A winter getaway to Joshua Tree National Park occasioned a side trip to the Salton Sea.

OK, to clarify, my friend and I did fly in and out of Las Vegas, and did spend an afternoon in Palm Springs. But the focus was Joshua Tree: hiking, seeing the amazing rock formations, the Joshua trees and other desert vegetation, the history and geology, and the amazing scenery on the drive between Las Vegas and the Park.

But, the one cloudy, rainy day—Feb 26, the day a blizzard shut down Los Angeles—we decided to do that trip to the Salton Sea; hiking wouldn’t be much fun under cloudy skies and sprinkles. (A blizzard in L.A. meant a few sprinkles in the desert.)

Now the Salton Sea is a story of accidents, change, adjustment and even rejuvenation.

This 889-sq-km lake—four times the size of Harrison Lake—is itself a man-made accident. It formed in 1905 when an irrigation dike under construction was breached, and water overflowed into the Imperial Valley basin. Above normal rainfall kept the breach flowing for two years and, at 200 ft below sea level, it wasn’t about to be drained.

It kind of makes the November 2022 flood that almost re-created Sumas Lake in the Fraser Valley look like a small drop in the planetary bucket. But I digress . . .

With California’s largest lake (yup, almost twice the size of Lake Tahoe) not about to go away, desert sand surrounding its perimeter (think unending sandy beaches), and a massive population base within three hours’ drive, it soon became vacationland central.

As the lake gradually got saltier (hey, that’s what happens when there’s inflow but no outflow, only evaporation, to a body of water), and with it’s low elevation, it became the perfect place for speedboat racing; a 1951 regatta apparently produced 29 world speedboat records.*

Resorts were developed, and the largest marina in Southern California was built on it’s shore. It became the playground of Hollywood’s rich and famous. In the 1950’s, the State stocked the lake with a variety of fish, to attract sport fishers and broaden its appeal to the public.

Eventually, the Salton Sea attracted more tourists than even Yellowstone National Park.

Subdivisions were developed along its shores and land speculation followed.

But the sea became saltier. And the irrigated, fertilizer-fueled agriculture surrounding its shores yielded mineral rich outflow into the lake. The lake started deteriorating into a putrid stew.

The sub-divisions were abandoned. The fish died. Then, in 1976 and 1977, massive tropical storms destroyed marinas and resorts. With the lake’s deterioration, they weren’t worth rebuilding.

The sea is no longer suitable for swimming or water-skiing. It stinks. It’s been virtually abandoned. Images of dereliction abound.

Not many are doing the kind of tourism we were: seeing the stark landscape, the dereliction, and the remnants of what once was, on a day too gloomy to enjoy a National Park.

But the sea is not dead. The shallow mineral-rich water, unfit for both humans and fish, has turned a portion of the lake into a biodiverse wetland for bird habitat, a welcome reversal of the loss of such habitat elsewhere.

It now draws about 25,000 tourists a year, mostly birders, but is a boon to waterfowl.

It’s a story of accident, of change, reinvention, rejuvenation, triggered by unpredicted random forces.

Studies show that the lake has had several previous such incarnations throughout its geologic history.

It’s perhaps a lesson for us. When things go wrong, we need to pivot and change, and make something out of new realities. Most of the time, those new realities come unexpectedly.

Ironically, I’m currently reading the book The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has spent his life studying the impact of the highly improbable.

It’s not the predictable events, he says, that shape, and change the world; it’s the highly improbable, the outliers. Things like a 1987 stock market crash that had no underlying cause. Things like planes deliberately flying into New York’s twin towers.

Could the Covid pandemic be such an event? Could Russia’s invasion of Ukraine be such an event? We will probably know for certain only in retrospect. But both have already changed our economic and social landscape.

But who can wait for retrospect? We need to pivot and make adjustments in the moment.

Those who do will succeed. Those who await a return to a previous time that may not come, likely won’t.

At least, that’s how I see it . . .


*the salinity made the boats more buoyant and the low elevation, with it’s higher barometric pressure, added to the ideal conditions for speed.