The Salton Sea, 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, was formed in the early 1900s by diverting the Colorado River to a 370-square-mile expanse of desert basin in southeastern California. Its formation and subsequent development, as Stringfellow accurately conveys in her subtitle, was a matter of “folly and intervention,” which pushed the sea to its current, troubled state.
Stringfellow’s collection of intriguing images and historical research tells a story of ill-conceived human manipulation, abandonment, and exquisite decay. Coupled together, her use of facts and images allows us to conjure the ambitious, original vision for the Salton Sea while ultimately recognizing the profound consequences and impermanence of human interventions within greater regional ecosystems. Greetings from the Salton Sea is a compact photo-essay that leaves us wanting to learn more about the complex environmental issues and varied historical interventions surrounding the creation and ultimate degradation of the Salton Sea.
Beginning with an image of the flood that created the lake, Stringfellow brings us through the Sea’s timeline of arrogant interventions to present-day images of abandoned motor homes and eutrophic waters teeming with dead fish. She aptly reveals the intertwining social, political, and environmental pressures at play throughout the Sea’s history. Early on in its life, the Sea was designated a federal repository for agricultural run-off. Nearly 90 percent of the sea’s yearly inflow was supplied by a staggering “1.36 million acre-feet of irrigation water.” It would be an additional 25 years before the banks of the Sea experienced a boom of real estate development and became a destination community.
Unfortunately, this engineered oasis with a golf club and sports fishery was mostly abandoned by the 1980s. Incapable of sustaining its existence, the Sea was overcome by the environmental pressures of flooding, increased salinity, and an influx of excessive nutrients from agricultural runoff. Through the benefit of hindsight supplied by Stringfellow, we understand the Sea’s conception and subsequent development did not—and admittedly could not—maintain its fragile ecology. The Sea and its surroundings are still interconnected, its health both dependent upon and influenced by a larger ecosystem. To make this point, Stringfellow highlights the present-day subsistence fishing by nearby trailer-park communities, the public-health impact of toxic dust from the dried-up seabed, and lastly, the detriment to endangered, migratory waterfowl that rely on the Sea’s fish supply for food.
In a candid afterward to this reprint of the 2003 original, the author struggles with the inability of such interconnectedness alone to spur remedial action. She points toward the seemingly insurmountable lack of political will and public finance to revitalize this one-time oasis. Rather than suggest a plan of action, Greetings from the Salton Sea leaves the reader with an unanswered dilemma: what is it that we are restoring? At present day, the Sea represents an altered ecosystem that can never be brought back to its original state and an abandoned development that seemingly has no driving force behind its revitalization. Perhaps in the interest of retaining optimism for the region’s future, Stringfellow draws attention to attempts at a transition from decay through creativity. Her examples include the upbeat and spiritual art of local resident Leonard Knight and the lovingly restored North Shore Yacht Club, now the Salton Sea Museum & Visitors Center. These glimmers of rebirth are perhaps the author’s plea for innovative and enlightened design, planning, and engineering approaches to such dilemmas.
Stringfellow ultimately arrives at a resigned understanding that the “natural ecosystem” can never be restored nor can the Sea itself ever reclaim its resort community vision. We are left with the parting thought that, if nothing else, the recklessness and the interferences that created the Salton Sea should serve as a lesson in the importance of exercising caution in the face of uncertainty when altering natural systems in the future.