Miracle in the Desert: The Rise and Fall of the Salton Sea, from first-time director Greg Bassenian, is a gripping look at the history of one of the strangest places in the United States and describes the ecological and political challenges around it. The Salton Sea is a lake formed by a flooded section of the Imperial Valley, about 150 miles East of Los Angeles.
The Salton Sink was a low-lying area of the Colorado desert. Because it flooded periodically, the silty soil was fertile and rich in agricultural potential, but except for the infrequent inundation, there was no water. To provide water to the Imperial Valley for farming, beginning in 1900, an irrigation canal was dug from the Colorado River, diverting water west and then north near Mexicali, Mexico. Developers from the Colorado River Irrigation Company, and later the California Development Company, began diverting water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, hoping to attract farmers to buy the land. They intended to introduce the water in a controlled fashion, but after multiple catastrophic failures of a series of control gates, the river ran unimpeded into the valley for two years, creating the Salton Sea.
Measuring 15 by 35 miles (but shrinking now at a constant rate), with a surface area of 343 square miles, it’s the largest lake in California. Because the water in the lake has no outlet, as it evaporates without new inflows, the salinity of the water is constantly increasing as the lake diminishes. Currently, the Salton Sea is about twice as salty as the ocean.
“…diverting water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, hoping to attract farmers to buy the land.”
For decades the fortunes of those trying to make a living around the Salton Sea were as varied as the weather. Farms thrived, then failed for various reasons, including hurricanes, floods, and other unforeseen events. Servicemen came during WWII for training. The Navy built a training base there for instruction in night-flying (as a result, there are over a dozen planes lying at the bottom of the sea from missions that ended poorly).
Then in the 1950s, a new plan was hatched to market the Salton Sea as California’s resort playground, resulting in a boom of yacht clubs along the North Shores area and subdivisions at Desert Shores on the westside. For a time, the area was a glamorous destination for the Hollywood celebrity crowd, and blue-collar folks alike, to escape for a weekend.
As Los Angeles and other California coastal cities grew, so did their need for water. The Colorado River, now with its modern levels of control and diversion applied, goes to the coast, with very little of it flowing into the Salton Sea. For decades the sea has been shrinking, the shoreline retreating from the homes built there. The rising salinity of the water is killing marine life – an entire ecosystem is out of whack. The Salton Sea is dying.
"…enabled by technology without the wisdom to consider the consequences..."