California's Dead Sea

By Laura Randall
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 23, 2003

The late afternoon sun skimmed across the Salton Sea, turning it bluer than the cornflower sky and shadowing the rows of date palms surrounding it. From the highway, the glistening water looked like a mirage. After hours of driving past parched desert landscape and urban sprawl from our Los Angeles starting point, we followed the signs to the sea's north entrance, eager to get a closer look.

Then we stepped out of the car and absorbed our isolated surroundings.

"It smells like fishsticks," my husband, John, observed. Indeed.

We'd told family and friends we were going to Palm Springs for the weekend, adding a cryptic "sort of" at the end of the statement. Most of them had no idea what the Salton Sea was, despite its location -- 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles and less than an hour's drive from Palm Springs. Instead of golf courses and swimming pools, however, our three-day vacation was marked by the on-again, off-again smell of dead tilapia, the ghosts of an abandoned resort town and the thrill of discovering what may be the world's oddest oasis.

In fact, we were going to a place that was once, more than 40 years ago, targeted to be the next Palm Springs. If it weren't for that fishsticks smell.

The Salton Sea was created by accident almost a century ago, when the Colorado River flooded an ancient lake bed. It has been a victim -- of greed, neglect and western water issues -- ever since. Today, at 35 miles in length and 15 miles in width, it is twice as large as Lake Tahoe and 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, thanks to agricultural runoff from the alfalfa fields that dominate the Imperial Valley. The high salinity levels, combined with oppressive summer heat, kill off birds and fish in extraordinary numbers; four summers ago, almost 8 million fish died here in a single day.

Death wasn't in the air during our visit in late January, as we encountered more birds than people. Despite its troubles, the Salton Sea is one of the world's biggest stomping grounds for migratory birds and endangered species such as the brown pelican and bald eagle. We expected to find more serious birdwatchers, but they may have been saving themselves for the annual Salton Sea International Bird Festival, a three-day blitz of tours, lectures and owl prowls held every February.

Oblivious to the unstable fate of their nesting and feeding place, the birds we saw seemed content to dive for corvina, croaker, tilapia and other fish that were brought here as a tourism gimmick in the late 1950s.

On the north end of the sea, a state-run recreation area charges $4 for access to a marina, campsites and a narrow beach made up of shards of barnacle shells. When we pulled up, it was late in the day and the visitors center was closed (we learned later that it shuts down completely during the broiling summer months, but the recreation area stays open all year).

We crunched along the sun-baked shoreline, caking our sneakers with salt and plankton and reveling in the quiet as the sinking sun turned the Santa Rosa Mountains purple. An occasional fishing boat puttered into the narrow channel but failed to break the quiet mood that enveloped us. If ever there was a place that could qualify for "ends of the Earth" status, this was it.

The sea's other main entrance is on the southern end at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The congressman from Palm Springs, who died in 1998 and who had water-skied here as a teenager, had taken up the issue of saving the sea. The free facility has a small visitors center, an easy one-mile walking path to the water and a couple of elevated areas from which to marvel at the water and the wildlife that populate it.

Our next stop was Calipatria, a town of 3,300 about eight miles from the wildlife refuge and 50 miles north of the Mexican border. At 184 feet below sea level, Calipatria boasts of being the "lowest-down city in the Western Hemisphere." Fertilizer factories and cow pastures surround it, but the agrarian town's pride and joy is its flagpole -- the world's tallest at 184 feet, according to the sign in front of city hall.

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