Friday, October 28, 2005

For the Birds

California's Salton Sea is one of the most mindbogglingly awful - and breathtakingly beautiful - places in America. It formed accidentally in the early years of the 20th century, thanks to miscalculations by engineers who were trying to divert the Colorado River. It rapidly attracted bird life, and was designated in 1930 as a refuge for ducks, geese, and shorebirds.

It's the largest body of water in the state, with an average depth of about 51 feet. It gets virtually no rainfall, and is fed mainly by chemical-laden agricultural runoff from huge farms in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. It was also used as a bomb-testing range from the forties to the sixties.

Resort communities were built on its shores in the late fifties and early sixties, despite its contamination with ordnance, and the fact that the California Department of Fish and Game predicted in 1961 that increasing salinity would kill the sea by 1990. And indeed, there were dramatic die-offs of birds that frequented the lake in the eighties and nineties.

The resorts failed soon enough, and since then the grim little towns at the water's edge have been of use primarily to independent film-makers who need an off-the-rack signifier for the vague anomie of Generation X.

I first visited the Salton Sea in the early nineties. Like most visitors, I ended up at the abandoned Salton Bay Yacht Club. All the windows were gone, and the building was covered in graffiti ("Kill Clinton in '92!"). The curved cement floor overhanging the water was littered with pigeons whose heads had been cut off, apparently for someone's amusement. In the shallow water, there were thousands of blistered, decomposing fish floating among rafts of greasy bubbles.

The atmosphere in an outbuilding was even worse. The entraceway was dark and littered with broken bottles. Inside, a couple of singed mattresses lay near the site of a campfire. "Hail Satan" had been written on the wall in what looked - and smelled - like shit. On another wall, a writer using the more traditional felt marker advised me that "No matter where you go, you will all ways remember your memories of the Fuck Times."

But that was then. Now, apparently, the Salton Sea is ready to reclaim its rightful place as the Crown Jewel among America's poisonous, manmade inland seas.

Backers of a plan to use development revenue to fund a revival at the sea bet they can build thousands of homes on a defunct testing site used by the group that developed the atomic bomb.

They're also considering relocating some of a wildlife refuge that hosts millions of migrating birds and converting thousands of acres of farmland to seaside homes and businesses.
This proposed relocation is an incomprehensibly stupid idea. The "millions of migrating birds" are what make the Salton Sea - despite its grave and growing problems - the second most diverse bird refuge in the country. You can see rare and endangered birds here in impressive numbers. Thus, I suspect that the best way of rehabilitating the area - and bringing in tourist dollars - would be to continue cleaning up the sea (along with the test base), limit development to tourist-oriented temporary housing with the smallest possible ecological footprint (there are few better areas for solar power, God knows), and turn the whole thing into a wildlife preserve.

The basic economic model here would be Nebraska's wise cultivation of eco-tourism, which has attracted hundreds and thousands of tourists to view sandhill cranes along the Platte River. There's compelling evidence that the economic impact of birdwatching in Nebraska dwarfs that of the business developments that might otherwise have destroyed the wetlands favored by migratory cranes:
Birding along the Platte River must be viewed within the context of shifting interests in outdoor recreation and tourism in the United States. In 1996, 62.8 million U.S. residents aged 16 years or older participated in a wildlife-watching activity (USDI 1997). The 1995 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment reported a 155.2% growth (to 54.1 million persons) in birding in the U.S. between 1982 and 1995 (NSRE 1996). Murdock (1997) has predicted that birding will be the only outdoor recreation in the U.S. with growth that will exceed that of the U.S. population between now and the year 2030. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of visitors from around the world are traveling to Nebraska to witness the annual gathering of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River during their migration.

This survey revealed that a travel party of birders visiting the Platte during crane season consisted of 5.19 persons. These visitors stayed in the region for 2.99 days, and spent an average of $285 per person in Nebraska ($336 overall). Birders interviewed for this survey were attracted to the Platte throughout the year (not just during crane migration), averaging 3.5 trips and spending a total of $790.17 on their annual travels to and within the Middle Platte. In contrast, Nebraska Department of Economic Development (1996) has estimated that the average nonresident traveling party visiting Nebraska consists of 2.5 persons, stays in the state 2.2 nights, and spends $159.
It'd be absurd to try to start a housing boom along the Salton Sea. The most compelling reason, of course, is that this is a region with very little water, and three-percent annual rainfall. The intelligent course of action would be to turn one of these towns into a proving ground for innovative and environmentally sound solar, water-reclamation, and building technologies; such groundbreaking developments, if done properly, would be likely to attract almost as much tourism as an extended and improved wildlife preserve will.

There's really no other sane or responsible option, in my view. A building boom based on the previous failed model would fail just as spectacularly this time around, especially in an era of skyrocketing gas prices and dwindling water resources.

(The photo above is by Jeff T. Alu, whose site features many other remarkable images from the Salton Sea.)

1 comment:

WHT said...

The Salton Sea resort community reminds me of the abandoned resorts built up around Mt. Vesuvius.