Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (2004)

Directors: Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Until yesterday, I thought that the only landlocked saltwater sea in North America was the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Now, I know there’s another—the Salton Sea—thanks to the informative and casual Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea. Directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer bring us the natural and social history of this hidden haven in the middle of the desert, highlighting its ups and downs with archival photos, newsreels, advertising, and newspaper articles, and live interviews with an assortment of residents all across the socioeconomic spectrum.

The sea takes its name from the land on which it rests, the Salton Basin, a desert depression about 50 miles south of Palm Springs, California, that has caught flooding from the nearby Colorado River periodically over the past 10,000 or so years. Overflows large enough to create an enduring body of water—at least for a while—have occurred numerous times, the earliest known dating to the year 700.

What is now the Salton Sea is the only artificially created body of water to have occurred in the basin. It dates from 1901, when some ambitious developers dug canals to provide irrigation water to develop farmland in the rich soil of the Imperial Valley. Unfortunately, these canals silted over, and engineers bored into the Colorado at several places to increase the water flow. They did—a little too well. A torrent of water directly from the river spilled into the basin, threatening a major artery of the Southern Pacific Railroad. It took federal intervention and 15 months to close the breach, and the Salton Sea was born. Agricultural runoff (stored water released from farmers who don’t need it) keeps the sea afloat, so to speak.

Salton%20Sea%20brochure.jpgIn the early years of the Salton Sea, developers flocked to its shores, promoting it as a playground for overheated Californians. Stocked with fish that thrived in the salty Colorado River water and free of sharks, the Salton Sea provided great game fishing and safe water skiing and swimming to vacationers. Promotional films of the time show fishermen holding enormous bonita and mullet, boat races on the water, and lovely ladies lounging near the beach. The Salton Sea supported several thriving resort towns, and plans were drawn and infrastructure built to convert large divisions of land into retirement communities. People made a day of playing near the sea and buying up lots.

Things didn’t go quite as planned. Floods destroyed property, driving off many homeowners and discouraging others from building on the lots they bought. Salt levels concentrated in the landlocked sea, forcing oxygen out of the water and causing die-offs of millions of fish each year. The two-foot high mounds of rotting carcasses drove off all but the most hardy. Now, property values have dropped so that some retirees cannot sell their homes for enough money to afford to buy a home elsewhere. Abandoned sites rot all along the shores. “People just come here to die,” a retiree half-quips to the camera. Some people also come to the Salton Sea to live. Welfare families have moved down from Los Angeles to find affordable housing and escape crime.

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Meltzer and Springer take us around the sea to meet various residents and hear their stories. Other film critics have focused on the “eccentrics” attracted to the oasis in the desert, for example, Leonard Knight, who for 19 years has been building and decorating an enormous psychedelic monument to Jesus in Niland called Salvation Mountain, and Donald Scheidler, a nudist who stands on a highway in his all-together to spread his gospel of nudism. This attention is understandable, particularly when the film’s narrator is John Waters. But frankly, you’ve got eccentrics everywhere, and I was more captivated by the “regular” folk who call the Salton Sea home despite its economic depression, smell, and summer kills of pelicans, which catch botulism from contaminated fish that are more or less endemic to the very warm water.

Walter Gaston, 91 years old, runs Gaston’s Diner in Niland, on the South Shore. Gaston’s is one of the only working institutions left on the Salton Sea. His first claim to fame in the region was catching the first two limits of fish from the sea in 1957. He remembers the good times, though younger residents and movie audiences might have a hard time picturing what a pleasure haven the sea was before the decline. Lechon Rainey is one of the newbies, a welfare mother who left El Centro for Bombay Beach to avoid gang violence. She matter-of-factly states there is nothing to do, that the kids become vandals out of boredom, and that it’s hard for a black person to get a job—what few jobs there are go to the white folks, or so she says. Nonetheless, she feels safe and has a sense of community with the other single mothers in Bombay Beach.

salton%204.jpgNorm Niver, who lives in Salton City on the West Shore, is the sage voice of reason in the film. He and Park Ranger Steve Horvitz are major advocates for saving the Salton Sea, which began to shrink and develop higher salt concentrations when the state of California forced the community to divert the farm runoff that feeds the sea to San Diego and Los Angeles. Without more water, all of the fish in the sea will die, destroying one of the very last wetlands that large numbers of birds (approximately 3 million migrants a year) have in the area for feeding. Norm thought that the Salton Sea Authority, created in memory of former pop star Sonny Bono, who used part of his time in Congress to push for a measure to save the Salton Sea, would be the answer. Norm laughs a cynical laugh at how do-nothing people can be when they really put their minds to it. I like Norm a lot, and I consider him the best salesman for the cause of the Salton Sea it could possibly have. Too bad he probably won’t be enough.

This film has a very traditional and fairly boring documentary style—talking heads, odd backgrounds, and science animations. There are so many new and much more exciting documentary techniques around I wish the directors would have explored, for example, editing film shot by the subjects themselves. I did like the introduction of the major characters through the use of tinted black-and-white photographs—a rather nice evocation of a vacation postcard. I also thought all the major bases were covered. I went from 0 to 60 in my knowledge of the Salton Sea in only 73 minutes.

The story of the Salton Sea is an archetypal one of the West, and especially California. People came to the Salton Basin with big ideas for their own enrichment. When the sea played out, the prospectors went elsewhere, leaving their boom towns to blister and dry in the desert sun. A few lone coyotes still howl at the moon, but the world has moved on. Will the Salton Sea come back? If you can’t go there, catch Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea to see what’s left before it disappears forever. l

  • William Hargiss spoke:
    6th/03/2011 to 5:01 pm

    Saw this film several nights ago, and it was outstanding. I was there for a brief vacation in 1967 and this film makes me want to go back. Very good film making.

  • Nyain spoke:
    19th/08/2011 to 12:39 am

    I just drove through Salton Sea and stopped by Mecca Beach and Bombay Beach. I’m so intrigued by the whole place and the people who live there. Your post explained a lot – the place is still very eerie… But interesting!

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