“Where are the the bubbles,” says Jeff Geraci. He has to shout to be heard over the whirring, metallic din of the airboat as it propels across the murky water. He points to a place in the distance where the placid surface blisters and burbles.
The captain of this boat is Tom Anderson from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, assistant refuge manager at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, who positions the boat near the bubbling area of sea. This is the south end of the Salton Sea, where the geothermal activity is profound. When we reach it, Anderson cuts the fan and turns off the boat’s ignition. Now we can hear evidence of the underwater volcanoes. The bubbles froth and pop like a soupy Jacuzzi.
The smell is intense. As each bubble bursts, it releases a billow of scent — the acrid, fishy odor of the sea, an oily and earthy muddiness, laced with eggy sulfur. It’s a hot day, more than 100 degrees, and the smell seems to create a film over the body that bakes onto the skin.
“Well, we didn’t get all dressed up for nothing,” Geraci says, double-knotting his shoelaces and adjusting the waistband of his swim trunks. “This is for science, right?”
He slips into the Salton Sea, a metal spear in hand.
The seabed holds an incalculable amount of chemicals and pesiticides … There’s no drainage outlet and almost no rainfall to dilute the contaminated water.
This is California’s largest lake. I remember how romantic the place sounded before I ever moved here.
Salton Sea. The name sounds like a whisper, evoking images of glassy blue water, gentle waves lapping against a shore, and sunsets watched from a dock.
Here’s what the Salton Sea is in reality: a substantial body of water, extending from the Coachella Valley into the Imperial Valley, an area of 343 square miles, a vastness that can’t be fully understood until you’ve been there and have seen it for yourself. It’s a place that confounds — a sea that exists below sea level, an improbable lake that endures in the desert.
The sea contains more salt than tears or the ocean, though far less than the Great Salt Lake, and supports a thriving population of fish, like tilapia and indigenous pupfish. It’s also a vital stop for more than 400 species of migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.
The most important thing of all? The Salton Sea is an impending ecological disaster.
The seabed holds an incalculable amount of chemicals and pesticides, thanks to decades of runoff from nearby farmland and industrial waste. There’s no drainage outlet and almost no rainfall to dilute the contaminated water.
“We already see what’s happening,” says Geraci, an environmental scientist with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, deconstructing the perfect storm. “We’re getting less water, which means less dilution, which means a higher concentration of pollutants. That’s a public health problem.”
Now the sea is shrinking — the waters receding due to climate change, the state’s recent drought, and a decrease in runoff due to more efficient water usage by farmers. That rate will accelerate in 2018, as a portion of the Colorado River will be routed to San Diego, dramatically reducing the amount of water that will go to the Salton Sea.
This could cost the Greater Palm Springs region between $1.3 and $6.5 billion in lost tourism spending.
Experts say the Salton Sea, currently 7.5 million acre-feet, loses approximately 1.3 million acre-feet of water per year now, though that rate varies depending on weather conditions. Because the sea is so shallow, a vertical drop in sea level leaves acres of parched seabed exposed to the prevailing winds.
While Geraci stands in water about 3 to 4 feet deep, he gestures to the area around him.
“This will be exposed within a year,” he says.
Decreasing water, and the exposed seabed that comes with it, means the odor will spread and toxic particles might become airborne, affecting millions of people in surrounding communities. It’s already an issue — when the wind is right, the distinct scent reaches as far as Los Angeles, more than 160 miles away, and the dust storms contribute to Imperial County having the highest asthma hospitalization rate for children in California.
As for the implications for Palm Springs and other Coachella Valley communities, that’s speculation at this point.
“Without proper study, I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. How extensive the problem is going to be? Nobody knows,” Geraci says.
There are proponents of doing nothing, letting the sea dry up slowly and naturally, and allowing the desert to reclaim what used to be the Salton sink. However, the Salton Sea Authority warns, “The roughly 220 square miles of exposed playa will cause an air quality disaster of such enormous proportions that the valleys of Coachella and Imperial, as well as southerly into Mexico, may become uninhabitable. The agriculture of the Coachella and Imperial valleys will be ruined, and the economy of the Coachella and Imperial valleys will become nonexistent.”
The threat to tourism and the local economy looms so large, a few years ago the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau commissioned a study by Tourism Economics. The findings revealed that further decay of the Salton Sea — that is, an increase in the rotten-egg smell and a growing number of dust storms — poses a serious threat to the area. Tourism Economics examined similar resort areas with natural and man-made events, like red tides and algae blooms, and found a loss in visitor spending that ranged from 5 to 25 percent.
Between the 1940s and the 1960s, small resort cities bloomed around the sea’s shoreline, boasting swimming, water sports, fishing, and seemingly endless adventure.
“The potentially elongated period of time when the Salton Sea could damage the Greater Palm Springs tourism product could cause these losses to accumulate,” the study says.
The projected numbers from the study are even more startling. This could cost the Greater Palm Springs region between $1.3 and $6.5 billion in lost tourism spending over the next five years, triggering a total economic loss that might range from $1.7 to $8.6 billion. The area could lose more than 3,200 jobs by 2019.
But what if there’s something else under the Salton Sea, something that could potentially alleviate the problem? That’s what Geraci is here to find out.
The moment of discovery came a couple of years ago when Geraci visited the Salton Sea with his wife. She found a rock that looked out of place and pointed it out.
“I kicked it and realized it wasn’t concrete. It wasn’t salt either,” he says. “So what was it?”
Curious, Geraci took the piece home, sliced it, and carefully examined the cross sections.
“I saw some of those ancient seashells embedded inside, so it couldn’t possibly be concrete,” he says. “That’s when I realized this crust has been forming and growing beneath the sea.”
He brought his findings to William Newman, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, who has been studying the Salton Sea for decades. Together Newman and Geraci discovered the hardened crust lies beneath some coastal areas of the sea. But they still needed to understand more about what the crust is, how it forms, and how extensive it is.
That’s when Geraci contacted biogeochemistry professor Timothy Lyons at the University of California, Riverside. Earth sciences expert Kingsley Odigie, a UC Chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at UC Riverside, also came on board.
So what is this crust anyway? Initial research shows that it’s primarily composed of gypsum and salt, as well as a laundry list of trace elements and impurities.
“It’s relatively impenetrable,” Odigie says. “It’s going to have implications.”
But there’s another side to the Salton Sea, a side that is extraordinary. Some people never see it. But for those who get it, they fall hard.
Thus far the research has been self-funded, but these scientists still need to know how the crust will stand up to things like erosion, rainwater, intense heat, and desert wind. They are currently seeking funding for the additional research, which will also include sonar mapping of the seabed.
“Once we understand the chemical composition, we can learn how easily this can be dissolved, or how easily it can be leached back into the ground,” Odigie says. “We need to understand the potential consequences in order to give us a better understanding of what the crust will do.”
Another mystery is how this mysterious crust came to be.
“We just don’t have the specifics of how it works,” Geraci says. “Because of all the runoff, the chemistry of the Salton Sea changes so much, so quickly, it’s difficult to point to any one thing that is causing this.”
What they do know is that at least part of the crust was formed within the past 20 to 40 years, likely between 1980 and 2004.
“We found a beer can embedded in the crust, and it had a pop top,” Geraci says. “We know pop tops didn’t happen until 1980.”
Other chunks of crust, threaded with fishing line, coins, bottle caps, seashells, and other detritus have also helped in determining its age and growth patterns.
Though preliminary research has shown that the crust extends over a significant portion of the northern half of the sea, scientists hadn’t known whether or not it extends to the south end — until today’s excursion.
Geraci, chest-deep in the Salton Sea, about a quarter-mile from a rocky knoll called Mullet Island (named for the fish, not the hairstyle), strikes the ground with his pinch-point bar. Every motion makes an audible clang, like a pickax striking rock. The water swirls around him, brackish and muddy. It’s unclear whether he’s located the crust or something else.
He jimmies the stake until it’s firmly wedged underneath a segment of the bed. This takes effort, like someone attempting to lift a boulder with a trowel.
Geraci heaves and grimaces. Odigie, standing nearby with plastic bags for the ground samples, grasps a bar to help. They tug until finally something snaps. Whatever it is down there isn’t coming up without a fight.
“Here goes nothing,” Geraci says. He takes a deep gulp of air and dives underwater.
The Salton Sea is a husk of a place now. But it wasn’t always that way.
Between the 1940s and the 1960s, small resort cities bloomed around the sea’s shoreline, boasting swimming, water sports, fishing, and seemingly endless adventure, a true miracle in the desert. Speedboat races and regattas drew huge crowds. It became a hot spot for celebrities like Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers, who had boats at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club.
When the nearby Camp Young was in operation as a desert training center during World War II, as many as 500 soldiers per day stopped by to swim or relax. Major General George Patton, commanding officer of the camp, was a frequent visitor.
The waters were healthy — the sea was a favorite spot for anglers, and saltwater-tolerant fish like corvina, sargo, and Gulf croaker flourished, making the Salton Sea one of the most productive fisheries in the entire state. It became a backdrop for movies. Tourism thrived.
Things began to go bust in the 1970s, when a series of storms flooded the banks. Chemicals and pesticides contaminated the water, leaving it unsustainable for most sea life, and every flood seemed to leave behind a fish kill. Fish bodies littered the banks. They rotted in the sun. The air reeked of decay. The sand where people used to walk around barefoot and sunbathe disappeared under a layer of barnacles and crunchy fish bones.
The resorts shuttered. Boat frames and marinas rusted. Most people left and never looked back, leaving their homes and businesses abandoned. The little cities became heavy with the ghosts of the past.
But there’s another side to the Salton Sea, a side that is extraordinary. Some people never see it. But for those who get it, they fall hard.
On days when the air is still, the placid water becomes a slick mirror for the clouds. Sometimes the horizon is utterly indistinguishable — sky becomes sea becomes sky again. During migration, the birds are a wonder, with preening pelicans, sandpipers, cranes, and egrets as far as the eye can see. When the flocks take to the sky, it looks like people tossing rice into the air after a wedding.
There’s also a particular beauty in the brokenness. In a place of capsized, washed-up boats, gutted houses, and overgrown shores, that’s where endless possibility exists. It was spectacular once. It could be again.
In 2011, Kerry Morrison was living in Long Beach and managing a production studio in Burbank. Then he came to the Salton Sea to film a music video.
“It was a place I didn’t know anything about, but I was intrigued by it,” he says.
While he was supposed to be creating that music video, Morrison stopped by the Salton City Chamber of Commerce and spoke to some of the local leaders and researchers. He met with the residents.
“I found this place needed more help than any place I had ever seen,” he says. “But it was so beautiful at the same time.”
Now a resident of Salton City, Morrison created The EcoMedia Compass, which aims to use science, music, and art to create awareness about environmental issues, and has become one of the most vocal activists for Salton Sea restoration.
“I came to make a video and got sidetracked by starting a nonprofit,” he says with a laugh.
Something similar happened with Geraci, and it’s the reason he’s here today. He grew up in the Coachella Valley and was always intrigued by the Salton Sea. He watched the sea prosper, then decay in his lifetime. When it became clear the problems plaguing the lake weren’t going away, Geraci studied environmental science, determined to be part of the solution.
“I thought somehow I could save it,” he says. “If not me, then who?”
Odigie and Geraci lift a hulking piece of rock from the sea and place it in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife airboat, where they can get a better look at the sample. It’s about three inches thick and craggy, about the size of a large cast-iron skillet. It’s not concrete. It’s crust, and this is the first time it has been located in the southern part of the sea.
“It’s here,” Geraci says. He smiles and then says softly, almost to himself, “I knew it.”
Nearby, the underwater volcanic mud pots continue to burble and belch. The Salton Sea Authority says this part of the lake is the richest source of geothermal energy in the United States and possibly the world.
Geraci believes this geothermal activity has something to do with the process of how the crust formed: According to his hypothesis, sulfides in the water become oxidized, growing and becoming dense. When this calcium sulfate eventually sinks, it binds with other materials along the seabed.
Unfortunately, this discovery won’t solve the Salton Sea crisis, he says. But it might help mitigate dust particles tainting the air. This hits particularly close to home for him, as the father of children who suffer from asthma.
“That’s why this crust is so important. It will prevent these toxic particles from becoming airborne,” he says. “And because the crust is so extensive, it’s a game-changer.”
There are other reasons to have hope. The state is taking tentative but positive steps toward solving some of these issues.
Over the last 40 years, numerous ideas and proposals for Salton Sea restoration have been brought to the table by various entities. None of them have
been implemented, for a variety of reasons: lack of a shared vision, reduced inflows, and funding constraints. For instance, one idea was a pipeline or canal, linking Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to the Salton Sea, and pumping in water to cover the exposed seabed. However, an idea like that is costly, is geographically daunting, and requires an agreement with Mexico.
The state’s current Salton Sea Management Program, unveiled in 2017, consists of multiple phases, both short and long term. The initial 10-year phase, which comes with a price tag of $383 million, consists of a significantly smaller lake (about one-third of the current Salton Sea), surrounded by shallow feeder ponds to support migratory birds and mitigate dust.
For the first time, this new plan offers details of the number of acres to be restored each year, as well as how much it will cost over the next decade. What remains unclear is where those funds will come from.
As far as how Geraci’s discovery will play into this, that is another unknown. But it’s an angle that deserves further investigation.
“We’re talking about major areas that could be potentially untouched, saving tons of water and money and effort, and focusing those on another area where it’s really needed,” Geraci says. “I have a lot of faith.”