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More than 100 years after it was created by a flood – and following decades of environmental degradation – California’s Salton Sea is about to fall off the tourist map, thanks to the state’s fiscal crisis.
The huge – but slowly shrinking – inland lake south-east of Los Angeles faces the closure of its official recreation area, where generations of visitors have been able to camp, fish, picnic and relax on beaches, as part of budget-cutting measures due to take effect at the start of next month.
It marks an ignominious end for a remote but visually arresting landmark, which in its earlier days was a favourite party destination for old-school Hollywood stars.
Known as the “accidental sea”, the Salton was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River burst its banks due to heavy rains and melting snow. In the 1930s, as LA boomed, developers realised its potential as a tourist destination.
Visitors included the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the “rat pack”, who held speedboat races there. In the 1960s, the Beach Boys and the Pointer Sisters performed at its country club.
But, situated 60m below sea level, in a region of desert where temperatures often hit 110ºC, the water began to evaporate.
The sea, which relies on excess water run-off from nearby farms, is now 56km long and 24km wide (down from 64km by 32km at its peak) and is losing millions of litres annually. Salt deposits from the soil have left it with greater salinity than the Pacific Ocean.
As a result, once-vibrant resorts on its shores are now derelict, several kilometres from the water. The trout and corvine, which attracted fly fishermen, have been largely killed off. And, at the wrong time of year, algal blooms leave the entire region smelling like an open sewer.
The recreation area, covering most of the northern shore, has appeared on a list of state parks to be closed on July 1 to save money.
Closure would swiftly see the visitor centre bulldozed,to prevent squatters, and campsites and parking facilities closed. The only hope for the park’s survival is for supporters to raise $250 000 (R2 million) each year to allow it to remain open. – The Independent