Salton Sea State Recreation Area Faces Closure

Salton Sea State Recreation Area is slated for closure on June 30 by the state of California.

For tranquility and warm winter temperatures, point the RV in the direction of Salton Sea State Recreation Area before it closes to the public. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is one of 70 falling prey to legislative and economic malaise.

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake and its surface elevation is about 230 feet below sea level, making it one of the lowest places on Earth. There is a particular smell, not always pleasant, but people get used to it quickly, they say.

It is an odd place according to a report in the U-T of San Diego.

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area stretches across 14 miles of the sea’s northeastern shore that, despite millions of dollars in improvements in the past decade, is scheduled to be permanently closed June 30.

Evaporation — about 1.3 million acre-feet of water evaporates each year — and rising salinity — it’s about 52 percent saltier than the ocean — threaten the sea’s survival.

Restoration plans have been debated and discussed for years, but the astronomical costs have precluded any real action.

Some say closure of the state park and its visitor’s center would signal the end of hope for the sea.

“Our fate as a state park is tied to the fate of the Salton Sea,” said board president Bill Meister. “We maintain that visible presence so that people will continue to learn about the Salton Sea so it won’t fade off into the sunset.”

It’s the winter home for millions of migrating birds — more than 400 species — traveling the Pacific Flyway.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area is a birders' paradise. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Salton Sea State Recreation Area is a birders' paradise. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 60,000 visitors come through the park each year to camp, fish, and boat.

One of the original 70 state parks targeted by Sacramento for closure last year because of the state’s budget mess, the area is far from self-supporting.

Camping fees and day-use payments bring in only about $100,000 a year while the budget to keep it operating has been around $1.2 million.

But there is hope for the park. If a group of residents, volunteers, and friends of the sea can raise $250,000, they would be eligible to operate the park and keep one window to the sea alive.

They need someone to step forward. They need money—and they need it fast.

“We just haven’t been able to access the public the way we would like to be able to do so,” said Bill Meister, president of the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association, which runs the visitor center and park store and is leading the charge.

“It’s all about location,” said Buford Crites, a former Palm Desert mayor who has been coming to the Salton Sea for years.

Crites said the park’s remoteness makes it an easy mark for budget cutters, reports

“If the Salton Sea was between Palm Springs and Santa Monica, this wouldn’t even be an issue,” said Crites, who serves as chairman of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy. “But it’s in the poorest part of California and off the major highways. That’s why this issue is in front of us.”

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 by accident when high spring flooding on the Colorado River crashed canal gates leading into the developing Imperial Valley.

For 18 months the Colorado River rushed downward into the Salton Trough. By the time engineers were able to stop the breaching water in 1907, the Salton Sea had been born at 45 miles long and 20 miles wide — equaling about 130 miles of shoreline. Over the years the salinity level has risen. The Salton Sea is now 50 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

At one time the Salton Sea was a bustling tourist mecca.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, they came by the hundreds of thousands to swim, boat, camp, and fish.

But over the years, as the sea’s salinity level steadily rose, killing all the fish except for millions of Tilapia, the lure of the lake evaporated.

One of several recreation areas along the Salton Sea. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of several recreation areas along the Salton Sea. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state park land is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. If it closes, management of the park could be turned back over to the bureau.

But the bureau doesn’t directly manage its parks, according to an official. It partners with other agencies to handle day-to-day operations.

“If it ends up coming back to us, we would have to sit down and look at a variety of options,” said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region.

Discussions with state and federal agencies continue, but no conclusions have been made on a coordinated response to this potential recreation area closure.

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Worth Pondering…
To quote one long-time Salton Sea local, “all the normal people have left or died.”

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