Bringing together humanities and sustainability, the UC Irvine Humanities Collective hosted a screening of the documentary “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” on Feb. 6 as part of their film series, “Erasing History, Making Places.” Attendees were informed of the biological issues and controversy surrounding the Salton Sea through viewing the film, then participated in a question and answer session with the director and producer of the film, Chris Metzler, and Timothy Bradley, a UC Irvine professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the head of UCI’s Salton Sea Initiative.
The film tells several different narratives from the point of view of the Salton Sea natives, tracing the Salton Sea’s history from the natives’ perspectives from the 1950s to the present — through the booms of popularity, environmental disasters and current abandonment — while recounting the historical records and state of the sea before the 1950s development.
“Many people have not even heard about the Salton Sea and don’t even know that it exists. That sort of ignorance, or at least unawareness of this place existing, plays a role in [its continued problems],” Metzler said.
According to the presentation, the geographic function of the Salton Sea, dating back thousands of years, was as a sink to collect excess water flooded over from the Colorado River, keeping it fluctuating between a dry, nutrient-rich basin and the biggest body of water in California. It sustained farming but the agricultural runoff that it produced leaked into the lake, causing the Salton Sea to have a higher than normal saline content. Located in the desert near Palm Springs, this water would ordinarily evaporate. However, the salt content keeps the evaporating process from occurring, resulting in what an interviewee in the film called the American version of the French Riviera.
Metzler’s film recounts the appeal of the Salton Sea in the 1950s, when developers took interest in making it a resort destination and housing community, then portrays how the popularity was short-lived when the lake flooded in the 1970s, destroying homes and other buildings, ending investment in the area.
One major undesirable ecological effect the film points out is the sea’s high saline content that has increased over the years, still from agricultural runoff and dumping. The documentary argues that this isolated body of water has nowhere to flow or drain into, and the water stays stagnant, accumulating an excess amount of nutrients that kills off species of fish and make the others questionable for eating, despite the huge numbers of wildlife that do survive, like tilapia.
Metzler explained that there was a burst of research and planning that took place around 2007, but that was dropped by the time the recession really hit because the proposed solutions would cost around $9 million.
According to Metzler, if the Salton Sea is allowed to deteriorate and dissipate, there will be a variety of problems not just for the immediate area but for the whole southwestern region of California. He argued that it is one of the only remaining wetlands in California that birds migrate to. Hundreds of species of birds would have to relocate, but it is uncertain as to where with almost nowhere inhabitable to them in California.
Metzler pointed out the Salton Sea has toxic salt crystals that cause asthma, lung disease and cancer and without the body of water as a buffer, the wind would carry this dust much farther than the immediate region. The effects have been observed as far away as Los Angeles, his presentation claimed, so it is not a problem that can be ignored if it is not contained.
“There [are] a dozen different ways of viewing the Salton Sea, but certainly one of those is the fact that it ties in to the whole issue of water use in the southwestern part of the United States. It is integrally tied to the Colorado River and the cities that are along the coast and so forth. It really has a regional implication and not just a local implication,” Bradley said.
“This is a local problem that is going to affect us one way or another. We can study it, we can have our students take a look at it but it is something that will have to be dealt with or there will be another disaster.”