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How the Sea Dries Up

'Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea'

By Dorothy Woodend 20 Jul 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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New doc's take on water wars.

If you want to scare a Canadian, simply put two words together: Americans and water. In the Kootenays, it's been a long-held theory that the day the Americans run out of water will be one where simply march into Canada and take ours. Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a new documentary from filmmakers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, narrated by the inimitable John Waters, will do little to calm this unease.

Americans do stupid things with water, like putting a lake in the middle of the California desert. Such is the case of the Salton Sea, a body of water that started as an accident, came to fullest flower on a wave of '50s hubris and then slowly shriveled into one of the worst ecological disasters in U.S. history.

In 1904, water was diverted from the Colorado River into the nearby Imperial Valley to irrigate farmer's fields. As the irrigation channels gradually silted up, another cut was made in the river, quickly followed by unprecedented flooding. After an enormous effort by a tycoon named Edward H. Harriman, the breach was closed, but the water remained, fifteen miles wide and thirty-five miles long -- a sea in the middle of the desert was born

'Californian Riviera'

In the '50s, the Salton was restyled as a fisherman's paradise (dubbed California's Riviera) and stocked with fish. In its heyday of sun-drenched glamour, the sea became a swinging spot for fishermen, swimmers and celebrities (the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Sonny and Cher among others). Hotels, bars and marinas flourished on its shores and real estate speculation went wild. The surrounding land was parceled into thousands of tiny lots. People bought them as investment or retirement properties, but few residents moved there permanently. By the time the '70s rolled around, the sea was already in decline. Then a couple of natural disasters -- hurricanes and flooding, followed by massive fish and bird die-offs -- helped to kill the dream. As the water stagnated, and the glamour dried up and blew away, all that was left was a cesspool full of fetid water, dead fish and drowned motor homes.

Despite the sea's host of problems, a few bizarro types chose to hang on and call it home. Plagues & Pleasures isn't so much the story about the Salton Sea itself, as it is a portrait of old-fashioned American eccentricity. The desert seems to attract human oddities, people who can't live anywhere else. All that great emptiness causes personalities to swell, apparently to fill up all the available space. Such is the case with the Salton Sea, where nudists, drunken Hungarians and religious maniacs compete for airtime. It seems if you can get over the smell of dead fish, it's not such a bad spot: the long-term residents smoke, drink and careen about in golf-carts, talking all the while about the good old days of boozing and cruising.

There is also a new generation of Salton Sea people, made up largely of welfare recipients, sent by the county authority to the nearby community of Bombay Beach. Even the clash between the new black and the elderly white populations, however, seems muted by the gentle decrepitude of the place. Really, there isn't much to fight over, and people appear to be content to simply exist, drinks in hand, awaiting the end. The filmmakers spent four years filming the locals, becoming, in essence, adopted children of the place. They returned each year, only to discover that people had vanished, or places has disappeared. "It's where people come to die," as one elderly resident dryly notes.

Go jump in a lake

Death is just another character here, and not just for people, but for pelicans too. As the sea's salinity continued to rise, a series of other problems presented themselves. The warm water, coupled with dead fish, led to birds being infected with botulism poisoning. The rare Brown Pelicans took the brunt of it, and passed it along to their fellow avians in the form of maggots which spread the contagion into the food chain.

As an emblem of human-made folly, the sad story of the sea has had a number of highs and lows. Hope flared for an instant when Sonny Bono championed the place. Bono held a warm spot in his heart for the sea and brought up the idea of cleaning up the place in Congress, but then he went skiing and the notion died on the business end of a tree. After Bono's death, the case of the Salton Sea dropped once more from public notice, despite the fact that a memorial fund established in his name ($350 million) was allocated to reclaiming the area. Little has actually happened, and in the meanwhile, the people who call it home clutch their cocktails and watch the promises slowly fade away. You have to admire the cheerful cynicism with which they greet the future, it might very well be doomed, but there is still pleasure to be had.

Plagues & Pleasures is more than a cautionary tale about the dangers of messing with nature. It's about the rise and fall of a place, a classic story: think Camelot, or Rome, or maybe even planet Earth. As California's water shortages get continually more dire, there are plans afoot to divert much of the agricultural run-off that currently feeds the Salton to larger centres, potentially turning the sea into a dry lake bed.

Stuff we do with water

The Salton lies upwind of Palm Springs, and is home to rich old buggers, golf courses and swimming pools. And the connection between the two communities is a curious one. While the Salton Sea slowly died, Palm Springs became the place for the super rich to spend their time and money. But fashion is a very mutable thing; it changes with time and circumstance. If the sea dries up and blows away, it might makes Palm Springs eat its dust, and the Salton folk can have one last bitter laugh, before they toodle off to the great big resort in the sky.

As goes the water, so go the people. The fate of bodies of water, for better or worse, is often predicated on their popularity, a case in point is the Okanagan Lake or Kelowna or even Kootenay Lake. People cluster like flies at the water's edges, and the drain upon such fragile resources continues to grow. Water shortages may well turn the idea of recreational lakefront into an antiquated idea, when water becomes no longer just a plaything. But that time hasn't yet arrived.

Here I sit on the shores of Kootenay Lake, and listen to the talk about the neighbours a few miles to the north, who blasted out a huge chunk of the granite cliffs, in order to build a marina on their three million dollar lakefront lot -- a covered marina no less. The thing is so damn large you can see it on Google Earth. Really, the things we do to water: cover it with jet skis, motorboats and marinas, thinking that the stuff will last forever. If the sad, silly story of the Salton Sea is any indication, we're dead wrong.

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