There was never a story quite like this: In a matter of several years, a dry, salty desert basin in Southern California becomes an unintentional lake. This corner of the Earth gradually transforms from affluent resort to ecological massacre. A century later the place remains a massacre, a "beautifully awful paradise" where "success and failure collide." How American.
During the first decade of the 20th century, an engineering accident on the Colorado River propelled by heavy rainfall and melting snow caused the river to swell and break. For two years it flowed uncontrollably into what had been known as the Salton Sink, a mass of Southern California land located below sea level. Formerly the site of heavy salt mining operations, the Salton Sink filled up with water and became the Salton Sea.
In the century between the man-made lake's accidental formation and now, the Salton Sea experienced marvelous highs and tragic lows. The shape-shifting lake, averaging 15 miles across and 35 miles long, should have eventually evaporated but is instead continually replenished by often polluted agricultural runoff, meanwhile growing saltier by the year.
"It's the greatest sewer the world has ever seen," says narrator John Waters during the opening segment of Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea. The documentary, co-directed by USC graduates Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, begins with heavy montage—scenes of flooded buildings, rusted automobile shells, shoddy new constructions, iridescent pools gleaming with stagnant water and a generally disconcerting portrait of decay in the desert.
A detailed history follows, one that is both deeply amazing and disturbing. After the flood that created the lake, the area gradually became a tourist attraction. Fish were introduced, and as California wetlands disappeared, the Salton Sea began to attract waterfowl. By the ’50s, fish flourished, bird-watching was world-class, water recreation was magnetic, infrastructure was built as a handful of communities arose and the lake became a bona fide vacation destination marketed as the "California Riviera." Attracting legions of families and the rich and famous alike, the Salton Sea was on its way to becoming the next Palm Springs.
This prosperity was short-lived, however. During the ’50s and ’60s hurricanes and subsequent floods wreaked havoc on the area. With no outlet, the unnatural body of water is less a living lake and more an enormous puddle. In turn, floods did fatal damage, submerging shorefront property, yacht clubs, boat ramps and once-filled parking lots. Moreover, the promise of development and population increase were never realized as plots of land had been purchased but never built upon. It was the beginning of the end.
As the shoreline further engulfed settlements during the ’70s, the contaminant-laden agricultural runoff responsible for the sea's expansion made the water increasingly tainted. This, combined with some bad press, led people to flee the once-promising area. Salinity progressively rose, eventuating a substantially higher salt content than the ocean. Naturally, this is a problem.
In the ’90s, millions of dead fish turned up on the shores of the Salton Sea as a result of a toxic combination by high temperatures, bacteria, diminished oxygen from too much salt and a booming monoculture of tilapia, dead from botulism. Aside from the unpleasantness resulting from millions of rotting fish, waterfowl began dying off as well after eating the contaminated fish.
It seems unlikely that anyone would want to live under these circumstances, but indeed they do. The documentary profiles the bizarre and unlikely lives of those who never abandoned the temporary paradise, as well as those who have made this disaster their adopted home. Inhabitants are a cast of characters akin to a circus sideshow. They range from original residents harboring dreams of the sea returning to its original glory, realtors trying to see it realized, a man constructing a mud mountain in the name of Jesus, a leather-skinned nudist who preaches peace by the roadside, an oversexed Hungarian Revolutionary and a group of black, inner-city families trying to escape the violence of Los Angeles.
This story contains such a wealth of intriguing elements, it would seem to have the ability to tell itself. But in an era fraught with incompetent documentaries, Metzler and Springer do an excellent job of turning every stone and translating the sea's story. At times graphic devices are a little corny, in the same way star wipes are corny, but this is hardly detrimental. With bonuses like narration by John Waters and music by Friends Of Dean Martinez, the 73-minute movie becomes even more enticing. Never has real-life death and decay been such a feast for the modern imagination.
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