“Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” is a new documentary on an infamous body of water in southern California that forces us to think deeply about the environmental contradictions of capitalist society. Additionally, it is a glimpse into the lives of the quirky population that chooses to live on the shores of this looming ecological disaster. Think of a mixture of a more sophisticated version of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Errol Morris’s study of eccentric characters in “Vernon, Florida” and you’ll end up with “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.”
Directed by Christ Metzler and Jeff Springer, the film starts with some fascinating history. Before there was a sea, there was something called the Salton Sink that was a geological depression near Palm Springs in Imperial Valley. Palm Springs is a famous golf resort area for the wealthy, while the Imperial Valley is a site of some of the state’s biggest agribusinesses. The only thing going on in the Salton Sink just under a century ago was salt mining.
In a bit of history that evokes Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” Imperial Valley farmers used their clout to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate their fields. The canal that was used to transport the water suffered a breach in 1905, just like New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and water flowed downhill into the Salton Sink, converting it into a thirty-five by fifteen mile wide sea. As a consequence of the underlying mineral beds, the waters became saltier than the ocean.
In an effort to turn the Salton Sea into a tourist attraction, local politicians stocked the sea with salt-water fish like the tilapia. Fifty years after its formation, Salton Sea became a mecca for working class vacationers who could not afford Palm Springs. It was also popular with water-skiers and motor boat enthusiasts. Along with Lake Mead, another very large inland body of water formed by the artificial diversion of the Colorado River, it became a symbol of the post-WWII good life. Vintage newsreels from the 1950s describe towns clustered around the Salton Sea as a kind of miracle in the desert.
As is so often the case with ill-conceived exploitation of natural bodies of water, there are unforeseen consequences. Just like the Soviet Union’s Aral Sea, the Salton Sea began to look more like an inferno than a paradise as the years wore on. This could be attributed to natural and manmade causes. In the first instance, a series of tropical storms swept through the area and flooded most of the homes and businesses that had cropped up in earlier years. Since the Salton Sea has no natural outlet, there was no way for the water to escape. Think of a permanent Hurricane Katrina aftermath and you’ll get the idea of what happened to the Salton Sea area.
Additionally, the water itself became increasingly polluted from runoffs from the Imperial Valley. As is also the case with the Mississippi River, chemical fertilizers have a way of increasing the growth of algae as well as the salinity level. At one point, the Salton Sea was 25 percent saltier than the Pacific. Such conditions led to spectacular fish die-offs. The high water temperature and the dead fish were a natural breeding ground for botulism bacteria and nearby birds began dying in vast numbers as well. The film shows game wardens hauling off dead Pelicans and dumping them into a crematorium, dozens at a time. It is a ghastly site.
As the Salton Sea’s reputation as a sinkhole began to grow, vacationers went elsewhere. The only people who remained were the poor and the elderly, who lacked the funds or the mobility to go elsewhere. There were also some who felt at home in this peculiar environment. Quintessential Californians, they found the natural environment–odd as it was–the perfect place for the purposes. One of them is a nudist in his 70s or 80s who conducts an interview with the film-makers wearing nothing but a pair of tennis shoes. Another is a folk artist who builds a mountain from old car tires, etc. on top of which can be found various Christian icons. The quirkiest, however, is Laszlo Orosz, aka “Hunky Daddy,” a Hungarian “freedom fighter” who came to the US after the Soviet tanks smashed the rebellion. His days are spent drinking beer and schmoozing with local children who are mostly Black or Latino. After a few cans of beer, he shows off what appears to be break dancing poses or pulls down his pants (only to his underwear) to “moon” the children. We learn that eccentrics such as “Hunky Daddy” are accepted on their own terms in the netherworld of the Salton Sea.
It should be mentioned that the film is narrated by John Waters, a perfect choice given the quirky nature of the film’s various characters.
Against the long, steady decline of the area, a savior eventually came along in the personage of Congressman Sonny Bono, who was voted into office by Palm Springs Republicans. As a long-time environmentalist, Bono felt that the Sea was worth saving and sponsored legislation to preserve the Sea. This involved creating an outlet for excess water as well as measures to reverse legislation that cut off inflows from the Columbia River. The Sea existed in a delicate balance with the outside world and might be lost forever without proper safeguards. Unfortunately, a skiing accident that cost his life nipped these projects in the bud and the future of the Sea remains in doubt.
Despite its dubious origins, the Sea evolved into an extremely important bird habitat. With “development” rampant all across California, migrating birds have made the Salton Sea area a key nesting place on routes north or south. In one of the films many fascinating interviews, an environmentalist asks where the birds are supposed to go if their habitat is destroyed. If rich people in California could care less about the birds, they certainly will have to deal with the dust storms from the dry beds of a Salton Sea that is allowed to evaporate. Golf-playing Republicans in Palm Springs would have their days ruined by a mouthful of dust.
For information on how to preserve the Salton Sea and for film screening schedules, go to the official website at: www.saltonseadoc.com.