On the road in "Sharemerica": The Salton Sea, Part 2

Editor’s note: Local photographer Bryan McCormick recently left Las Vegas on an open-ended journey into the nation’s “sharing culture,” which he plans to document in words, pictures and a variety of other media. These are the ongoing chronicles of his adventures. This installment, filed from the Salton Sea, explores the area’s people and issues.

There are indeed people in the Salton Sea cities, with Salton City, the place I chose to stay, being the largest. It is not a ghost town, as many assume. There are families and schools. Artists and just plain folk. In Desert Shores there was even a Santa Claus parade during the holidays. In short, it is like many small rural towns in America, but with some special challenges.

Living side-by-side with the locals was the best way to see and appreciate their circumstances without the barrier of being a “drive-by-tourist.” To be sure, in the house I lived in people did show many times every day to have a look at the sea. Among the ones I encountered were film students, Polish tourists, a homesteading couple from Alaska and many others who drove up, snapped a few pictures and got back into the car without so much as stopping for a breath. Or realizing there were people living right on the street they’d just driven down, assuming it was for tourist use only.

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For some, the sea was something they had history with and kept coming back to visit. One story included the terror of a midnight canoe ride and a swarm of pelicans that nearly helped capsize the boat. Others were merely curious, crossing it off the “must see” list for their road trip. For the film students, perhaps it was for extra credit for disaster porn. That, I hasten to add, is mostly on the east side of the sea, at Bombay Beach.

For the town, the curious do bring much-needed commerce. But they do get themselves into trouble. Mostly this consists of passersby who do not seem to understand that real people still live here, and property lines routinely get crossed and yards trammeled. “If it’s tourist season, why can’t I shoot them?” is a sentiment you hear from time to time. An uneasy relationship with tourists may seem familiar to readers. In the case of the locals at Salton City, there is bemusement, annoyance and sometimes real concern.

In the former category are those who attempt to drive onto what they think is the beach, and promptly break through the crust and sink into the black ooze that is in fact the lakebed. Andy, a tow truck operator, makes good dollars pulling out the trespassers. And sometimes it’s the people wandering too close to the edge who get stuck.

The largest group of visitors are off-roaders and ultralight flyers. While riding out onto the lakebed may seem harmless, it is not. There are protected species that are put at risk from habitat destruction. But the real concern is the long-term damage the repeated breaking of the crust does. Once broken, the winds go to work and the blowback creates dust storms that are real health concerns. The bottom of the sea is not just salt and fish but many decades of agricultural chemicals and waste that have settled in. The off-roaders use the washes, which connect to the main streets and ride at breakneck speeds. And we are not talking about a handful of riders, but sometimes in the hundreds over a weekend. In the area I was staying, Riviera Keys, the receding waters have left docks dry and created the conditions the off-roaders seek out. It seems hopeless when you walk the place, given the sheer scale of what looks like a natural disaster in slow motion.

Resources and services are in short supply among a rural community of mostly seniors who feel their political voices don’t carry far. Law enforcement is stretched thin, with few personnel to cover the territory. Remember, the sea is 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, with communities on both sides and ends. But there was hope expressed at a town meeting I was lucky enough to attend. More officers were being added to monitor off-roaders, and they were here to listen to complaints from residents.

There is some hope, however. There are planned and funded remediation efforts that have been promised to begin this spring. One such project is the remediation of Red Hill Bay, 600 acres of shallow-water habitat. While it is a relatively small-scale effort, the promise was made that the sea would be largely stabilized and restored through a series of incremental projects under the label of “Swift.” The plans in aggregate would cost an estimated $4 billion that are not as yet funded. But the word was that there is a new recognition in Sacramento that the sea and its ecosystem must be repaired and maintained. Partially this is driven by the need for wetlands preservation. But there is another big factor.

It happens that the San Andreas fault runs directly under the sea. Geothermal power plants already exist at the south end, taking advantage of the readily available resource. But many more plants are needed, with San Diego likely to be the main beneficiary. To run the plants requires clean water, and a transmission corridor must be built. Under the state mandate for power to come from more renewable sources, the sea may provide a perfect solution and model. And in doing so, its residents may finally get the attention and help they sorely need. And the sea that they love may yet be healed.

For the neighborhood I was in, the promise was made that keys and lagoons would be filled again in the not too distant future. We now have to wait to see if those promises will be kept.

 

Ellen Moffett, an artist, made note of the colors, beauty, and peace of the sea as a reason she chose to move here. A place where you can do your own thing, while reaping the benefits of a tight-knit community. Ellen helped set this story in motion through a series of long chats.

Jim and Lois Crum. Homesteaders from Alaska since the late 1950s, they first came to the Salton Sea in the middle 1980s. They came during winters, and Lois loved canoeing out on sea, including at moonlight with unexpected pelican companions. Apparently that's not a good thing when paddling in total darkness.

The dry lake bed is only dry on top. An oozing mass of not great stuff lies beneath. It's in some cases as thin in consistency as quicksand, with an occasional tourist going in up to the waist. Unwary travelers are a boon to local towers.

The curious snap a few pictures and then leave quickly.

Off-roaders and their uneasy relationship with locals: They bring much-needed dollars to local businesses which the locals appreciate, but cut through the dry lake bed and destroy wildlife habitats. A few miscreants do not respect private property, even driving across people's lawns.

Ultralights fly well-below their set legal floor of 1000 feet over the town. Upsetting the local birds and residents alike. It's not hard to imagine an aircraft coming down if a large flock takes off in panic.

In an attempt to curtail off-roaders and the curious from swarming the area, private property signs go up.

The locals discuss issues with local law enforcement during a town meeting. Officers gave a briefing on upcoming plans to expand the force and answered questions on how to handle an upcoming off-roading festival.

 

Ryan Kelley, Imperial County supervisor, District #4, answers questions from Grace, a Salton City resident and vocal proponent for the town.

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