Salt of the Earth

Funky, stinky, and some kind of beautiful, California's Salton Sea fights extinction

Deep in the Southern California desert, 50 miles south of Palm Springs, lies the Salton Sea. Once a resort paradise for the wealthy, now a decaying haven for eccentrics and retirees, the Salton Sea may soon prove an environmental disaster for California. But that's only part of the point of Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a delightful documentary by directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer. Rather than wallow in the depressing outlook or regale us with pleas for activism, Plagues & Pleasures first paints a lively, full-color portrait of the people and the place. Then, by the time we learn what fate may lie ahead, we care enough to want to help.

The Salton Sea is not a sea but a lake, and a mistaken one at that. Early in the 20th century, plans to divert water from the Colorado River to the farms in the Southern California desert went awry when the river overran a dam. The result was an 18-month flooding of one of the hottest, driest valleys on Earth and the creation of a fresh-water lake 35 miles long and 15 miles wide. Over time, as mineral deposits in the runoff from the farms drained into the Salton Sea, it became, in the words of one local, “more saltier than the ocean.”

Once, however, the Sea was a vacation paradise. In the 1950s, it played host to boaters, water skiers, swimmers, fishermen, and revelers of every stripe. Yacht clubs rose up on the shores, and lots were sold to speculators and retirees. Even as temperatures rose to 120 degrees during the day, the area had a reputation as a jewel, and developers dreamed of a resort in the model of Palm Springs.

Then, in the '70s, a couple of freak hurricanes hit, flooding the Sea and burying entire regions under water. Lots that weren't destroyed went undeveloped. As the salinity level rose, the Sea began killing its myriad fish, and the migratory birds that relied on those fish began dying off as well. What remained was a lot of rot — the film has a great shot of a defunct shopping cart, belly up in the sand — and a community of die-hards and independent spirits, people who were happy to be in the middle of nowhere with no prospects, and those who couldn't afford to move. Oh, and the elderly. And the refugees from inner-city L.A. And Hunky Daddy. And Naked Don.

The most enjoyable thing about Plagues & Pleasures, as its directors are obviously aware, is its people. With opinions about their region varying from “The most beautiful body of water in California” to “Bleak is the word” to “Some of the black kids are just delightful,” the area's inhabitants are as salty as the Sea they love and hate. Hunky Daddy is a former Hungarian revolutionary, a refugee who hangs out in his front yard, drinking away his days and praising America. Naked Don is a nudist who stands beside the highway, spreading a message of love and peace. Leonard Knight is a Christian artist building a plaster mountain in praise of God. (Well, according to him, God is building the mountain.)

Particularly interesting are the area's race relations. Bombay Beach, a town that remains half-flooded, is home to a community of blacks, mostly single mothers choosing to raise their children away from the violence of urban life. “In the city, he'd get shot and killed in less than 48 hours,” Lechon Rainey says of her son. Whereas in Bombay Beach, “Everybody loves everybody.” “Not me,” her friend protests, explaining that she doesn't like the prejudiced white people in town. But, according to the film's Web site, Rainey has good relationships with lots of the elderly white people, for whom she sometimes works. It's a complicated picture.

Meanwhile, the Salton Sea is in trouble, at risk of drying up. Both Los Angeles and San Diego have moved to get the agricultural runoff diverted toward them, which would leave no source of refreshment except annual rainfall — not a dependable resource in a desert. The Sea is losing six feet of water a year and, if it disappears, could result in colossal alkaline dust storms as well as the deaths of the millions of birds that winter and feed there. Late Republican Rep. Sonny Bono was a strong advocate for saving the Sea, but in the words of a local, “Then he went skiing ….”

Plagues & Pleasures does a great job of presenting both the place and its problems, its delights and its curiosities. In large part, the film relies on the voices of the people, characters who know the area and care for it, or at least about it. Every now and then, narrator John Waters steps in to provide context or a bit of analysis, and these segments feel a little contrived. But they're also right for the film, which uses a quirky, lighthearted tone but manages to get at serious issues nonetheless.

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