Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, reviewed.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Oct. 16 2007 5:27 PM

Not-So-Great Salt Lake

Why have even the environmentalists given up on the Salton Sea?

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Perhaps even more damning for its reputation, the sea also developed what could be kindly described as a distinctive smell, caused by the death of the algae blooms that feed on those nutrient imbalances. On the DVD's commentary track, Steve Horwitz, the superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, the state-run park on the northeast shore of the Sea, recalls that a lawyer from Palm Springs once called him and threatened to sue him if he didn't somehow "stop" the smell. "Get in line," Horvitz jokes ruefully.

The Salton Sea depicted in Plagues and Pleasures is very different than the one in those midcentury promotional reels. There are shots of the dead fish, of the oversalinated shoreline, and of the rusted-out trailers and vacant lots of Bombay Beach, once a promising place to buy a retirement home. But while the film doesn't shy away from the degradations the sea has suffered, it also makes it seem worth saving—if for no other reason than for the sake of its colorful denizens. There's the Hungarian ex-freedom fighter, Hunky Daddy, who can't understand why his adopted country won't "fix" the sea: "It's a shame for America, special California have a big-ass lake in the USA, and let 'um go like that." And there are the impoverished residents of Bombay Beach, which these days is so blighted that the shots of children playing soccer in a dusty vacant lot are reminiscent of scenes from City of God.

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But there are environmental reasons for saving the sea, too. As the documentary explains, migratory birds, robbed of their erstwhile stopover feeding grounds in the wetlands that once made up San Diego and Los Angeles, have adopted the sea as a new pit stop. If it is allowed to die, the birds will once again be out of luck. The sea, its advocates say, is also eminently savable. As Horvitz is fond of pointing out, it isn't polluted, as is commonly thought; it's just suffering from man-made ecological imbalances.

Horvitz has authored a Web page describing the ecological challenges facing the sea, most of which he chalks up to its ever-increasing saltiness and excessive nutrient loads from the fertilizer that continues to run off into the sea. The Salton Sea Authority, the state commission that coordinates groups working on Salton issues, has its own Web page with proposals for how to reverse the sea's decline, including plans to pump water into the Pacific or the Gulf of California and exchange it with less salty ocean water; harvesting nutrients from the runoff before it hits the sea; and the creation of desalinization plants.

The biggest obstacle the sea faces may not be finding solutions to its problems but finding allies. Given its history, the sea has never been a popular cause among environmentalists. Instead, it's had to rely on the efforts of residents like Norm Niver, interviewed near the end of the documentary. Niver looks like he'd rather be mowing his lawn or dandling grandchildren on his knee, but he spends his days advocating on behalf of the sea. Shaking a finger at the spiritual sons and daughters of John Muir, he issues what sounds like a challenge: "It's the environmentalists who will never join us. … They call it a mistake, unnatural. They would rather see it fall apart." Niver, and Plagues and Pleasures, are somewhat strange messengers, but their message is an important one. An environmentalism that concerns itself only with the pristine is one that gives up far too much ground.