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This documentary feature profiles the unique circumstances and community surrounding a manmade lake in Southern California. The program begins as the residents of Salton Sea, located in the desert south of Palm Springs, explain that the former "French Riviera" of the West Coast has now declined into a bleak "sewer," filled with pollution, decay and poverty – though many still feel the community is "wonderful." In 1901, the Colorado River was diverted into the Imperial Valley to create irrigation for the local farmers, but a silt blockage and poor planning led to flooding, and the Salton Sea lake, spanning thirty-five miles by fifteen, was created as the water gathered in the lowest point. Railroad executive E.H. Harriman intervened and stopped the flooding after sixteen long months, but the manmade lake remained. Harold Gaston, owner of Gaston's Café, talks about the town's past a "vibrant" tourist attraction and popular fishing spot known for its elegant Yacht Club, but additional flooding caused by runoff from the farm, as well as the tropical storms of 1976 and 1977, led to more flooding and eventual economic and ecological decline. The warmth and high salinity of the lake prevented oxygen from dissolving, leading to the deaths of thousands of fish, mostly tilapia, creating a harmful cycle as the decomposing fish fed the growing algae plants.

The residents insist that the water is still safe for humans, though grim rumors abound about sewage from Mexico flooding into the lake. By the 1980s, property values had plummeted and many residents fled the area, and it is now seen as a "last frontier" of extremely inexpensive property. Though many believe that positive change is "just around the corner," the residents of the impoverished Bombay Bay area describe the many strange deaths and high recreational drug use in the area. Several black neighbors comment on the racial disparity of the town, explaining that they have formed a familial community, feeling that the rundown town is, in its own way, safer than the nearby big cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. The town also boasts a number of well-known eccentrics, including "Hunky Daddy," a Hungarian immigrant who serves as the "unofficial mayor," a roadside nudist, and a self-taught artist, Leonard Knight, who has spent many years hard at work on "Salvation Mountain," a large-scale religious-themed artistic project that he hopes will become a profitable tourist attraction.

The National Wildlife Refuge, originally created to keep the local waterfowl away from the farmers' crops, is now seriously affected by avian botulism, caused when the birds eat the diseased fish or the maggots that gather on the bodies of other birds. Biologist Steve Johnson explains that he and his team attempt to collect as many of the dead birds and treat as many of the living ones as they can, though adds that the animals have fewer other options, given the erosion of so many other wetlands. Other scientists have several ideas for repairing the area, though lack the necessary funds. Famed musician Sonny Bono, who became the mayor of nearby Palm Springs in 1988 and a congressman in 1995, became Salton Sea's "champion" as he advocated for attention to the problem. Other politicians took up the cause as a form of tribute to Bono after his 1998 death in a skiing accident, even establishing the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Restoration Project, but repeated delays and dwindling public interest again precluded any real change.

A proposed water transfer agreement with San Diego caused controversy, with some feeling that getting rid of the lake – and its wildlife – will solve the problem, though others point out that the lake "protects" elite Palm Springs from foul-smelling alkali dust storms, among other things. Elsewhere, Gaston, now 91, makes the decision to close his café, much to the disappointment of many local friends. The residents state that Salton Sea could regain its former popularity and grandeur after a serious cleaning, and others declare that they intend to stay in their unusual hometown no matter what. The film concludes by explaining that the federal government has forced Salton Sea to transfer portions of its runoff water to San Diego and Los Angeles, prompting lawsuits and ever more discussion about the town's fate.


  • DATE: 2005
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:06:40
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: B:85854
  • GENRE: Documentary
  • SUBJECT HEADING: California; Deserts - California; Documentary; Ecology; U S - Cities and towns


  • Chris Metzler … Producer, Director, Writer
  • Jeff Springer … Director, Writer
  • Brian Vouglas … Narrator
  • Harold Gaston … Interviewee
  • Leonard Knight … Interviewee
  • Steve Johnson … Interviewee
  • Steve Horvitz … Interviewee
  • Sonny Bono
  • E.H. Harriman (see also: Edward Harriman)
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