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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Will the Salton Sea Survive?

For decades, the Salton Sea, little more than a half-hour down Highway 111 from Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indio, and the other desert cities of the Coachella Valley has lured all sorts of visitors looking to flee civilization for a few hours, a few days, or even the rest of their lives.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area is popular with snowbirds and other campers, birders, and boaters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The gutted buildings and miles of lonely desert beachscapes make a trip to the Salton Sea feel like a journey to the end of the world.

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is one of 70 California state parks set to close starting next year, part of an effort to save the state $33 million over the next two fiscal years.

Advocates say the park’s impending closure is the latest sign that the survival of the Salton Sea, and the ragtag collection of settlements along its shores, is looking less likely by the day, The Desert Sun reports.

“Without the park as a major player in it, we see the future for the Salton Sea as pretty bleak,” said Bill Meister, board president of The Sea and Desert Interpretive Association, a nonprofit organization that works to promote the recreation area.

“It’s one of the very few things that are still available at the sea to draw people to stay. It introduces people to the sea; it keeps them there; and it keeps them coming back,” said Meister, a North Shore resident since 1985.

The recreation area drew more than 87,000 visitors in 2010, the lowest attendance of the region’s six state parks.

Its closure would have a huge impact on the sea’s already sparse economy, said Gail Sevrens, acting superintendent for the Colorado Desert District, a division of the California State Parks.

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

She pointed to a 2009 Sacramento State University study that found a state park visitor spends on average nearly $60 per visit, including about $25 inside the parks and neighboring communities.

“We’re concerned what this will do to the local community,” she said. Between six and seven full-time park employees now work at the recreation area.

The situation at the park is in stark contrast to the area’s heyday about 50 years ago.

Developers thought lakefront property would be a big draw for Southern California families who were more interested in boating and fishing than in golf.

They built a motel and yacht club in North Shore and laid out streets for vacation homes.

In the 1960s, the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club was part of a thriving resort community that drew the rich and famous, people like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Desi Arnaz. It was a playground where you could race boats, water-ski, bask in the sun, or sit back and enjoy a performance by the Pointer Sisters at a beachside four-star restaurant.

But by the 1970s, the area was well on its way to abandonment. The increasing salinity of the water from irrigation runoff, intense evaporation from the desert heat, fish die-offs, and the receding shoreline contributed to the rapid decline of resort life.  Decades later these yacht clubs, restaurants, and resorts lay in ruin, abandoned to time and decay.

When the Salton Sea Recreation Area opened in the early 1950s, it was the second-largest in the California park system, and at one point it drew more visitors than the Yosemite Valley, Steve Bier, a ranger at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, said in a new video posted on the Sea and Desert website.

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

Today the Salton Sea is home to millions of fish and thousands of migratory birds that take advantage of the sea’s high nutrient content and use the sea as a rest stop on their long distance journeys.

The 14-mile stretch of state beach offers fishing, hiking, camping, kayaking, bird-watching, and other outdoor activities.

Visitors pay an entrance fee at a main gate. They can hook up their recreational vehicle for $30 a night, camp at a tent site for $20 a night, or spend a day fishing and hiking for $5.

There is a Salton Sea Visitor Center run by Sea and Desert that displays artifacts and information about the lake. The center is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the summer.

The park has already closed two of its six campgrounds and a portion of a third camping area to save money.

If you find yourself traveling in the American Southwest, add the Salton Sea to your itinerary. Yes, it’s out in the middle of nowhere, but its diversity and stark beauty make it a deserving destination. Bring water, bring your camera, and leave the outside world behind for a while.

You may love it as we do, or you may hate it, but either way, you’ll never forget it. The memory will remain etched in mind for an eternity.

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

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Closing California Parks: Another Stumbling Block

Will California be in Violation of Federal Law?

In the latest setback to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to close one-quarter of California’s state parks to save money, 16 of the parks he is proposing to shutter cannot legally be closed because they have received federal money that requires parks to remain open.

Candlestick Point State Recreation Area near San Francisco is among the parks receiving federal Conservation funding, which, National Park Service officials say, means the state can't close it. (Credit:

“This funding is a grant to the state, like a contract,” said Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. “It is linked directly to the deed of these lands. It says the state makes a commitment to provide these places for public use in perpetuity. To not do that is essentially a breach of that contract.”

The affected parks include Castle Rock State Park in Santa Clara County, Twin Lakes State Beach in Santa Cruz, Portola Redwoods in San Mateo County, Candlestick Point near San Francisco, Limekiln in Big Sur, and Salton Sea State Recreation Area in Southern California, the Mercury News reported.

“It’s a challenge. It’s a legitimate issue we have to work through,” said California State Parks Director, Ruth Coleman.

Problems with the state’s plan surfaced when the head of the California Coastal Commission said that even though 11 state beaches are on the closure list, state park rangers cannot legally block anyone from the shoreline (SEE earlier post).

Established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund collects royalties from offshore oil drilling and uses the money to buy land for national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. The leading source of parks funding in the United States, the fund also issues grants to state and local parks to pay for everything from land acquisition to building new trails, visitor centers, and restrooms.

For tranquility and warm winter temperatures, point the RV in the direction of Salton Sea State Recreation Area while its still open to the public. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 1965, California has received $287.3 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Written into the law is a requirement that any parks that receive the funds are required to remain open to the public. If states close parks that received the funding, the law does not require them to pay the money back, but it does require states to provide new park land of equal appraised value in a nearby location.

Also, the National Park Service could declare California ineligible for future federal parks grants if it closes parks that were purchased with land and water act funding.

Coleman said that she has begun discussing the issue with Christine Lehnertz, the head of the National Park Service’s regional office in San Francisco.

Coleman said the key question is whether the National Park Service will allow California to keep parks on the closure list open for one or two days a week and still qualify as “open,” or operate a park with volunteers, or even take all the rangers out and leave the gates open to satisfy the law.

“It’s one of the variables we have to look at,” Coleman said.”We are hopeful we can achieve enough access to meet the federal law’s requirements.”

Salton Sea State Recreation Area is popular with snowbirds and other campers, birders, and boaters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coleman encountered the same push-back from the National Park Service two years ago, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing 220 state parks. After receiving 135,000 cards, emails, and letters of opposition from the public, he dropped the idea.

“It is becoming more and more clear that closing down state parks is not a simple thing to do, and may not even save very much money,” said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California. “This really accentuates the importance of the governor and the Legislature finding ways to keep our state parks funded and open.”

On May 13, Brown’s staff announced that 70 of California’s 278 state parks would be closed by July 1, 2012, to help pay down California’s $9.6 billion budget deficit. The closures will save $11 million this year and $22 million next year, they said.

Jarvis, the national parks director, said Friday that he opposes California closing any state parks.

“I’m sympathetic to the states. But this is the wrong place to find those savings,” Jarvis said. “Parks are an essential social function that should be provided. People can take their kids and family and get a break from the hustle and bustle from daily life. When the previous governor attempted this, he got more letters than on any other issue.”

Worth Pondering…
In the end, we only conserve what we love.

We only love what we understand.

We will understand what we are taught.

—Baba Dioum, Sengalese poet

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Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, CA

The Salton Sea is a haven for bird watchers. The Sea is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway and supports one of the most diverse bird populations in the U.S. More than 390 species live or migrate through the Salton Sea area, and up to 4 million birds can be found on the Sea at any one time.

Burrowing Owl Condos along Walker Road, east of Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR Unit 1. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest concentration is from October to February, but there are thousands of birds in residence year-round. The Refuge Center receives over 30,000 bird watchers annually.

The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is located in California’s Imperial Valley, 40 miles north of the Mexican border at the southern end of the Salton Sea with farmlands on the east, south, and west.

Because of its southern latitude, elevation of 228 feet below sea level, and location in the Sonoran Desert, the Refuge sees some of the hottest temperatures in the U.S. Daily temperatures from May to October often exceed 100°F with temperatures of 116°-120°F recorded yearly.

The Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge was established as a sanctuary and breeding ground for birds and other wildlife when 32,766 acres were set aside in 1930. In 1998, the Refuge was renamed after Congressman Sonny Bono, who played an active role in restoring the health of the Salton Sea to historical levels.

The courses of the New and Alamo Rivers run through the Refuge, providing fresher water to the Salton Sea. However, because the Sea has no outlet, the salt content of the water has increased steadily over time.

There's no better time to visit a National Wildlife Refuge than today. Remember to bring your binoculars, birding guide, and camera. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to agricultural runoff and rise in the level of the Salton Sea, most of the original Refuge area has been covered completely by the salty lake. At present, only about 2,000 acres are farmed and managed for wetlands. Rye grass is grown on the Refuge as food for wintering geese in the area. However, as farming practices have changed, less water is being used on neighboring crops and therefore runoff into the Salton Sea has decreased over time, lowering the shoreline and further increasing salt content.

The land of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Refuge is flat, except for Rock Hill, a small, inactive volcano.

The Refuge has two separate managed units, 18 miles apart. Each unit contains wetland habitats, farm fields, and tree rows.

At the Visitor Center
Your first stop should be the visitor center, located at the junction of Sinclair and Gentry Roads. The Center is surrounded by agriculture fields, the Salton Sea, Alamo River, and freshwater wetland habitats. Inside, you will find a bird diorama and a bookstore.

Outside, a self-guided trail will introduce you to the habitats found in a desert ecosystem. There is also an observation tower and picnic area located near the main parking lot.

A pair of American Avocet at Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Visitor Center is open Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., April through September. In October through March, the Visitor Center is open Monday and Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 7:00 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The Refuge is open from sunrise to sunset. The Visitor Center is closed on all national holidays.

The Wildlife Refuge is located at the southern tip of the Salton Sea. From Indio, take Highway 111 south for approximately 60 miles. Once you pass through Niland, continue south about 4 miles to Sinclair Road and turn right. Head west on Sinclair Road until you arrive to the Refuge Headquarters parking lot (Sinclair Road ends at this point).

Worth Pondering…
Count your blessings. A grateful heart attracts more joy, love, and prosperity.
—Cheryl Richardson

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Salton Sea State Recreation Area, CA

Dedicated in 1955, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area is the largest recreation provider on the Salton Sea. Operated by the California State Park Service, it is located on the northeastern shores of the Sea. This large recreation area extends from the town of North Shore to Bombay Beach. It has 1,400 campsites, day-use and picnic sites, hiking trails, a visitor center, playground, boat ramp, and boat wash areas.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area is popular with snowbirds and other campers, birders, and boaters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 150,000 people visit this popular recreation area each year. Popular activities include boating, water-skiing, fishing, jet-skiing, hiking, birdwatching, and sailboarding. Stores and gas stations are available in North Shore.

Neighboring attractions include the Coachella Valley, 30 miles north; General Patton Museum, 40 miles northeast; and the Dos Palmas Preserve and historical area just to the east of the state park.

Varner Harbor, at the park’s headquarters, offers a fishing jetty where many fish are caught. Tilapia, a perch-like fish, are plentiful. Other sport fish include corvina, presently caught with a fair degree of success at the south end of the Sea. Croaker are being taken at the north end, but not in great number. And a few sargo are being seen. Also found in rare instances are mullet and striped bass.

The Visitor Center, located at the park’s headquarters, offers examples of the many birds and animals that are present around the Salton Sea. Video presentations demonstrate how the Sea was created and its human history. The State Park Rangers offer a variety of interpretive presentations, including lecture series, campfire programs, and Jr. Ranger programs. A boat ramp gives boaters access to almost 400 square miles of water.


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

Bird watchingis very good at the park, as it is all over the Salton Sea. Migrating birds begin to be seen on the Sea as early as October. They fill the air by January and generally leave by May. Four million birds are estimated to use the Sea each day in the winter, more than any other resource in the nation.

The park has 1,400 campsites in five campgrounds. Three campgrounds are primitive, two are developed, and one offers full hookups. Camping at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area is best from October through May. The park is open all year, but summer temperatures can be extreme.

Headquarters Area offers two campgrounds with different types of services. Los Frijoles is developed with flush toilets and showers. It provides easy access to hiking trails, a fishing jetty, the park’s main boat ramp, sanitary stations, and boat wash stations.

Located nearby is the park’s visitor center, a small playground, full hook-up camping sites, and restrooms and showers. It is located in front of the park’s largest beach where many activities take place. There is also a sheltered meeting area for groups.

Bombay Beach is located at the extreme southern end of the recreation area, next to the small town of Bombay Beach. It offers beach camping with chemical toilets and water. This is a popular campground for fishermen. Some services are available in the adjacent town.


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

Salt Creek Beachhas on-the-beach primitive camping with chemical toilets. It is popular with fishermen and bird watchers. Salt Creek runs through the campground and is host to many species of birds. The endangered pupfish also live in Salt Creek.

Corvina Beach has primitive camping with water and chemical toilets; it is popular with groups. While this campground is on the shores of the Sea, it has a drop off to the beach and access can be difficult. However, many winter fishermen spend the weekends at Corvina Beach.

Mecca Beach Campground is a large developed campground with good beach access. Mecca Beach has flush toilets and showers and a limited number of partial hook-up sites. Good fishing is found off Mecca Beach and many swimmers and boaters enjoy the easy access to the water. Mecca Beach Campground is one of the more active areas in the state recreation area.

Worth Pondering…
Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast—you miss the sense of where you’re going and why.
—Eddie Cantor

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Salton Sea, CA

Following along the San Andreas Fault, California State Highway 111 winds around the eastern shore of Salton Sea which occupies the Salton Basin, a remnant of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla.

Lying 228 feet below sea level, Salton Sea is an inland saline lake in the Sonoran Desert of extreme southeastern California. It is bordered on the south by the rich agricultural areas of the Imperial Valley and on the west, by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Both the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and the Sony Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge are located on its shores.

The Salton Sea is a haven for bird watchers. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Salton Sea is currently 35 miles by 15 miles and can be as long as 40 miles by almost 20 miles in particularly wet years. It has an average depth of nearly 30 feet and, at its deepest, is 51 feet. It contains 7.3 million acre feet of water and evaporates 1.3 million acre feet each year. There is a five-mile-long trench on the south end of the Sea that is 51 feet deep. Interestingly, the bed of the Salton Sea is only five feet higher than the lowest spot in Death Valley.

It is estimated that over 1 million visitors spend time at the Salton Sea each year.

From the highway you will spot the sea past fields of citrus; it looks much more like a huge mirage.

The Salton Sea is the big mystery here. How and why it came into being is a fascinating story. The Salton Sea is a place that’s been accurately dubbed the weirdest body of water in America. It has no outlet, and its main sources of new water are agricultural drainage ditches. It has become a natural wonder.

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

Water flow and climate shaped the basin, creating one of the most diverse regions in the world. The area contains an amazing range of plants and animals. It continues to change today. Name your interest and you will probably find a chance to pursue it in the Salton Sea area. Ancient history, bat caves, boating, camping, conservation, fishing, geology—right through the alphabet—it is all here.

Geologically, this area was once part of a larger body of water extending north through the San Joaquin Valley. A great up thrust lifted the land and formed mountains. The downfolding created Salton sink and the Imperial and Coachella valleys. The sink was dry for many years and salt was mined from it.

In 1901, a dam was built to divert water from the Colorado River near Yuma and carried in canals to irrigate lands in the Imperial Valley. In 1905, the dam broke and water rushed into the Salton Sink for two years, filling it to an elevation of 195 feet below sea level.

Already more salty than seawater, and becoming more saline by the day, the Salton Sea was steeped in continuous political controversy over its future during the 1950s and 60s.

The Salton Sea was a popular sporting destination and vacation spot, luring real estate speculators and commercial development. The West’s Greatest Playground was the dream child of M. Penn Phillips and other real estate speculators. The developers purchased 19,600 acres of land on the shores of the sea for house lots, shops, schools, parks, and churches.

A blissful spot at the state recreation on the Salton Sea. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the former resort, a dilapidated yacht club and a few rusted trailers are all that’s left of a bustling waterfront that once was the stomping ground of the Beach Boys and Hollywood’s infamous Rat Pack. By the late 1970s, the sea’s environmental problems began to intensify and the crowds disappeared.

Although visitor numbers and property values have declined drastically over the last decades, the area continues to be a favorite spot for sport fishermen and birds. One report says, “The Salton Sea may be the most productive fishery in the world.” The fish in turn attract birds by the millions. It’s estimated that three to four million individual birds frequent the area daily during the winter migration season.

Located on the Pacific Flyway, 400 different species of birds have been counted at the Salton Sea. The annual migrations draw serious birders to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, a reserve named to honor the former California congressman who, before his death, led efforts to restore the sea.

Reversing the sea’s decline will require major feats in both engineering and public relations. The problem is convincing government officials and a less-than-eager public that it is a treasure worth saving.

Worth Pondering…
Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.
—Rachel Carson

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