THE WATER'S EDGE at the south end of North Shore—a shuttered, graffiti'd, ruined resort town which, as you might have guessed, lies near the north shore of California's Salton Sea—was no different than usual, the beach comprising not sand but barnacle shells, fish bones, fish scales, fish corpses, and bird corpses, its accompaniment an almost unbearable ammoniac stench like rancid urine magnified. Fish carcasses in rows and rows, more sickening stenches, the underfoot crunch of white cheek-plates like seashells—oh, rows and banks of whiteness, banks of vertebrae; feathers and vertebrae twitching in the water almost within reach of the occasional half-mummified bird. Meanwhile, the dock was crowded with live birds—long-necked white pelicans. Their coexistence with the dead birds was jarring, but then so was the broken concrete, the private property sign, the half-sunk playground slide.
It had been worse in other years—seven and a half million tilapia (African perch) died on a single August day in 1998—but this evening it happened to be better. Oh, death was there, but matter had been ground down to submatter, just as on other beaches coarse sand is gradually ground fine. The same dead scales, the barnacles licked at by waves of a raw sienna color richly evil in its algal depths, set the tone, let's say: crunch, crunch. Without great difficulty I spied the black mouth of a dead fish, another black mouth, barnacles, a dead bird, and then, of all things, another black mouth.
The far shore remained as beautiful as ever. When each shore is a far shore, then the pseudo-Mediterranean look of the west side as seen from the east side (rugged blue mountains, birds in flight, a few boats) shimmers into full believability. Come closer, and a metallic taste alights upon your stinging lips. Stay awhile, and you might win a sore throat, an aching compression of the chest as if from smog, or honest nausea. I was feeling queasy, but over the charnel a cool breeze played, and a family approached the water's edge, the children running happily, sinking ankle-deep in scales and barnacles, nobody expressing any botheration about the stench or the relics underfoot. Could it be that everything in this world remains so fundamentally pure that nothing can ever be more than half-ruined? Expressed in the shimmer on the Salton Sea—sometimes dark blue, sometimes infinitely white, and always pitted with desert light—this purity is particularly undeniable.
Honeymoon paradise and toxic sump. Teeming fishery stinking of dead fish, bird sanctuary where birds die by the thousands. (What choice do the birds have? Ninety-one percent of California's wetlands are gone!) Lovely ugliness—this is the Salton Sea.
If you are confused, so is everybody else. Formed by accident in 1905–1907, when an attempt to divert the Colorado River (and, incidentally, to steal a lot more of Mexico's water) sent a series of floods into the salt-caked basin of California's Imperial Valley, the new sea kept rising, for like all seas it has no outlet. Farms, saltworks, and pieces of towns went under, and by the time the leak was plugged in 1907, the sea covered 500 square miles. Experts predicted evaporation within 20 years. And the water level did go down, at first. But a century later, it still takes up 380 square miles.
In the beginning it was a freshwater realm; trout survived here as late as 1929; a National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1930. Tourists came right away, but the golden age of fishing and waterfowl hunting that old-timers remember started to fade in the 1960s, when the sea began to stink a trifle and the resorts began to board up their windows. Ecologists were already warning that if the salinity—fed by irrigation runoff from the Colorado Desert's salt-rich soils, souvenir of a prehistoric ocean—continued to increase, the sea would become a wasteland. It did rise, of course, and the sea itself crept higher, too; Salton City and Bombay Beach lost houses beneath these strange reddish-brown waters.
Where were those waters coming from? From the Alamo River, 52 miles of irrigation runoff in whose bamboo rushes Border Patrol agents now play out their pretend-Vietnam cat-and-mouse exercises; from the rather irrelevant Whitewater River, trickling in from the northwest; and from the New River, with its reputation for filth, gathering sewage, landfill leachate, and industrial waste in the Mexican boomtown of Mexicali before turning north to receive fertilizers and pesticides from Imperial Valley fields, meanwhile picking up a little more salt and a little more salt.
The great die-offs began in the 1990s—150,000 eared grebes in 1992, 15,000 pelicans in 1996, fish by the millions, tilapia and croaker and corvina that had been stocked back in the fifties. Environmentalists raised alarms about the dead birds, the algal blooms, the hypersalinity, and the selenium, a naturally occurring trace element that in high concentrations can be deadly to plants and animals. They studied the sea, but none came to the same conclusions, or they came to no conclusions at all. The only thing everyone agreed on was that the sea was now 25 percent saltier than the ocean itself, and that it would only get saltier until the birds and fishes still surviving there were gone.