officials to do something about the problems plaguing the communities around the Salton Sea.

‘I think over the last 14 years there have been a lot of people thinking about it, studying it and thinking about it, but nothing has happened so far,’ Bates said.

‘It’s taken the grass root people to actually get something like this mitigation really done. The government has been thinking about it, and spent a lot of money on thinking about it. But not a lot has been done.’ 

After being ‘ignored’ for years, California’s 10-year plan brings hope to residents – but is it too late to save the Salton Sea?

Several plans have been proposed by officials over the years, but none of them have seemed to take shape and truly help the lake until now.

In March 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration released a 10-year $410-million plan that calls for building ponds and wetlands on sections of the exposed playa. However, the projects will only cover up less than half of the 60,000-plus acres of lakebed that will be left dry over the next decade.

Water focused think tank The Pacific Institute estimated in a 2014 report that without significant steps to fix the Salton Sea, the costs over the next 30 years could range from $29billion to $70billion including higher health care costs for illnesses and lower property values.

Furthermore, The Pacific Institute estimated that the cost of unchecked dust blown in the wind on public health problems like asthma, lung cancer and cardiac disease could reach as high as $37billion by 2047.

They warned that the exposed lakebed could be releasing as much as 100 tons of dust into the air per day within 30 years. The costly issues the Salton Sea is not the first time the state has faced such an expensive health hazard.

In the 1920s water was diverted from Owens Lake in the Sierra Nevada to supply Los Angeles. But eventually the dry lakebed became a huge source of air pollution causing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to spend $1.8billion to control the dust in Owens Valley.

‘I’ve seen what happened at Owens Lake, I’ve seen the giant dust gales that happen and all of that soot just becomes airborne and is carried on for miles and miles into other communities,’ Pelonski said.

‘And it’s going to be 10 times the size here, especially with the winds that we get here. So I’m very concerned about my students who can’t afford to move anywhere else, that’s why they’re here.’

Like others, she is scared for the outcome if the 10-year plan fails and nothing is done to help the area.

She said: ‘It’s been ignored and ignored and ignored and ignored and ignored, I think that it’s going to go the way of the Owens Lake and I don’t think that there’s any culpability about it. But if it goes the way of the Owens Lake, it’s an anti-humanitarian.’

Some hope for the future was provided for residents last week when voters in the state passed Proposition 68 approving $200million as part of $4billion to benefit various environmental, conservation and parks projects around the state.

The bond measure for Salton Sea will provide funding to build thousands of acres of wetlands around the shrinking lake. But many residents don’t think that’s enough to save the sea.


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2 Responses to A ghost town in the making: How the Salton Sea went from bustling resort to a ‘public health disaster’

  1. Mark Schumacher in LV says:

    Millions of us eat onions grown commercially in this area.

  2. # 1 NWO Hatr says:

    What I saw of the Salton Sea back in the 60’s was NOT a ‘bustling resort’.

    What I saw of it was hot, smelly & nasty… not MY idea of vacation location.

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