Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Salton Sea and Conservation

Last week Denise and the kids went back to Saipan so my Sister in Law and I headed for the desert. Final destination, Indio California, just south of Palm Springs where Nana had a week to give at the new Worldmark timeshare. The digs are certainly comfortable even if the surroundings are a bit frustrating to look at.
It’s a great pool complete with lazy river but I can’t swim yet as my incision and chest tube holes are still healing. We’re surrounded by golf courses but that’s not an activity I can participate in right now either. I like to golf and it would be good exercise but I’m not going there just yet especially after yesterday.
My exercise over the past days has consisted of a few twenty to thirty-minute walks when the temperature has allowed mixed in with a lot of recuperating on the couch; TV remote and laptop in hand. The time had come to check out the desert landscape beyond the crest of urban sprawl as seen from our fourth floor vantage point.
Destination, The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. With an interesting past and unknown future, I came across this unique area of the planet during a fly by on Google Earth. A Google search for Salton Sea quickly brought me to the State Park website and a few interesting articles including this one from National Geographic. Not more than 30 miles south we could check out the shores and visitor’s center in less than a day. Off we went.
It’s a bit of a sight. I can’t drive for at least another 3 to 4 weeks. Nor can I sit in a seat with a deployable air bag. I can’t imagine how much that would hurt! Sneezes are hard enough right now. We can’t figure out how to turn off the one in the front passenger seat so I get the back. It may look like fun to have a chauffeur but I can’t say I’m crazy about the arrangement although it did allow me to snap a few shots along the way.
All around are signs of a human takeover of the desert. Water sprinklers and irrigation systems feed crop after crop including rows of towering date palms. The typical residential and commercial developments all too common in today’s urban planning projects protrude into the sand and farms like coral fingers on a submerged fringing reef. Except for the dropback of the arid Santa Rosa mountains these condos, grocery stores, Walmarts and Starbucks combine to look like any other community that’s gone up in the last 10 years.
The Salton Sea is unlike any other! Two hundred and fifty feet below sea level and covering 35 by 15 miles of real estate on top of the San Andreas fault line, this body of water has come and gone over the years at the will of the Colorado River and the effects of man. It now exists as a result of the last flood in 1905 and the irrigation run off from surrounding agricultural areas. However, with water deals for San Diego diverting liquid gold from its source and extreme desert temperatures, the water levels decrease while salinity increases.
(They could use some help from BCNMI)
Water levels have receded leaving a wasteland of rotting bones, barnacles and salt where tourists once flocked. Despite the harsh conditions millions of fish including the tasty tilapia thrive even with intermittent mass die offs. With 90% of California’s wetlands destroyed over the years, millions of migratory birds utilize this last remaining resting spot along the pacific flyway. If the lake dries up what will happen to over 400 species of birds, many endangered? If the lake dries up experts predict the sediments, which contain heavy metals and pesticides from the surrounding developments, will be whipped up by high winds turning the Imperial Valley into a toxic dust bowl much like what happened at Owens Lake in Nevada.

Our tour of this amazing and much debated place included two stops. One at a place called “A Beach Made of Fish Bones” where a short walk quickly revealed that you cannot wear zories and kick up sand here. That’s just not sand. It is in fact sharp remnants of fish bones and barnacles AND it hurts when it gets between your shoes and your feet.
We saw many, many dead rotting fish and plenty of pelicans swooping all around or keeping their distance while afloat on the dark surface. Everything is coated with thick layers of salt, a testament to the fact the lake is 25% more salty than the Pacific Ocean.
At the state park we read informative signs while watching fisherman line the banks with rods in hand. We also took in the very informative and air conditioned visitors center including a revealing documentary on the lakes history. I even spent 40 bucks on souvenirs. This information center educates residents and tourists as to the plight and importance of the lake. It should be a mandatory visit for everyone especially if you are in any way responsible for putting pressure on the lake’s very existence. If you live in Southern California you fall into this category!
(One more American educated as to where Saipan is - she favors the monument proposal!)

On the way back to the swimming pools and golf courses surrounding our accommodations it is hard not to be concerned about human consumption and its effect globally. The waste here is so obvious with excessive lighting and expansive landscaping. With so many places on earth under stress I can’t help but think about how happy I will be if the Mariana Trench Monument becomes a reality and I can one day walk through a visitor’s center that brings revenue to the local economy and perhaps more importantly educates millions of tourists as to the importance of our oceans and conservation in general.

Unfortunately, soon after returning to our pad the aches and pains in my chest from absorbing many starts and stops in the car far outweigh any worry I have about the environment or anything else for that matter. It was good to get out and about but I’m a ways off from strapping a tank on my back!

Where’s the Tylenol!


The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

cool photos

Jeff said...

I went to the Salton Sea 20 years ago. The stench of thousands of rotting fish was overwhelming.

Apparently, things haven't changed much over the years.

scubatripp said...

I wish I had more time. These were not taken at the ideal time of day. I'd like to spend some time in the desert at sunrise and sunset.

I think I read it was the 1950's when the shores were apparently THE hotspot in SC. Resorts and Marinas lined the shores, speedboats, swimming and fishing everywhere.

That's one thing that's interesting about this site. How quickly things have changed AND how great an impact man has made by water diversion projects. The Sea has flooded on its own in the past restoring the salinity and waterlines back to various levels and its also just dried up again.

If we knew the cycle could repeat and regenerate in a natural way or if we knew migratory birds had other places to stop on their journey it may not be such a big deal if the lake were a loud to dry up now.

Another point is it really does not make much sense to build and develop here anyway. If the Colorado breached the dykes and control systems the valley would be completely flooded again. With the San Andreas Fault line already swallowing up the valley, the sea is over 250 feet below sea level; an earthquake could also prove devastating.

The multimillion project aimed at saving the lake and nesting grounds etc actually calls for building a series of dykes in the middle of the sea and essentially creating a deeper moat of water that could be lined by resorts and golf courses with a marshland in the middle. I get the concepts involved including the best way to save the area is to have it seen in the light of economic prosperity BUT the plan builds on a fault line while trying to control water. I don’t like the long-term chances.

If more people didn’t need the water (and the energy produced from its movement), of the Colorado it seems intuitive to me that a system of diversions could maintain a consistent water level and salinity by providing additional water from the Sea’s natural source. The Sea could even be made to go through extremes in trying to simulate Mother Nature.
The thing I come away from this saying that man has stepped in many times. Many of the species of fish that fill the lake now were introduced by Fish and Wild Life way back in the day. Many of them now thrive while some native species cling to survival. In every case of intervention I’m sure there were well-meaning intentions but in most, if not all, human interventions we’ve messed things up.

It’s also one reason why I think our northern monument opportunity is so unique and exciting. It preserves a large area as Mother Nature created it so we can watch, over centuries, how Mother Nature deals with everything going on around this area on her own.

Mark R said...

Fishermen line the shore of a lake known for sediments containing toxic levels of heavy metals. While it may cure an iron deficiency, I don't think I would be too eager to eat dinner at the house of one of these fishermen......

Anonymous said...

Do you now consider this your deepest ever dive (250 feet)?