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Truly California: Plagues And Pleasures On The Salton Sea

Airs Monday, August 23, 2010 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Fish die-off at the Salton Sea.

Once known as the “California Riviera”, the Salton Sea is called one of America’s worst ecological disasters: a fetid, stagnant, salty lake, coughing up dead fish and birds by the thousands.

Salton Sea resident Leonard Knight next to his Salvation Mountain built out of mud and paint.
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Above: Salton Sea resident Leonard Knight next to his Salvation Mountain built out of mud and paint.

Yet a few hardy eccentrics hang on to hope, including a roadside nudist waving at passing European tourists, a man building a religious mountain out of mud and paint, beer-loving Hungarian Revolutionary Hunky Daddy, and the real-estate “Ronald McDonald” known simply as The Landman. Through their perceptions and misperceptions, the strange history and unexpected beauty of the Salton Sea is revealed.

Petre Melvin and her golf card in Bombay Beach.
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Above: Petre Melvin and her golf card in Bombay Beach.

“Accidentally” created by an engineering error in 1905, reworked in the 50’s as a world class vacation destination for the rich and famous, and then suddenly abandoned after a series of hurricanes, floods, and fish die-offs, the Salton Sea has a bittersweet past. Congressman Sonny Bono himself was once dedicated to saving the lake, until he went skiing one day…

Resident Paul Clement standing near his trailer in Bombay Beach.
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Above: Resident Paul Clement standing near his trailer in Bombay Beach.

Now amongst the ruins of this man-made mistake, these few remaining people struggle to keep a remodeled version of the dream alive. However, this most unique community is now threatened by the nearby megalopolises of Los Angeles and San Diego, as they attempt to take the agricultural run-off that barely sustains the sea. The fate of this so-called ecological time bomb and the community that surrounds it remain uncertain, as the Salton Sea might just dry up.

While "Plagues And Pleasures" covers the historical, economic, political, and environmental issues that face the sea, it more importantly offers up an offbeat portrait of the eccentric and individualistic people who populate its shores. It is an epic western tale of fantastic real estate ventures and failed boomtowns, inner-city gangs fleeing to white small town America, and the subjective notion of success and failure amidst the ruins of the past. Hair-raising and hilarious, part history lesson, part cautionary tale and part portrait of one of the strangest communities you’ve ever seen, this is the American Dream gone as stinky as a dead carp.

Video

Video Excerpt: Truly California: Plagues And Pleasures On The Salton Sea

Above: "Plagues And Pleasures On The Salton Sea" explores the economic, political and environmental issues that face the Salton Sea, a one-time vacation destination for the rich and famous now occupied by an eccentric and individualistic populace.