Let’s Go Fishing! Accidental Sea, Part 2

     Summer in the desert is hot. Not just sun hot but air hot, ground hot, water hot, everything-you-see-or-look-upon-or-touch hot. You might expect the seashore to be a bit cooler but this is not the case with the Salton Sea. Not only was it over a hundred degrees even after the sun collapsed below the hills but the onshore breeze was, according to the Saffir-Simpson scale, a tropical storm. If I’d been back in the Florida Keys Highway 1 would have been closed and you could forget calling 9-1-1 because the ambulances would be forbidden to use the highway. But the western shore of the Salton Sea, just east of the Anza-Borrego State Park, which is a fancy name for a desert, though a pretty desert it is, is not the Florida Keys. People being what they are tried to make it a destination, like the Keys, and it began in 1907 with the discovery that the Sea had fish.
The irrigation ditch was finally set to rights in 1907 but the water that had escaped from the Colorado River into the Salton Basin took river-fish with it. Farmers and ranchers from the surrounding area who hadn’t been flooded out discovered this because living in the desert makes the possibility of getting fresh fish particularly appealing. There were significant populations of freshwater fish similar to what was found in the Colorado River, including trout, humpack suckers, mullet, desert pupfish, and mosquitofish.
     Migratory birds whose path takes them over hundreds of miles of desert have to be at least marginally opportunistic. Their delight in finding a 400-square mile body of water in their flight path where there wasn’t one two years previous was such that when Joseph Grinnell did a survey in 1908 he discovered breeding colonies of cormorants, white pelicans, and “other birds”. Why migrate when you’ve got a great situation right here? We can invite the relatives in for a rest when they fly past.
So while the birds settled in and the farmers and ranchers and tourists fished and camped along the shores of the Sea, the government reserved in trust an additional 10,000 acres of land, still underwater, for the benefit of the Torres Martinez Band of Indians. Common sense said that since the Sea was an accident to begin with, had no inflow of water, and sat in the middle of a desert that it would eventually evaporate. A hundred years ago there were still moments when government agencies exhibited some common sense.
If left to its own devices the Sea would be dry today, barring another accident or act of God. But it was not left to its own devices, and June found me standing on the western shore of the sea in a hot howling gale photographing the impact of the fading light on the landscape.
     The breeze felt like a blow-dryer on high but because the shore is mostly rotten fish and fish bones bleached into a crust there’s little chance of being sandblasted. At the water’s edge you discover the ground beneath the crust is black mud that looks and smells like the worst grade of nam pla fish sauce in the Vietnamese market. Once I discovered the mud I slogged back from the water’s edge with a few pounds of it clinging to my boots. The mud dried off in a few hours. The smell of rotten fish lingered for two-and-a-half weeks.
In 1910 people were fishing for freshwater fish, birds were nesting on the shore, mullet was being harvested commercially from its waters, and tourists had discovered the Mullet Island mud pots on the south end of the Sea. By 2011 the mecca had devolved into a toxic stinking desert oasis. How could this happen?
Because people need to eat more than they need a place to vacation.
In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge issued an executive order setting aside the Salton Sea as a permanent drainage reservoir for the surrounding farms’ and ranches’ agricultural runoff.

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