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The Salton Sea: A 'Dead' Sea Ready to Rise?

Mar 13, 2011 – 9:14 AM
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Chris Epting

Chris Epting Contributor

Half a century ago, the Salton Sea was called the "French Riviera of California" -- and that claim really held water as celebrities and many others seeking a spectacular getaway escaped to the "mini-ocean" just past Palm Springs.

But today, the abandoned remains of this former tourist hot spot represent an eerie aftermath: a virtual ghost town where once the rich came to play.

Is there hope that this one-time tourist Mecca can re-establish itself as an oasis in the desert? According to the area's prime crusader, absolutely.

Jennie Kelly is a soft-spoken but fervently dedicated preservationist who is making a difference at Salton Sea. A longtime resident, she has created what she hopes will become the anchor in the revitalization of her beloved adopted home. Just several months ago, in the old North Shore Yacht Club, she spearheaded the opening of the Salton Sea Museum, and thus far thousands of visitors have flocked there. Fittingly, Kelly is the museum director, and she has big plans.

First some background: Covering an area of almost 400 square miles, Southern California's Salton Sea is one of the strangest places in the United States. The sea was formed accidentally between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through poorly built irrigation controls. The resulting flood destroyed communities, farms and the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

But it left the largest body of water in California.

Today, the "sea" (30 miles south of Palm Springs) is about 35 miles long by 15 miles wide (give or take a few miles depending on the year) and gets as deep as 51 feet. It's also 228 feet below sea level, just 5 feet higher than the lowest spot in Death Valley.

Starting in the 1920s, the Salton Sea was developed into a tourist attraction featuring yacht clubs, restaurants, a golf course -- all of the trappings of a deluxe resort community.

North Shore Yacht Club
Chris Epting
The Salton Sea was once a tourist hot spot, where families and celebrities gathered to enjoy a lake in the middle of the desert. For years, it was even called the "French Riviera of California." During its heyday in the 1960s, the area saw a great deal of development -- including the North Shore Yacht Club, designed by Albert Frey.
Many celebrities including Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers vacationed and kept their boats here. Promotional films from the 1950s and '60s billed Salton Sea as the "French Riviera of California" -- and the claim held water.

With water skiing, camping and beautiful beaches, the man-made lake became a playground for everyone from families to the rich and powerful.

But it was not to last.

The Salton Sea was a freshwater lake back in the 1920s, but by the '70s, salinity began to rise. Salt-heavy soil from the desert (leftover from a prehistoric ocean) had been infiltrating Salton Sea. There was also toxic run-off and industrial waste from Mexicali, pesticides from the nearby Imperial Valley agriculture fields -- and more salt.

Add it all up and you had a poisonous stew brewing in the Salton Sea, which resulted in the death of millions of birds and fish. The sea became 25 percent saltier than the ocean, and then it rose, swallowing up homes and businesses in its peculiar, rust-colored water.

By the mid-1980s, it started to become a ghost town. And today, as many people visit to wander the eerie, abandoned skeleton neighborhoods as they do to bird watch and camp along the desolate shores.

At various spots along the beach, the strong stench of rotting fish and birds is overwhelming. Sand on the shore has been replaced with a thick pack of dried, crunchy fish bones. Yet other spots are as idyllic, clean and serene as a circa-1950s Salton City Chamber of Commerce postcard.

Salton Sea Museum
Chris Epting
The old North Shore Yacht Club is now the Salton Sea Museum.
But since Kelly transformed the old North Shore Yacht Club into the Salton Sea Museum, things have been looking up as word is spreading about all she is doing to help rejuvenate the area. AOL News spoke with her at the landmark building, constructed in 1959 by famed modernist architect Albert Frey.

"We need to get the water issue resolved before anything else," she said. "But they've been working on that for more than 70 years. There's no out-flow, so the salt just stays here. And more gets washed in. Then in the summer we have evaporation, so it just keeps getting saltier."

What might help?

"The best case would be building an earthen dam across the Salton Sea, creating a recreational lake on the north end and shallow habitat for the shorebirds and for kayakers on the south end. But we'll need lots of funding."

Walking through the museum in the unique structure, she points out dozens of artifacts related to the history of Salton Sea. And she expresses frustration over what she considers misconceptions about the body of water and surrounding area.

"People think you can't fish here, but you can. We have mostly tilapia now, and it's delicious. And you can swim here. It's just really salty. The reputation here is much worse than the reality. This is a remarkable place."

Kelly is confident the museum will help rejuvenate the area.

"This is the first step because it allows us to educate people," the former aerospace draftsman told AOL News. "We're also in the process of renovating the harbor right outside here, cleaning it up, rebuilding the boat house, renting kayaks and canoes. We've got the boat races back here now. It's all starting to happen. It's a labor of love, and we're going to get this done."

She's lived here for 26 years among the dwindling number of residents. But unlike many others, she's an advocate. She believes in this desolate, otherworldly, still-beautiful mini-ocean.

And even though thousands have already visited her new museum, she will not rest until the crowds return in full -- to breath life back into her beloved Salton Sea.
Filed under: Nation, Weird News, AOL Original
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