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Meet Me at the Salton Sea

William Devane is missing. Ron Spears, organizer of the Salton Sea Centennial celebration earlier this month, is making a plea over the sound system for the actor and advertised MC of the event to please come forward. No response. Congresswoman Mary Bono is also a no-show.

“There goes my dinner date,” quips the bearded man behind me in the small crowd at the Salton City Beach Marina.

Even the Torrez-Martinez Indians are MIA, possibly still celebrating this morning’s opening of a new tribe-run travel center, with showers and Laundromat for truckers, and “Native” baseball caps for sale. Earlier, before a crowd of locals who turned up for the blessing of the truck stop on Highway 86, tribal-council member Al Loya, with his back to the sea, spoke about the tribe’s dream — not a Martin Luther King Jr.–like hope for racial harmony or world peace, but a casino, glittering in the future to the left of the gas pumps. The elderly audience, in visors and suspenders, nodded their approval, even though most of them won’t likely live to see the first slot machine cha-ching out a pile of quarters. But the Torres-Martinez have time on their side. They’ve been here for 3,000 years. The Salton Sea’s a blue-eyed toddler at 100.

Back at the centennial celebration, Ingrid Vigeant, an artist resplendent in a Guatemalan huipil, has her own dream. She envisions an art colony in Salton City. She plans on building a pyramid out of compacted straw bales, which she touts as earthquake- and fire-resistant, important qualities in an area rife with fault lines and meth labs. At night, she says, the pyramid will be covered with glow sticks. “We need to create a beautiful, unique community and set an example of living with our environment.”

Vigeant’s vision won’t be easy to achieve. It’s true that only a few hours before, I’d been soaking in a hot tub at Hacienda Hot Springs Inn, one of the groovy new boutique hotels turning Desert Hot Springs from tweaker-ville to a spa destination. But the Salton Sea doesn’t seem ready for a similar revival, with its abandoned trailers and motels — unless you count Ray and Carol’s four-room place in Salton City or the six-room B and B Motel in Bombay Beach, where a few years back I found an empty bottle of Night Train under the bed instead of the more traditional chocolate on my pillow.

And yet Vigeant is hardly alone in her dreams. At the Marina, the Salton Sea Authority — a joint committee of the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, and Imperial and Riverside counties — displays colored maps of its vision for the sea, the result of 10 years of studies. The authority wants to divide the sea in half, with a permanent saltwater lake at the north end and a salt sink in the south. When I ask the distracted blond lady at the Authority’s display if federal and state funding would cover the $780 million project, she appears surprised. “We’re looking for private investment.”

Oh, if only I had a few million bucks to invest in an agricultural drainage pit. Farm runoff has kept the sea from drying up into an Owens Valley dust bowl, but at the same time, the salty, nutrient-laden water is killing it. Then again, with California’s booming real estate market, maybe counting on private investment to clean up California’s largest smelly lake is not as crazy as it sounds.

“I had no idea the sea was so big and so beautiful,” my friend Mary says, gazing at 347 miles of azure water glistening enticingly under a clear desert sky. And today the sea was cooperating for its close-up. Instead of the usual stench of fish-killing algae, the gentle tang of salt infused the air. The sandy shoreline sloped down to the water free of rotting fish carcasses. I almost wanted to buy a patch of land myself and catch the no more than two fish per month it’s advisable to eat.

Over at the festivities, Ms. Salton Sea isn’t worried about the sea’s future. She has a more immediate problem: her princess. “She told me to stop drinking,” Ms. Salton Sea says, still irked. “But I only had one wine cooler.”

While the meddlesome Salton Sea princess boogies to the Johnny Meza Band, Ms. Salton Sea, in sash, clingy black dress and heels, sticks to the sidelines and reveals a possible source of the friction.

“The princess has been the contest runner-up for three years in a row at Capt’n Jim’s Lounge,” Ms. Salton Sea explains. “She wasn’t too happy I won on my first try.”

Ms. Salton Sea might be a success, but can the sea overcome its loser status to become the Riviera of the desert? Vegas might rate its chances at a million to one. But despite the odds, the sea’s survived to its 100th birthday. Who knows? Perhaps the best is yet to be.